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Time Running out to Reform Municipal Elections

Province has yet to act on last year's task force recommendations 'at mercy' of incoming premier.

By Andrew MacLeod 10 Mar 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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Local Government Elections Task Force made 15 recommendations requiring law changes.

With British Columbia municipal voters set to go to the polls in eight months, time is running out to implement the recommendations a task force made last year.

Asked when it would be too late for the provincial government to make the changes the task force recommended, the New Democratic Party's critic for community and rural development Scott Fraser said, "I think they're pushing it now."

Union of B.C. Municipalities president Barbara Steele, who sat on the task force, gives the changes a 50 per cent chance of being in place for November's municipal elections.

And a government spokesperson acknowledged the timeline "could be tight" to have the changes ready in time.

Of the 31 recommendations the Local Government Elections Task Force made, 15 require the legislature to make changes to B.C. laws, Fraser said.

But the house has sat just eight days since the task force released its report on May 28, 2010. That includes the end of the spring session, which closed on June 3, 2010, plus a four-day sitting this February to introduce a budget.

Government in transition

Christy Clark, who won the Liberal leadership on Feb. 26, will be sworn in as premier on March 14 along with a shuffled cabinet. She is yet to indicate when the legislature will next sit.

There should have been a fall sitting to make the necessary changes and allow municipal politicians to prepare knowing what the rules will be, said Fraser, a former mayor of Tofino.

The recommendations included several that would give Elections BC, the non-partisan body that runs provincial elections, oversight of aspects of municipal elections. The agency will need time to prepare, said Fraser. "Starting from scratch with no budget you can just assume they're going to require some time."

Bill Bennett was one of the task force's co-chairs, along with the Union of B.C. Municipalities' Harry Nyce. At the time Bennett was the minister of community and rural development.

The ministry has since been reorganized into community, sport and cultural development, with Stephanie Cadieux moving in Oct. 2010, from the back bench to become the new minister. Cadieux was unavailable, though a ministry spokesperson provided an emailed background statement.

The government announced in July that it would proceed with legislation in the spring of 2011 so that the changes would be in place for the Nov. 2011 elections, the spokesperson said. "Intensive work continues toward that goal," he said. "However, we are aware that the timeline could be tight for the legislation needed for implementation by November's elections."

Ministry staff began posting information on the key recommendations last November "to highlight how they might affect candidates and others who participate in campaigns" and has been helping develop education materials, he said.

Essential changes: former minister

Former minister Bennett is now sitting as an independent after criticizing former Liberal leader Gordon Campbell.

"I've been thinking about it lately," said Bennett when asked about the task force's recommendations. "Everything seems to be on hold within government for the last few months."

It's rare for parties to change leaders and understandable there's been some delay, he said, adding he's waiting to see if the changes make it into the legislature this spring.

"It's essential that it be done as soon as possible," he said. "The new government will need to make a decision pretty quickly whether they're going to proceed right away or put it off a year."

The changes will improve the integrity of local elections, he said. "It has to do with transparency and accountability of people who go into local government," he said. "We didn't do it just because we felt like it. We did it because we saw a need for it."

Could be three more years

The task force, which along with the co-chairs included two backbench Liberal MLAs and two representatives of the UBCM, circulated discussion papers and received over 10,000 written submissions.

The intent, its report said, was to have the recommendations in place by the Nov. 2011, election. That's consistent with what The Tyee reported Premier Campbell said when he announced the task force's creation at the 2009 UBCM conference: "the resulting act will be introduced to the legislature prior to the next municipal election in 2011."

The task force's recommendations included:

• implementing expense limits for all campaign participants, including candidates, parties and third-party advertisers;

• setting those limits in a way that works for different sized communities;

• banning anonymous contributions;

• requiring all election advertising to say who had paid for it, as happens now in provincial and federal elections;

• making it necessary for third-party advertisers to register and to say how much money they spent on ads;

• shortening the time limit for campaigns to submit their financial disclosure statements to 90 days from general voting day;

• providing for financial disclosures to be published online and made available through Elections BC;

• developing standard financial disclosure forms;

• bringing the rules around "in kind" contributions into line with provincial rules;

• giving Chief Election Officers powers to enforce rules including those against election-day advertising and to seek injunctions to stop unauthorized advertising; and

• extending the time limits for investigating alleged local elections offences from six months to one year.

The task force also recommended extending municipal terms from three years to four, but delegates at the UBCM convention rejected the idea in September.

"The Task Force strongly believes that if implemented, these recommendations would make a positive difference to local elections in British Columbia," Bennett and Nyce said in their cover letter to the report.

The full 68-page report is available here, and a summary of the key recommendations is on the task force's website.

"There was a lot of work put into it and I'd hate to see it not be implemented," said Surrey councillor Barbara Steele, who sat on the task force and who has since become president of the UBCM. "It's good legislation that would be coming down."

She's optimistic, she said, but figures there's a 50 per cent chance the changes will be implemented in time. "Whatever. We're at the mercy of the new premier and the new cabinet."

In some of the larger municipalities politicians are already starting to get organized and to raise money for November's elections, she said.

If the changes aren't made soon, it will be another three-year wait until the next municipal elections, she said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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