government shouldn't mean trampling democracy. Andrew Hanon
the past three years, the NDP government has been overhauling the rules
under which municipalities and regional districts are allowed to
operate. Problem is, nobody's reading the fine print.
Some of these changes were the result of actions right here
in the Central Okanagan, and local politicians and bureaucrats are
puffing out their chests in pride, quietly congratulating themselves for
ground-breaking ideas that will make city halls across the province more
efficient and effective.
Skyreach Place is a prototype project for the new style of
civic government. In the past, if politicians wanted to build a new
arena, they had to ask the electorate to approve a tax hike in order to
pay for it. Kelowna came up with an innovative plan to lease land to a
private developer, and as part of the deal, guarantee to rent the rink
to the tune of $1 million annually.
Problem was, the Municipal Act didn't allow it. The
provincial government had to change the law before such a deal could be
And thus began a three-year program of reforming the act
which is supposed to conclude this year. When it's all over, the Municipal
Act will be renamed the Local Government Act and will give
local governments sweeping new authority.
Some of our local politicians are salivating at the
prospects. At last, they crow, we'll be able to get our pet projects
through the system. We can effect change more quickly. It will be a
win-win for the voters and taxpayers of the region.
Blah, blah, blah.
What no one will say is that this new efficiency comes at a
heavy price: reduced accountability to the public.
Taxpayers no longer need to worry their simple little heads
about major construction projects. Under the clunky, cumbersome
Municipal Act, any time a civic government wanted to build something,
but needed to borrow money (and therefore raise taxes to service the
debt), the voters had to approve it in a referendum.
Now all that's needed is what's called a counter petition, a process so
arcane it borders on medieval. With a counter petition, it's up to the
people opposed to a project to rally the troops. If they get five per
cent of the electorate to sign a petition, a referendum is forced.
Otherwise it goes through unchallenged.
This change will make it a lot easier to ram through a
project, because instead of putting the onus on the politicians to sell
the idea, it will be up to the voters to prove it should be stopped.
Call it negative-option democracy.
But the best is yet to come.
In this year's round of changes there's a tiny clause about
counter-petitions which will could effectively be a gag order on
Anyone working to defeat a project could be taken to court for
"knowingly making false or misleading statements about the matter
to which the counter petition relates."
In other words, "if you don't like my arena, or my
fire hall, you better watch what you say, or city hall can sue
Government wags argue that the key word is
"knowingly." They say it must be proven that opponents are
lying, but just having that threat hanging over them will be enough to
send a chill through any opposition.
Most reasonable people demand more efficiency out of
government, but should never come at the cost of democracy.
for a article on how the Regional District of Central Okanagan
Westbank Westside directors using their powers prevented a possible
enquiry into allegations of illegal government processes.