When Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon announced his TransLink shake-up two weeks ago, he claimed it would make transportation decisions in Vancouver more accountable. But accountability and democratic oversight are not what his new model is about.
The real power under the new TransLink will not be the Council of Mayors, which replaces the rotating municipal board, but a new, 11-member TransLink board made up of unelected officials, appointed by the province. That shift isn't just bad for greater Vancouver; it's bad for democracy.
The new board -- and thus the province -- will hold virtually all the major decision-making powers of TransLink including:
· Power to expropriate land for any transportation project, meaning unelected planners can build what they want, where they want, irrespective of democratically elected municipal councils and the input of regional taxpayers. · Responsibility to develop, approve and implement three-year operational plans, meaning locally elected officials will have no input on the actual number of new buses, regional service levels or expenditures. · Power over the CEO of the board, meaning provincially appointed officials, not local politicians, will decide whether or not the CEO has fulfilled his or her duties effectively. · Authority to appoint heads of TransLink's subsidiaries, meaning the CEOs of Westcoast Express and Skytrain are accountable to an unelected board.
Essentially, any major decision that has a direct impact on Greater Vancouver, from the location of a transit stop, to the number of buses on our routes, will be made by this unelected, unaccountable board.
Limited choice, limited time
But wait: won't the Council of Mayors set the long-term strategic vision and approve taxation decisions?
No: their power is limited to the selection -- not the actual development -- of the strategic plan. That decision is left to the unelected board, in effect giving it the all-important agenda-setting power. Mayors will have no choice but to choose from what the board wants them to choose from.
The Council of Mayors will also be constrained by time. Under the new model, they are to meet only four times a year, far less than the time they currently enjoy. Plus, when choosing among the board's strategic options, they will have a 90-day time limit. If they fail, the board will impose its own choice.
The board would be slightly more accountable if the Council of Mayors could select its members or at least fire the CEO. But they can't. Municipalities will have no direct say in the selection of board members. Nor will the council have any say over the board's leadership. The CEO will be accountable to and appointed by the board. Not even publicly owned corporate boards have that power.
This arrangement unquestionably shifts power from locally elected officials to the province and its unelected board. It is a loss for local democracy and a gain for centralized decision making. Regional taxpayers will now no longer have any direct control over regional transportation, which will instead become a provincial prerogative.
No taxation with representation
That structure -- local tax dollars, external decision making -- runs counter to two fundamental principles of North American democracy: no taxation without representation and subsidiarity.
The idea of no taxation without representation is simple: citizens should be able to hold directly accountable the level of government to which they pay taxes. Under the proposed governance arrangement, Greater Vancouver residents will pay for the entire cost of TransLink but be disenfranchised from any direct oversight of how these tax dollars are spent. The province will dole out the region's money however it wants, knowing full well the region's citizens have a much-diminished voice on the provincial level.
Subsidiarity is a similar, but different concept. It is the idea that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people affected by them. The new model is obviously opposite to this principle. Voters in Prince George and Fort St. John will now be voting on regional transportation decisions for Greater Vancouver. Under Falcon's proposal, the level of government furthest from the people affected by its decisions will now make them.
Gordon Campbell, ironically, long ago pointed out the danger in all of this. When TransLink was debated in the legislature in July 1998, Campbell was convinced the authority needed "true local autonomy" and "true regional independence." This was essential, he argued, as "the evidence is overwhelming that when the provincial government is involved in regional transportation decisions, they stop being regional transportation decisions and they start being provincial political decisions."
His solution, clearly stated during the same debate, was quite the opposite of what his government is currently proposing. Campbell wanted the law to ensure TransLink was a "regional transportation authority that the regional district, not the provincial government, will be able to direct." Ideally, he wanted the law to "prohibit unilateral decision-making by [the province] being imposed on the regional transportation authority."
That was then, this is now
The proposed governance model is a near perfect example of the province unilaterally imposing decisions on the region.
Over the past year, the Sustainable Communities Initiative reviewed submissions municipalities made to Kevin Falcon's Governance Review Panel -- the "independent" panel that came up with Falcon's proposed TransLink model. In them, GVRD municipalities outlined their vision of an ideal governance structure for regional transportation and what steps should be taken to improve it. In total, we reviewed 13 of these submissions representing the bulk of Greater Vancouver's population.
Not one of these submissions from local government asked the province to concentrate the power of regional transportation in provincial hands. A common theme was that responsibility should lie with local elected officials, where taxation decisions could be held accountable. It was reiterated that transportation planning should remain a regional responsibility, not a provincial one. Improved accountability could be achieved by changing the present structure, such as increasing term limits for directors to three years from one, a recommendation the auditor general made as well. The fiscal shortfalls -- the key issue facing TransLink -- would require additional fiscal tools -- resources the province has so far refused to provide to the region.
In all the proposals we looked at, there was not one that suggested accountability would be improved by shifting regional responsibilities and regional fiscal resources to the provincial government behind the smoke-screen of the Council of Mayors.
What we are left with is a vision guided by a highly centralized ideal of power and control. It reflects a distrust of local authorities and their ability to govern themselves. It is a vision that violates key principles of Canadian democracy, and the belief in representative taxation. The problems that were accurately defined -- the fiscal shortfalls, the unclear lines of accountability -- were all resolvable through a properly funded, democratically elected and locally accountable body, solutions the region suggested. Instead, the government has made the unilateral decision to arrogate power towards the centre, and dictate it as it sees fit from there.