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Kirk LaPointe: We need a regional government to address Metro Vancouver issues

Metro Vancouver takes about $620 on average annually from households and is responsible for important services, yet lacks the accountability of an elected government, writes Kirk LaPointe
Metro Vancouver is simultaneously larger than it ought to be with its current degree of accountability and smaller than it ought to be with its degree of responsibility, writes Kirk LaPointe

I am writing to argue for more government, and no, I do not believe I have lost my mind.

Hear me out.

The time has come to plot a path to dismantle Metro Vancouver’s sorry structure and create an elected regional government.

Let me make the case.

Metro Vancouver operates regional services with a $1.082 billion budget that peels about $620 on average annually from the households of its 21 municipalities, one electoral area and one treaty First Nation it euphemistically considers “partners.” But really, it is a modern version of taxation without representation – or, at least, properly direct representation.

Of course, no one “runs” in a civic election on a regional political platform to become an eventual Metro Vancouver board member. The appointment of the mayor and/or some councillors – a bulbous and ungainly 41 in all – is a reward.

It is the closest thing we have locally and civically to patronage, a salary sweetener ($105,000 extra annually for the chair, $52,000 for the vice-chair and between $525 for shortish meetings and $1,050 for fuller days for board and committee members) and a perquisite for councils that appoint themselves.

Money aside, the gig adds considerable responsibility to officials through self-selection without any public consideration of their credentials, and the part-time political duties confer substantial leverage with its senior executives. That can lead us into bad places.

Very few voters would not know the name of their mayor and quite a few would even know who their city manager is. I would place a hefty bet that very few voters would know who is the Metro Vancouver chair (Delta Mayor George Harvie) and far fewer still would know who is its chief administrative officer (former Vancouver engineering chief Jerry Dobrovolny).

In being under the radar, it proves inadequately accountable. As taxpayers we have no real recourse when Metro Vancouver raises taxes (ahem, the development fees that have stalled federal housing funds in Vancouver and Surrey) or when its projects run overbudget (ahem, the fiscal fiasco of the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant project).

It is also, unfortunately, inadequately chronicled, so blame us a bit. Local media don’t pay nearly the attention to regional issues that they do to their local matters, mainly because its appointees don’t make much of a meal about their regional responsibilities. It doesn’t seem like much is happening, when there really is.

Mostly its agendas involve its core services of drinking water, wastewater treatment and solid waste management. But it also regulates air quality, develops urban growth plans, takes care of a regional parks system and provides comparably affordable housing through its four corporate entities. These are not small-budget items.

In a way, it is both larger than it ought to be with this degree of accountability and smaller than it ought to be with this degree of responsibility.

I don’t miss living in Ontario, but the direct election of regional chairs and councillors works there. Ontario has six such governments that partly or fully elect their members. To mitigate election fatigue, they’re elected at the same time as municipal officials. They prove to be more formidable than is ours in regional economic development, in public health, in emergency services and in transportation. We choose to create health authorities and a separate board – another political reward for civic officials – in TransLink.

An elected regional government would provide democratic legitimacy to its endeavours. The political rivalry among municipalities and the dominance of voting weight on all issues from Vancouver and Surrey would be subdued, particularly if the governance structure mandated representation in all quarters of the region. It would permit us to hold officials accountable where today they are not, and it would stand a better chance to have greater control over how our diversity of interests are served. It would also reduce the amount of horse-trading that takes place among board members when there are specific local impacts of regional projects. And, naturally, a consequence of an election would be transparency.

At the moment Metro Vancouver is out of sight, out of mind, and I suppose that’s how some of its officials like it. An election would make us all more alert to and engaged with its activities. The more accessible local and regional governments are, the better we are served. But Metro Vancouver feels at a remove and not of us.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.