Vancouver City Council is today debating a report on civic elections and ballots. It seems a good time to revive my New Governance Model for Vancouver. The changes that we need are radical both in terms of policy and the form of governance under which those policies are pursued. This essay is a reworking of my thoughts on those subjects.
Vancouver is currently governed under a weak-Mayor system, with a Mayor and 10 Councillors elected at-large. Less than 40% bother to vote even though the municipal government controls much of how we live on a day-to-day basis. It has proven itself to be a system far too open to big-money, big union, ideological, and other influences that many consider malign in an electoral context. I would scrap the current system and rebuild it from scratch.
First, I would eliminate political parties from the municipal realm, I would eliminate the position of Mayor completely, and I would introduce wards rather than the at-large system.
With regard to political parties, it may come as a shock to some to learn that Vancouver is the only major Canadian city that allows parties to operate at the municipal level. It is vital in my opinion that elected representatives be accountable to the voters that elected them rather than to some amorphous party that selected them.
It may also be a surprise to some that wards are the usual way of managing Canadian urban areas and that Vancouver is once again a unique outlier. I would suggest Vancouver have 15 wards, each representing about 50,000 residents. There are 23 or 24 recognized “neighbourhoods” but several are small enough to be merged.
Some have suggested using the 11 Provincial ridings in Vancouver as the basis for the wards, giving about 65,000 residents in each. My only concern with that idea is that Provincial politicians might gerrymander those ridings for Provincial political purposes, and without value to the City.
The case to be made for wards seems to be well accepted by many that I talk with. A few have suggested a mixed Council system where there are both ward and at-large Councillors. I see that as an unnecessary complication (do they have different voting rights? they will need different balloting and financing rules) without any genuine value-add. However, as I have written this weekend, a mixed Council might be a first step towards a full ward system; a first step that would be better than what we have today.
Eliminating parties and bringing in wards are both ways to bring democracy closer to the individual.
As mentioned above, we operate in a weak-Mayor system, meaning that the Mayor has only a single vote along with each of the Councillors, and cannot break ties. It serves no genuine purpose other than to polish the ego of the person holding that position.
I would eliminate the election for Mayor. In its place I would institute a rotating chair system, in which the six leading Council vote-getters chair the body for a period of six months each.
One correspondent whose opinion I have valued over the years was worried, I believe, about the lack of a Mayor:
“you’re missing a crucial piece: the relationship with the civil service or: responsible government. Who takes ownership of staff work and can reps keep denying agency by following staff recommendations?”
My assumption is that the rotating chair would, in the absence of a Mayor, fulfil whatever executive management functions the former Mayor had completed. I am hoping my critic expands on the issue as I am not sure I see a major problem here. At least the discussion on that point allowed many of us to agree that the politicisation of the public service needs to stop and be reversed.
Some quick mental arithmetic will show that I am calling for a three year Council term (though I would prefer to return eventually to the two-year cycle) and I would propose a three-term limit for any Councillor.
There has been talk since the last election of somehow limiting the number of candidates. I would find any form of financial deposit to be obnoxious, designed to hamper the poor, and I am glad to see the current Council agrees.
However, I see no reason why a candidate should not be required to gather a substantial number of sponsors (say, 500) before throwing their hat in the ring. Without a party behind them for support, this will mean that each potential candidate will need to get out and do some face to face politicking with their friends and neighbours well in advance of a poll. We will gain from that better informed and better-known candidates in each ward, able to articulate their concerns and solutions.
I would like to see management of Vancouver elections be taken over by an independent third-party; Elections BC seems to the obvious answer.
2018 was an interesting election so far as the money went. Some parts of the new Electoral Financing Act worked quite well: Election expenses were drastically reduced from the last election, because election donations totalled less than $1 million for all parties combined, so clearly some effect was being seen. However, there are issues with billboard advertizing prior to the election, the cost of “volunteer’ labour, and the issue of dark money being funnelled to parties before certain legal dates. We need to examine this election closely, see what needs to be tightened up still further, and hold the NDP’s feet to the fire until they actually change the law.
The key is to ensure that all monies that can be or are being used for political purposes in, before, or after a campaign, from whatever source and given at any date be as transparent as possible and as available in as close to real time as possible.
Of course, having no parties, no Mayor, and no at-large system — as I have suggested — changes the election expense pattern significantly. That will have to be taken into account in the redrafting.
In addition to the meta-changes suggested above, there other principles I believe should be adopted forthwith.
- Public “real time” display of all City expenditures.
- Immediate elimination of all Non Disclosure Agreements for City business; if it involves public money, then everything must be public; if you don’t want to be public, then don’t do business with the city.
- If you or your company or your family members have made municipal political contributions to a municipal campaign within the previous four years, you cannot do business with the City (this would be a City rule, no need to amend the Charter).
- Return to line-item budgeting with details enough for everyone to understand.
- Make Vancouver number 1 in North America for the openness, speed, and efficiency of our FOI system.
- All documents regarding city policies, planning, and development to be made public at least six weeks prior to Council deliberation. If later documents are created, then the meeting dates must be rescheduled in accord with this rule (no more showing up with 25 pages of amendments on the day of the vote).
- In camera sessions to be held exclusively for legal and personnel matters only.
There are probably others that should be included but, if just these seven proposals were adopted, our municipal government would be significantly more accountable and, I believe, far more efficient.
If we can achieve this level of cooperation, trusting the public, then we might be ready for something seriously radical such as having recallable delegates rather than representatives, and referenda democracy a la Switzerland.
I hope the discussions continue and I look forward to some actual changes!