Speeches given by:
Allan Warnke, Former MLA Richmond-Steveston 1991-96
André Carrel, former Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Rossland, author of Citizensí Hall: Making Local Democracy Work and consultant for local government
Darlene Marzari, Chair of the Georgia Basin Network, former Minister of Municipal Affairs
The Community Charter:
Strengthening or Weakening the Citizen Voice at City Hall?
by André Carrel
Municipalities have lived through and adjusted to years of continuous revisions of what was the Municipal Act and what is now the Local Government Act. If anything, municipalities are accustomed to changes in the statutes to which they owe their existence.
The Premier has heralded the Community Charter as the "cornerstone of this government's policy towards local government" for months. Yet details of the Charter itself, as it has evolved since Premier Campbell first conceived it while Opposition Leader in the Legislature, have remained a tightly guarded secret. I have been asked to focus on how the Charter would change the relationship between municipalities and their citizens. Hard to do when you cannot read and analyze the Charter, and seen in the same light as the difference between promise and delivery from this government as it implements its vision of "protecting" education and health care. What kind of a cornerstone will the Charter be once citizens finally get to see it?
I want to look at four aspects of citizens' relationship with their municipalities - constitutional, economic, social, and political - before drawing a conclusion on how the Charter might affect these relationships.
The constitutional relationship is quite simple. The Canadian Constitution does not recognize municipal government. Municipalities are creatures of provincial governments, or, as I categorize their relationship in my book, municipalities are provincial colonies. There is nothing the province can do about that. If the Charter establishes a relationship between the province and local governments that is based on an assumption and presumption that municipalities represent a legitimate order of government, it may take us one step closer to eventual - and might I say necessary - constitutional recognition of local government.
The economic relationship is in urgent need of serious attention. This has been recognized in a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail, which called for a major change in the economic relationship between the federal government and Canadian cities. How serious a problem we have is indicated in a TD Bank Financial Group study and its 27-page report "A Choice Between Investing In Canada's Cities Or Disinvesting In Canada's Future." They found that Canadian local government revenues have been stagnant the past ten years, increasing by less than ten percent. In the US, local government revenues have increased by a full third over the same period. The reason for the different trends is that property taxes represent half of the total revenues of Canadian municipalities. Federal and provincial grants represent twenty-two percent. In the US, however, property taxes make up only twenty one percent of total revenues, with federal and state grants making up twenty-seven percent. US municipalities have access to revenues not available to Canadian municipalities. For US cities, revenues from property taxes and government grants together make up a lesser share of total revenues than do property taxes alone in Canadian cities. Property taxes were never intended to finance public services and programs such as mass transit and social housing. With our cities having to compete in a North American context, that fact has an enormous impact on the relationship Canadians have to their local government.
The Charter does propose new sources of revenues, but it is in my estimation a rather timid suggestion. The Charter proposals refer to provisions for expanded water, sewage or sewage treatment charges, amusement taxes, tourism enhancement taxes, traffic fines and other revenue programs. These are not significant new revenue sources; rather I view these to be little more than incidental revenues. They are certainly not revenue sources that would reduce, in a substantial way, the tax burden now carried by property. The TD Report recommends that municipalities be incorporated in the federal and provincial sales and excise tax structures, going so far as to suggest that municipalities be allowed to unilaterally set their own rates in these areas of taxation. The TD Report does not call for a net increase in taxes, it calls for a reduction in the federal and provincial share of sales and excise taxes to offset the municipal allocation.
It is only by allowing greater flexibility and a dramatic broadening of the municipal tax revenue base that, according to the TD Report, municipalities can gain access to the revenues needed to maintain their infrastructure and provide the services citizens expect. I can only concur wholeheartedly with the TD Report's recommendations since it is precisely what I advocate in my book. The new revenue provisions, as described in the Charter documents I have seen, fall woefully short of what municipalities - big cities in particular - require to rebuild, maintain, and support the social, economic and cultural infrastructure of a modern urban society.
Only seven years ago Jeremy Rifkin published "The End of Work." He made this prophetic observation: "Now, however, that the commercial and public sectors are no longer capable of securing some of the fundamental needs of the people, the public has little choice but to begin looking out for itself, once again, by reestablishing viable communities as a buffer against both the impersonal forces of the global market and increasingly weak and incompetent central governing authorities."
The Charter's impact on the social relationship between citizens and their municipality has the capacity to produce either a win-win or a lose-lose result. If the Charter empowers citizens to assign to their local government duties and responsibilities to pursue local public policy objectives, and if it gives municipalities a free hand to pursue these objectives - for example to become involved in education and health care at the community level - and if municipal revenue sources are expanded as recommended by the TD Bank Report, municipal governments would have the capacity and ability to function as true community governments. The Charter would thus enable municipalities to evolve in concert with the cultural, economic, social, heritage, and civic traditions of the communities they serve.
If, on the other hand, the provincial government uses its constitutional powers under the guise of the "greater provincial interest" to limit municipal taxation and land-use authority, as it has done in the matter of regulating power co-generation in Delta, and as it is feared it may do to the development of the Port of Vancouver, Port of Nanaimo, and other strategic ports in British Columbia, and if the announced new revenue sources turn out to be little more than bingo taxes and speeding ticket revenues, municipal government in British Columbia will not have progressed one iota from its current colonial role as a servant to the centralized power establishment in Victoria. Municipalities would not be in a position to respond to their citizens' priorities.
It is in the political relationship between citizens and their local government that the Charter's most significant impact may rest. We know that municipalities are constitutional non-entities. Nonetheless, we address Mayors as "Your Worship" and the business of council is conducted with all the formal trimmings associated with constitutionally recognized local governments in other countries. On rare occasions municipal councils have recognized that their political legitimacy is as important, if not more so, than their constitutional legitimacy. Such a rare instance came a number of years ago with the City of Vancouver's challenge to the provincial gaming policy. That brought plans for a major casino in downtown Vancouver to a halt. Far too often, however, municipal councils are more likely to behave as law-abiding public corporations, mindful of "who is the boss", and limiting their political clout to lobbing the provincial government and provincial agencies for favors without ever lighting the afterburners of their political legitimacy. Far too many councils tend to ignore their relationship with citizens until the next election looms on the horizon.
If the Charter is going to assume and presume that local government is a legitimate, responsible, and independent order of government, councils will need to be structured accordingly. What I am concerned about, however, is the stated intent to include measures in the Charter that will structure local government on a corporate model. Municipalities are not Crown corporations. Governments and private corporations are not interchangeable. The purpose of corporations is to serve the interest of its shareholders and its management; the purpose of government - local government included - is to serve the common good. The vitality, indeed the viability of our cities and towns will be irreparably harmed if we think that local governments can function if structured on a corporate model, be that a Crown corporation or a private for profit corporation model. In fact, the only difference would be that the governing council is appointed in one case and elected in the other.
The success of a good government is not measured in the efficiency of its operations, it is measured in its efficacy and on the effectiveness of its achievements. The public interest is not served by a local government that does its job at the lowest possible cost. Rather, it is when local government engages citizens that it serves the public interest. That way it is continuously reminded of exactly what it is that government ought to be doing. There may be justification for a government doing the right job poorly, but there can never be justification for a government doing the wrong job, even if that job is done very well. If a local government is to do the right job, council needs to be continuously reminded of what people want and what they expect. People have to be continuously aware of what their council is doing and what it is talking about. In the words of John Ralston Saul:
"to govern a democracy you require constant vibrations from the population."
The idea of an annual report does have merit, but it is not an adequate tool of accountability for government. A similar experiment with report cards in Ontario has been pretty much discredited. Neither, for that matter, is accountability assured by elections. Accountability begins at the front end of the decision-making process. By failing to provide opportunities to include citizen participation at the front end, and by reducing the opportunities for referenda or counter-petitions in the closing phase of the decision-making process, citizens are effectively excluded from their own local government. They cannot be said to "govern their own affairs" - to be governed democratically. To set up the annual report as the principal tool of accountability and citizen involvement is an open invitation to accepting justification, whitewash and obfuscation as a substitute for accountability. Investors' shelves hold an impressive collection of glowingly positive corporate annual reports from Enron, Nortel, BCE, Chapters, and many, many more corporations. In retrospect these annual reports were at the very least misleading and incomplete. In plain language, some of these annual reports were slick efforts to hide the truth from the public behind a wall of deceit and plain old-fashioned lies.
I am not suggesting that the Municipal Charter should prescribe how citizen involvement is to be achieved. What I am looking for are provisions creating opportunities for citizens to become involved. The methodology of involvement should be left to communities to sort out. What works in Surrey may not work in Prince George, and what works there, may not work in Terrace.
In public life we must always remember that, in the end, the citizen pays the bills and lives with the consequences of government decisions. We forget all too easily that the problems we struggle with today are more often than not a consequence of yesterday's solutions. As we rush along making new decisions, it would be wise for us to consider the possibility that the decisions we make today will - in the long-term - turn out to not have resolved anything at all. We ought to consider the possibility that the solutions of today could in fact be little more than the seeds of tomorrow's problems. To quote John Ralston Saul just one more time:
"The proper debating of policy is not smooth. Words are not air. Talk is not a waste of time. Arguing is useful. And speed is irrelevant unless there is a war on."
To avoid a misunderstanding here, when Saul talks about war, he does not refer to war on drugs, war on poverty, war on unemployment, or war on government waste.
If we want efficacy and effectiveness in local government, we need a Charter that encourages and rewards active public participation in the governing of our cities and towns. To accomplish that, the governing process does not need to be streamlined and expedited, it needs to be slowed down and opened up. It is from that perspective that I sincerely hope that, once the Charter is made public, I will find in it more than a requirement for councils to issue an annual report on what has been done. I hope to find, and I will be looking for openings and opportunities that will empower and enable citizens to become actively involved, with their councils, at the problem-definition stage, at the solution-development stage, and at the problem-resolution stage of community issues. In other words, although I have not yet seen a hint of it, I still hope that the Charter will open the door to responsible citizenship.
Thumbs up or thumbs down? The referendum and counter-petition provisions in the current Local Government Act allow citizens to assume a moderate role in the decision-making process. There is virtually no incentive for citizens to participate at the problem-definition stage. The Charter proposals hint at reducing imposed citizen involvement in the decision-making process, but they give no hint of liberalized procedures that would provide opportunities for communities to open up their local government's decision-making process to include citizens. This is disappointing and on that score the Charter deserves a negative mark.
On the other hand the Charter proposals hint at more flexibility in economic and policy matters, more room for municipalities to enhance and develop and build on the individually unique character of their communities. This is encouraging and on that score the Charter deserves a positive mark.
My hope is that the new freedoms promised by the Charter will lead to the election of democracy-minded councils eager to engage their citizens. I hope that energetic and resourceful individuals will step forward to form councils serving their communities by looking for opportunities in the Charter to involve citizens at every stage of the decision-making process. The biggest threat to democracy that we face in this country today is not international terrorism; it is cynicism and apathy about politics at home. It is my hope that the Charter will include positive measures to counter the growing apathy and cynicism that plagues politics in Canada today.
On that note of hope my verdict on the Community Charter, as it affects the relationship between municipalities and their citizens, is best signaled by holding my thumb ten degrees up from horizontal.
To understand Direct Democracy see: "Executive Summary"
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This page was updated on May 25th, 2002