Civic Elections Hazardous to Municipal CAOs

Dermod Travis
By Dermod Travis
April 21st, 2015

Local elections across B.C. were supposed to be buried and done with last November, but some of the fallout from a few races is still coming home to roost and there are a few lessons to learn from it.

The top ones? Local elections are a perilous time to be a chief administrative officer (CAO), the passing the buck saga continues unabated and whoever knew that basic math could be so difficult.

If B.C. has a hunting season on CAOs, it falls in the 12-week window following local elections. Since November, at least eight councils have bid adieu to their CAOs. They include: Prince George, Salmo, Sechelt and Mission.

Some of the departures have been relatively hassle-free, but costly. Others just leave you shaking your head in amazement.

Take Grand Forks, where the incoming council fired the CAO, Doug Allin, last December, costing ratepayers $200,000 in severance.

In February, after reviewing more than 40 candidates, Grand Forks hired a new CAO – Doug Allin – at a salary of $133,000. Magnanimously, he agreed to give up some banked overtime.

Logan Lake has hired a new CAO to step in for the interim CAO who stepped in after the last CAO left who had been hired to replace the retiring CAO. All that in two years.

In Colwood, the city has hired an interim CAO, Gary Nason, to replace the fired CAO who had only been hired 11 months earlier to replace the then interim CAO, Chris Pease, who had been hired after Colwood split with its former CAO, Ross McPhee, who had been hired in 2011 to replace the retiring CAO, Chris Pease.

For some reason, an Abbott and Costello skit comes to mind.

Meanwhile, in Saanich, incoming mayor Richard Atwell single-handedly boxed council into firing the district’s CAO Paul Murray in December. Cost? $480,000.

None of this is a recent phenomenon either.

When Larry Campbell took over as mayor of Vancouver, 10 severance agreements were signed within a year, some with up to 14 months in severance. When Sam Sullivan took over, nine agreements, some up to nine months in severance. And when Gregor Robertson took over, seven agreements, some up to 20 months in severance.

Then there’s the little routine that seems to be going on again between the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development and Elections B.C.

It goes like this: “No, I’m terribly sorry but you’ll have to call Elections B.C. about that,” which is promptly followed on the second call by “No, regrettably, you’ll have to call the ministry on that.”

Recent reforms to legislation governing local elections were meant to put some teeth into the law and bring an end to passing the buck between various government agencies.

Politicians aren’t boy scouts. The honour code isn’t going to work. One agency needs to step-up and enforce the law.

The third lesson? City halls need to learn how to count.

According to estimates by the communities that comprise Metro Vancouver, there were 1.68 million eligible voters in the region last November. According to Elections BC, there are 1.55 million registered voters. Bit of a difference.

One would expect a drop-off between eligible voters (those who have the right to vote) and registered voters (those on the list), but not 8.5 per cent. You also wouldn’t expect the number of registered voters to be higher than the number of eligible voters, yet it was in seven of Metro Vancouver’s 23 communities.

What’s the impact of a bad count? In New Westminster, the turnout was reported to be 28.4 per cent last November. It was actually 32 per cent.

Currently, local councils can choose one of three ways to build a voters list: voters register when they vote, conduct their own enumeration or use B.C.’s permanent voters list.

The transit and transportation plebiscite underway in Metro Vancouver makes a compelling case for municipalities to use the permanent list. Permanently.

And before anyone in Metro Vancouver gets their knickers in a knot over the difference between eligible and registered voters, Elections B.C. has it right, but it doesn’t instill much confidence when city halls can have it so wrong.

Categories: Op/EdPolitics

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