Municipal councils in B.C. seeing increase in dysfunction and tension

Municipal councils in B.C. seeing increase in dysfunction and tension
North Saanich council livestream
North Saanich council recently garnered attention after a then-councillor called the mayor

From a councillor calling the North Saanich mayor “Mister Hitler,” to a Tahsis council meeting descending into chaos, some B.C. municipal councils have been plagued with dysfunction.

“I would say it’s been a trend, one I think will continue on,” said George Cuff, a management consultant known as the “governance guru” who has more than four decades of experience helping municipalities navigate tumultuous terms.

Cuff says business is booming, which isn’t such a good thing. He says he’s observed the general conduct of councils over the past decade in decline.

“This whole notion of common respect and decency is not so common anymore,” said Cuff.

In his crisis management of municipal councils across Canada, Cuff says he’s noticed a pattern of a lowered respect for the “rule of law”, council members refusing to respect the democratic process, and council tables being used instead as a platform for promoting personal bents.

Stealing the gavel, stealing trust?

In Tahsis’ first ever publicly posted council meeting held on March 20, Deputy Mayor Sarah Fowler was leading the meeting. Members of the public went significantly over their time limit. Fowler tried to reign them in leading to a shouting match, a councillor revealed confidential information and snatched the gavel from her hands.

“It’s unfortunate. I think that that video is a chair trying to control a meeting,” said Fowler to CHEK News on Thursday.  “I understand how important it is to have your voice heard, but it’s also my job to make sure procedure is adhered to.”

Fowler says this incident is overshadowing their good work like recently passing a motion to become a living wage employer.

The president of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) goes one step further.

“The risk is an erosion of public trust in our institutions, and it’s something we need to take very seriously,” said Jen Ford, president of UBCM.

Chaotic councils, trending

It’s not just happening on Vancouver Island. Right now, Harrison Hot Springs and Lions Bay’s mayor and councils are getting help from the province for similar messy municipal politics.

“It came to a conclusion that the resources and tools that they would need, is a municipal advisor,” said Anne Kang, minister of municipalities.

The province is currently hiring for the role which would provide guidance and advice to those councils as they requested help from the government less than six months into their terms.

The cost of messy governance

In 2021 UBCM released a code of conduct framework for municipalities, but like orientation for new councils, it’s not mandatory.

“It’s a fairly difficult space to work within once it’s mandatory. But I think that you know everything is on the table and certainly looking at all options,” said Ford.

In North Saanich, it’s a worst-case scenario. The councillor behind the Hitler remarks has resigned, which will trigger a by election.

“It’s not cheap,” said Ford. “It’s a really unfortunate step to have to take. It’s one more step that takes away from the work of governing our communities.”

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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