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Libs 'Bungled' Fix for Local Elections: NDP

Too late for November contests, campaign finance reform may be six-year process.

By Andrew MacLeod 22 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

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

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Then premier Gordon Campbell launched task force at 2009 UBCM convention.

When municipal voters go to the polls in November in British Columbia, it will be without the benefit of a series of recommendations made last year to clean up local elections.

The Local Government Elections Task Force made its recommendations in May 2010, but a tumultuous year in provincial politics has meant they've never been put into law.

And while an NDP critic says the failure is a sign of government incompetence, the Union of B.C. Municipalities' president says it's disappointing but it's still better to wait and get it right.

"We understand [the Union of B.C. Municipalities and some local governments] may be disappointed that these changes won't be in place for this year's elections," Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Ida Chong said in a prepared statement announcing the changes would be ready for 2014.

"Our highest priority must be to help ensure local elections run smoothly, without confusion, and that all participants have an opportunity to understand and follow the rules," said Chong. The government heard concerns it was too late to make the changes with campaigns already underway, she said.

Long time coming

The changes have been in the works for some time. The Tyee's Monte Paulsen was among those drawing attention to problems with municipal campaign finance with a 2007 series City Hall for Sale.

Former premier Gordon Campbell announced the task force's formation in Oct. 2009, at the UBCM convention. It was a chance to "modernize" local elections, and look at everything from campaign financing to term lengths, he said.

The task force circulated discussion papers and received over 10,000 written submissions.

On May 28, 2010, it released its report. The co-chairs, then-minister Bill Bennett and UBCM's Harry Nyce, wrote in the cover letter, "The Task Force strongly believes that if implemented, these recommendations would make a positive difference to local elections in British Columbia."

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

There were 31 recommendations, including 15 that would require changes to B.C. laws. In July 2010, the government said it would proceed with the recommendations in time for the 2011 elections.

Bungled from beginning: NDP

The Tyee reported in March that there was some doubt the promise would be met and that a government spokesperson acknowledged it "could be tight" to implement the changes in time for the 2011 elections.

From the time the task force was struck until there will be an election using the changes it recommended will have been almost six years, said Scott Fraser, the NDP critic for community and rural development.

"That's ridiculous. The height of incompetence," said the former Tofino mayor and current MLA for Alberni-Pacific Rim. "I thought it was a joke." The government's handling of the file makes them look like Keystone Cops, he said.

"It would be a laughable announcement considering the whole task force recommendation has been bungled from the beginning," said Fraser, who noted the government made its announcement just ahead of a four-day holiday weekend.

There are legitimate problems with local elections that need fixing, he said. But the government convened a process that excluded members of the opposition and that omitted the key recommendation to limit individual donations, he said. "For Liberal partisan reasons they didn't even consider that one."

Rudderless government

Chong said the government ran out of time to make the changes, but it was the government's choice to call the Legislature for only four days in the last 10 months, said Fraser. "The government decided they'd tie the rudder on the ship of state," he said. "It's a government that will do anything to evade sitting in the Legislature."

Since the report's release, the government has had the Legislature sit for just eight days. Premier Gordon Campbell resigned in November and the BC Liberal Party took three months to replace him with Christy Clark.

Union of B.C. Municipalities president Barbara Steele said it's disappointing but understandable that the changes won't be made in time for the 2011 vote. "From my point of view, I would have loved to have it all settled, but we don't," she said. "That's their decision."

The Legislature will sit starting April 27, but only until June 2. Meanwhile, Clark is running in a byelection in Vancouver-Point Grey and the government is fighting a referendum on whether or not to scrap the HST.

Asked if the government perhaps should have met in the fall to make the changes, which would have been before the turmoil in the wake of Premier Gordon Campbell resigning, Steele said, "I'm not going to get into the politics of it."

The changes -- which include moving the election day from November into October -- are significant and will require thorough discussion, she said. There will also be a need to educate candidates and officials on the new requirements, she said, adding that it was preferable to wait and do it properly than to rush.  [Tyee]

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