A long-time civic-affairs watcher wants politicians directly elected to oversee regional issues.
Bob Laurie told the Straight that the "yes" side in the recent transit and transportation plebiscite encountered trouble because there's "no trust" in people who speak for the region.
"We vote for politicians at the municipal level," Laurie, former chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade's community-affairs committee, said in an interview on Columbia Street in New Westminster. "Who votes for them at a regional level? They vote for each other. That's not what democracy is about."
City councils, and not voters, decide who serves on the 38-member board of Metro Vancouver.
The Mayor's Council appoints seven directors to TransLink after applicants are screened by a panel consisting of appointees of the B.C. government, the Mayor's Council, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of B.C., the Vancouver Board of Trade, and the Greater Vancouver Gateway Society.
The other two TransLink directors are the chair and vice chair of the Mayor's Council.
It means that the public has no direct say over who is in charge over more than $2 billion spent every year on regional land-use planning and transportation, air and water quality, sewage treatment, and regional parks.
Subregions provide broad representation
"Let's look at Portland," Laurie said. "They elect their regional officials and there are not 23 municipalities sitting there. There are subregions."
The Metro Council serving the Portland region's 1.5 million residents has seven elected directors.
Laurie made his comments at the recent opening of the Trapp + Holbrook Building, which was also attended by New Westminster mayor Jonathan Cote.
When the Straight asked Cote for his reaction to Laurie's idea, he replied: "I think that's a pretty big topic, but there is some opportunity [for discussion], particularly in looking at TransLink."
Laurie claimed that the Lower Mainland would be better served if the public elected representatives by subregions on a much smaller Metro Vancouver board. He said it could have as few as seven or eight representatives. It would oversee both land-use planning and transportation, as well as other areas now under regional responsibility.
He suggested that the North Shore could be one subregion. The Tri-Cities could be another. He also supports having "weighted votes" so subregions with larger populations would have more clout on the board.
Laurie alleged a conflict of interest exists
Perhaps most significantly, Laurie insisted that politicians who run regionally should be banned from simultaneously serving as a mayor or a city councillor.
"What is in the best interest of the region may not be in the best interest of Richmond or Vancouver," he insisted.
Yet Laurie said that mayors regularly vote at Metro Vancouver on issues that can have a direct impact on their city councils. He claimed that this constitutes a conflict of interest.
As an example, he said the public would be far better served if Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore was directly elected to this position as a Tri-Cities representative rather than being appointed because he's mayor of Port Coquitlam.
"His responsibility would be to report back to the three councils on a regular basis," Laurie said.
As things stand now, mayors and councillors receive are compensated for meetings they attend at the regional level—something Laurie characterized as "moonlighting".
Metro Vancouver committee board members receive $359 for meetings up to four hours and $718 for meetings extending beyond that. There’s a cap of $718 per day if they attend more than one meeting. Committee chairs receive an additional $359 per month.
Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore and vice chair Raymond Louie do not receive these per-diem fees. Instead, Moore will receive $71,858 this year as chair in addition to his mayoral salary of $91,148. Louie will receive $35,929 as vice chair on top of his $68,552 salary as a Vancouver councillor. (Council has ordered an independent review of its wages.)
Laurie maintained that civic politicians should receive a larger wage for sitting on council, negating the need for them to pad their incomes by sitting on an unaccountable regional board.
"They need to pay attention to the cost overruns at their levels," Laurie said.
Arbitration could resolve disputes
He also suggested that regional land-use planning overseen by directly elected officials should sometimes trump the interests of city councils. And disputes between local governments and the region should be settled through arbitration.
Laurie pointed out that it's sheer folly to separate transportation planning from land-use planning. However, here in the Lower Mainland, there are two separate bureaucracies to address these issues.
Meanwhile, the B.C. government oversees legislation dealing with the governance of local and regional bodies, as well as TransLink. The province also oversees election-finance rules at the local level.
There are no limits on how much money local politicians can spend on their campaigns, conferring a great advantage on municipal parties adept at fundraising.
"The governance review needs to be done but it must be done at the local level, not mandated from above," Laurie said. "It should be bottom up."