A common theme regarding the upcoming referendum is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I could agree with this notion if, in reality, our current system wasn’t broken. I realize that much of the discourse has focused on costs (roads, administration, etc.) or the impact (real or imagined) to the Islands Trust. But how we are governed, how decisions are made, all translates to one issue that has tended to be overlooked: democracy. And that is something irrevocably missing…. something “broke”… under our current system.
There is expectation that “transparency” applies (or at least should apply) to those systems which govern our community. We expect that monies are allocated and decisions are made on our behalf within plain view. I suggest that this is not merely illusory, but is utterly undermined by our present structure. There are two significant factors at play: 1) logistics and 2) the Law.
As to logistics, how many of us have managed to attend a quarterly meeting of Islands Trust Council….particularly the meeting at which the annual budget is approved? The most recent of these was held on Gabriola Island. It’s been about ten years since that crucial budget meeting was held on Salt Spring Island, despite the fact that our community pays roughly 40 percent of the total budget. How many of us can allocate the time, effort and expense of traveling to Gabriola mid-day, mid-week in order to have a voice in the process, or if only to observe? The same problems apply to meetings of the CRD, typically held mid-day, mid-week in Victoria. Would I be wrong to suggest that these logistics place an undue burden on anyone who isn’t a retiree?
It has been argued that citizens can remain informed by accessing the minutes from these meetings. This assumes, of course, that the minutes are available, timely, and accurate. Even if all these elements exist (and often they haven’t), it begs credulity that any of us are willing/able to wade through the volume of material for the numerous, disparate assortment of entities that comprise our “governance”. Compare this to the opportunities presented by the universality of a Town Hall.
Logistics aside, the most daunting obstacles to transparency and democracy exist within the framework of laws relating to two of the island’s most significant taxing authorities: the Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District, and the North Salt Spring Water District. The proportion of total property tax for those properties within both Districts exceeds 20%. Renters within those Districts aren’t eligible to vote on related matters, yet they no doubt foot the bill as costs are passed on by the landlord.
Critically, “open meetings” laws demanded of other forms of government do not apply to Improvement Districts. In reality, any and all of the business conducted by each respective Board of Trustees could, if they choose, be handled behind closed doors. In the Fire District this was routine practice for years and, depending on the decision of the officeholders, could be again. Improvement District lack of transparency is one of the primary concerns raised by the Province in a 2006 “White Paper” regarding these bodies. It is among the various reasons the Province has not authorized new ones in decades and encourages dismantling those still in existence.
This 2006 report highlights a second, related concern: lack of professionalism. Other government bodies are forbidden from having their own employees as elected officials, if for no other reason than the irrationality of someone simultaneously being both employee and employer. Improvement Districts are given a pass on this matter, indicative of the “lack of professionalism” referenced in the report. While it may be presumed that such officeholders would recuse themselves from decisions having even the potential for conflict of interest, it also presumes that the trustees understand and abide by the rules they’re meant to follow. By way of example consider the track record of theSSIFPD:
- both the current (2010) and original (2006) versions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement were approved by Boards whose trustees included an actively employed firefighter…who did not recuse himself, and whose vote was counted each time
- trustee-firefighters participated in committees, deliberations, and votes on matters affecting their own interests, including compensation
- trustee-firefighters participated in committees, deliberations and votes on personnel matters involving their co-workers and superiors
- on more than one occasion a trustee-firefighter served as Board Chair.
The implications for such conflict are constant, and the lines of authority are irrevocably blurred. Although anyone who wears, or intends to wear, both hats should recuse him/herself from any discussion or voting on matters of consequence, the examples above demonstrate how readily and frequently this can be ignored or misunderstood.
The idea has been floated that, with a “No” vote, additional service providers should “simply” be amalgamated under the authority of CRD, basically leaving all of our service decisions in the hands of a single elected official. Regardless of how well-intentioned the CRD director may be, this would create a virtual “autocracy”.
To paraphrase the familiar MasterCard commercial: the cost of roads…who the hell knows; the impact on the Islands Trust….depends on who you talk to; living in a democracy….priceless.