Friday, August 8, 2008

Pros and Cons of Longer Terms

At the last SUMA meeting in February, one of the resolutions brought forward and now being considered by the provincial government, is to make the term of urban municipal councils four years rather than three. This is how it is in most other provinces, and is the same term as the provincial government, now that a fixed election date has been set.

The reasons for this change, according to SUMA, are to allow for longer time frames so that projects can be completed, and to allow for the learning that is required by new members of council. A longer term would also mean fewer elections, which do have a cost to them - in the $100,000 neighbourhood, according to information in yesterday's paper - over twelve years, there would be three elections rather than four, so the savings is $100,000 in that twelve years - a small part of our city's budget over that time.

The downside, of course, is that if citizens are unhappy with the council that they have elected, the pain is prolonged 25% longer. And a council which makes poor decisions will have an extra year to do so.

I'm not sure that I agree with the logic of the first reason. The current council has already committed to projects that won't be completed in the next fifteen months - the soccer centre, for example, will continue to show up on your tax bill until 2013. Water utility rates for residential users (not commercial users) will continue to increase every year for another seven years. We'll go through at least two elections before council will be free from those decisions.

The learning curve is something that takes considerable time and effort. I'm surprised at people who run for council, but have never been to a council meeting, or read through a budget document. And the learning is not just for the individual members of council, but also for council as a whole, to learn how to work together, and also how to work with the administration. Almost half of the current council was brand new to civic government at the last election, and I'm not sure that, even now, more than half-way through our term, all members of council understand how council is supposed to function, or what our relationship with administration is supposed to be. For example, council should not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the city - that should be left up to administration. But because of the proximity of staff, it's relatively easy for members of council to get involved in these matters, which makes life for city staff more difficult.

But if a four-year term works provincially, shouldn't it also work for municipal government? While there are similarities, there are also differences.

For one thing, provincial government is much more structured than city council. The provincial government is bound by Acts and Regulations, which cannot be changed unilaterally when a new government is elected- they have to be debated publicly, and it's the job of the Official Opposition to raise questions. At council, we have one Act (The Cities Act), plus our own bylaws and policies which are supposed to guide us, but we don't always seem to concerned about whether we follow these, and a bylaw can, theoretically, be passed in one meeting, if all members present agree to have three votes in one meeting. And the current council has developed a habit of calling special council meetings so that there isn't even the normal two weeks between meetings to give the public the opportunity to comment on proposed bylaws.

Individuals elected to the provincial government are also blessed with professional support, but at arm's length. The vast majority of the provincial civil service does not work directly for the politicians, or have regular contact with them. They work for the Public Service Commission, and their link to members of Cabinet is through deputy ministers - this helps to minimize political interference.

The longer term would be beneficial in the sense that a smaller proportion of the term would be spent thinking about the next election. Right now it's almost as if the term is divided into thirds - the first year for learning, the second for governing, and the third for worrying about the next election. A four-year term would put an extra year in the middle, and that might help productivity.

Fortunately, the decision isn't being left to municipal politicians - the provincial government will decide this one. They're looking for public input, so if you have some thoughts to share, you should visit the Municipal Affairs web-site (, and have your say.

"Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." - George Bernard Shaw

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