Can We Improve Langley’s Local Government?

Back in March of this year, Business in Vancouver‘s editor-in-chief and a former Mayoral candidate of Vancouver’s NPA party, Kirk Lapointe, wrote an article titled, “10 ways to return coherence to Vancouver’s municipal government“. In it, he lamented the dysfunction in Vancouver’s city politics and offered 10 ways to improve municipal governance in the City of Vancouver. One of my Twitter followers, @ryanarc0, suggested that Langley could benefit from a similar analysis and tagged me in the post, so I obliged. Rather than brainstorming my own list of ways to improve Langley’s local governance, I’m going to take a look at what Lapointe suggested and see if any of his recommendations apply to us in the Township of Langley, or even if any of them will actually improve anything.

Before taking this somewhat superficial look into Lapointe’s… points… I need to recognize that the City of Vancouver is, in many ways, a very different municipality than the Township of Langley. It’s population size and overall density creates for different challenges that will have different solutions: one size doesn’t always fit all. However, the one thing that is a constant in both municipalities is the low engagement in civic politics. Lapointe hopes that by implementing these 10 issues, voters will be less turned off by the dysfunction of local government.

As with Lapointe’s article, my own ideas aren’t about the current council in particular. People come and go, but the system is what remains – and it is the system that I will be looking at changing.

1. Retire Party Politics

Somewhat ironically as former party leader, Lapointe sees Vancouver’s partisan politics as the cause for losing “their independence from, senior governments and special interests.” He suggests that once in government, “parties vote as blocs with little tolerance for debate or compromise, so often fail to serve the broader community purpose.”

True? Most definitely. But would the return to “one person parties” as he calls it actually correct this? If the Township of Langley is any indication, no, it won’t. The idea of a group of independents bringing cohesion or lessening dysfunction is a fantasy. It is an even greater fantasy to think that “one person parties” are independent from other levels of government or special interests. Former MLA Rich Coleman was notoriously involved in Langley’s municipal campaigns and most local election winners for the past generation have all had the majority of their campaigns paid for by the same small group of developers – and their voting record is in line with this alliance.

Clint Lee, former candidate/President of Live Langley

I view electoral associations/civic parties as pragmatic entities. I admittedly have my own history with one in the Township of Langley (disclosure: I was a founding member and Vice President of Live Langley, but left prior to its one and only 2014 campaign). While I definitely agree that there is a certain toxicity to partisan politics that may directly lead to some of the problems that Surrey is facing, I also do see the benefit of voters better understanding a platform of a group instead of just name recognition.

Unfortunately when you have 23-27 individuals running for Council (which would probably explode into 3 figures in a city like Vancouver if it solely had independent candidates without wards), the general public doesn’t have the time or energy to look into the platforms and voting histories of that many individuals. Additionally, if 6 people are going to run backed by the same financiers, vote the same way 90%+ of the time, and share the same paradigm, maybe they SHOULD be given a name. The problem is that the public doesn’t know who finances them until AFTER the election in our current system – but see below for a solution for that.

With provincial rules around campaign donation limits and the likely new incoming election sign bylaws in the Township of Langley, I don’t foresee civic parties getting traction anytime soon in the Township, for better or worse.

2. Implement a Ward System

Langley is a “Community of Communities”

I’ve written about this before: I’m a fan. After living in Edmonton for a number of years and seeing the success behind a ward system, whereby the Mayor was elected “at-large” by the entire city but the council was elected by community “wards”. Lapointe points out that the at-large system limits the range of representation in a multicultural community. While the Mayor oversees the “big picture” and ward-based councillors must work together for the benefit of the city, the ward system creates a deeper connection to local neighbourhoods.

As a “community of communities”, the Township of Langley could benefit from a ward system where each neighbourhood has its own representative that is in tune with the needs and problems of that community. Currently, many populous neighbourhoods are vastly under-represented and decision makers often have no connection to the decisions they are making.

What would a ward system in Langley look like? Assuming we kept our current number of council seats at 8, which I see no reason in changing, our current population would require wards to represent populations of around 16-17,000 each. This would mean that we would see wards for Aldergrove/Otter District area, Brookswood-Fernridge, Murrayville/Milner/Salmon River, Walnut Grove west, Walnut Grove east/Fort Langley, Yorkson, Willoughby/Willowbrook, and then probably a “rural” ward. Each voter would select their “at-large” Mayoral candidate that would be running in all wards, and just one candidate in their respective ward, plus their school board candidates.

3. Increase the Candidate $ Threshold

This one seems a little more controversial. Lapointe states that we need to make it a bit harder to run for office: governance should not be a casual part time job. He recommends that non-refundable deposits should be made higher and nomination forms should require more signatures.

So the question is, does an oversaturated ballot weaken or strengthen democracy? Should we do more to weed out candidates or just let democracy do its thing?

I’m torn on this one. I see both sides, especially in a municipality that doesn’t have a party system. Maybe this is where a solution for Vancouver might differ from us. Without researching too much into the implications, my hunch would be to be in favour of increasing the number of signatures required to run for office, but not making any more financial hardship on dark horse, low budget or grassroots candidates.

4. Local Candidates Only

This isn’t as much of a problem in the Township of Langley. I don’t think we have any restriction on whether or not someone has to actually live in the Township of Langley to run in the Township of Langley, but I’m not against it. I doubt it is very common for a City of Langley or City of Surrey resident to make a run in the Township. Considering I would wonder why they would do so, I personally am in favour such a restriction, but I don’t think it’ll change much: none of our Councillors live outside of the Township of Langley nor do I think someone from outside of the Township could get elected.

I would, however, go further than Lapointe’s suggestion. While we have banned corporate and union campaign donations (albeit ineffectively), we should expand this rule and ban any campaign contribution from an individual outside of the municipality. Ask yourself: why are so many Surrey and Vancouver “individuals” donating so much money to Langley candidates? Hmmm…

We should be limiting influence from interests outside of the taxpayers of Langley and this is one way. Maybe we could make an exception for donations from immediate family members or something, but I personally see no reason we should be accepting donations from individuals outside of our community.

5. Roaming Council Meetings

This was a pretty unique suggestion by Lapointe: “Council should by statute leave city hall to conduct their meetings at least once a month in community centres or elsewhere so neighbourhoods can witness and accessibly participate in the conduct of the people’s business.”

It’s pretty self-explanatory. I’m not sure how much impact it would actually have, but I doubt it could hurt. The logistics could be a bit tricky – not every community has an appropriate facility for regular council meetings. I like the spirit of the idea though.

6. Pay Councillors More

In Vancouver, Councillor salaries were the highest at $86,266.18 (2019) whereas the Township of Langley Councillors made under $50,000 (2018). Since our tax dollars directly pay these salaries, it’s a pretty unpopular position to take to actually pay them more. However, Lapointe doesn’t just say raise the pay, he does add some stipulations to this:

“We don’t get enough time from councillors, in part because they often hold down other full- or part-time jobs. We should pay councillors more, primarily to reflect the reality of their full-time jobs and to ensure stronger candidates are drawn to public life. And we should require them to quit or take unpaid leaves from their jobs to hold office… The calibre matters, and you get the attention and competence you pay for.”

Council pay isn’t glamourous. For many people with a lot more knowledge and skills in the matters relating to municipal governance, winning public office would mean a substantial pay cut. This does lead to retired, semi-retired, and/or those with secondary jobs running for office. On the flip side, the lower pay does discourage “career politicians” – if thats what we want.

Comparison of Council Salaries 2018-2019, Source: CBC

I’m not convinced by this, but I am open to research. It is interesting to read that someone who lives in Vancouver, whose council members receive the highest pay in the region, is advocating for higher pay. He does point out that those governing Vancouver are essentially running a business with $2 billion in revenues, do we really see any improvement in “quality” by having higher paid councillors in the region?

Maybe there is a compounding issue here. With some of these municipalities in the top 1/2 having “civic parties”, does this lead to “low quality” candidates being elected since they are part of a slate that basically tells them how to campaign and govern?

Further to that, how does one define the “quality” of an elected official? It can’t merely be someone that you or I disagree with. Is it someone who is contentious? Agreeable? Well liked? Controversial? Effective?

This isn’t a problem that governments alone face. This is something that all non profits struggle with. The private sector can afford to pay more “qualified” people than the public because it’s goal is profit, whereas the goal of the public sector is governance, which has more issues to worry about than just the bottom line: there is the social good as well (oh yea….).

So even if we pay our Council members more, it is unlikely that the public sector can really attract people whose education and experience is best suited for the job when they can get paid much more elsewhere. This is why being an elected official is considered “public service”. You do have to be willing to serve and it obviously isn’t just for the money: because it doesn’t pay very well, relative to similar positions in the private sector.

7. Eliminate the Parks Board

Well, this is obviously a Vancouver thing. If you’re interested in Lapointe’s explanation, check out the BIV article I linked earlier. It is important to note that Lapointe doesn’t push this further and suggest the elimination of the School Board, as dysfunctional as Vancouver’s board has been in recent history.

8. Reform Campaign Contributions

Yes! Lapointe argues for three specific reforms, all of which I agree with.

First, while he appreciates that we are taking “big money” out of municipal politics with recent legislation (not like that did anything in the Township of Langley), he suggests that we do make campaign contributions tax deductible. Especially if we combined this with my earlier idea about only allowing donations from local residents, this would incentivize grassroots local campaigns. Without this tax deduction, the only individuals who tend to donate significant amounts on the local level are those who have immense corporate interests – such as developers.

Second, donations need to be “transparently disclosed in real-time”. Again, I’ve already written this before – in an open letter to Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (aka my dream job?) – following what I saw as the immense failure of the ban on corporate donations during the 2018 election (at least outside of Vancouver). With the technology available to us, this isn’t hard. It should be mandatory for candidates to disclose their contributions within 24 or 48 hours of receipt, with a ban on donations in the final hours of the campaign.

Third, we need financial reforms to limit building war chests and spending between campaign periods. Lapointe states that this is especially important within a “party based” system. Arguably with the exception of a few candidates in the Township of Langley, this hasn’t really been an issue here. However, with the successful campaign of local builder Eric Woodward in the ToL in 2018, it is likely that we will see more sophisticated campaigns that will require successful candidates to access more funding and come up with more creative ways to maximize the effectiveness of their funds.

9. Term Limits

“We ought to have term limits. No matter the integrity of a councillor, conflicts and cosiness ensues with longevity of incumbency.” -Kirk Lapointe

This is something that Canadians have always struggled with. While our American counterparts are familiar with term limits on most levels of government as part of some sort of systemic fear of centralization of authority, Canadians seem to have no such fear. We don’t have term limits on the federal, provincial or municipal levels. On federal and provincial levels, at least in BC, our history shows that we get sick of our governments after 3 or 4 terms.

On the municipal level, however, which has very low voter turnout, almost non existent political engagement between elections, and extremely sparse media coverage, incumbents have an immense advantage. In the Township of Langley, this has led to Councillors easily spending a generation on Council.

The Township of Langley, specifically, has regressive development practices, no true planning department or chief planner independent from engineering, and suffers from an embarrassing lack of innovation. Would term limits fix any of this stifling? My guess is no, at least not without implementing some of the other items on this list. Is it a bad idea? Probably not. But who would implement it? Approving term limits is sort of like trying to change the electoral system of be more representative: why would someone change the system that got them elected in the first place, or, in this case, who would put a limit on their time in power… unless they no longer have interest in running again.

Likely, the only hope that any government can have in implementing term limits is exactly that: a majority of long time incumbents hypocritically deciding that they are no longer going to run decide to limit the terms of future Councillors.

10. Employ a Chief Transparency Officer & Ombud

With controversy after controversy, lawsuit after lawsuit, and with Langley politics ending up in provincial news embarrassingly often for our relatively small population, it might actually be less expensive to have a CTO or Ombud office in the Township.

“The city needs not only the auditor general it is about to get, but an ombud to field public complaints about maladministration and a chief transparency officer to ensure there is timely, clearer furnished information to the public.” -Kirk Lapointe

Langley feels likes the Wild Wild East at times. With a majority on council that seems to treat high level staff as if they are godlike in knowledge and competence – despite evidence suggesting that they aren’t, in fact, perfect – the Township could benefit from a bit more arms-length oversight.

However, I would adjust the recommendation for those of us outside larger cities like Vancouver and Surrey – both of which should have their own ombud office. Perhaps for smaller municipalities, this should be a regional cooperative through Metro Vancouver or some other sort of entity somewhat removed from local governance.

This could provide a triple benefit to taxpayers: first, it would reduce cost by nature of the economy of scale. Second, it would provide physical and political distance between those in government and those it is policing. Third, it would have a “best practices” mechanism built in as it would be receiving information from multiple municipalities.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on Lapointe’s 10 ideas and my analysis of them for Langley? Are any feasible? Reasonable? Unreasonable? Are any of them worth a bit more research? Let me know on my Facebook page, the comments below, or by email at betterlangley@gmail.com!

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