Local Government 101: Sorting

Like most people, I best remember the pieces of complex subjects if they are sorted into smaller, more manageable piles. We can use that technique to our advantage as we try to decide whom we wish to vote for in the coming local government election.

Last week we used a sorting technique to decrease the huge pile of all government powers into two: the big pile of federal-like powers that a local government isn?t allowed to use, and the relatively small pile of provincial government powers that a legislature might delegate to its local governments.

Please recall that we don?t have to know them all for this technique to be useful. We just need our intuition to determine if candidates know the difference when telling us what they intend to accomplish. If something sounds wrong, ask. And if they can?t explain, well, you probably have your answer.

When I think of the powers local governments have, I find it easier to remember them if I sort them all into three piles: those to be used for our future, those used in the present and those that have been used in the past. Today we?ll look a few examples the ?future? powers.

Beyond the things that councils are required to do (waste management, emergency services, etc.), the direction a community is going is identified in its Official Community Plan (OCP). It?s designed to be the collective expression of the wishes and desires of the community?s residents (limited only by the set of powers a local government may use).

Once adopted, the things council does are supposed to flow in the direction the OCP sets out and council may not pass a bylaw or resolution that is inconsistent with the OCP. And since council may only act by bylaw or resolution, that pretty much locks things up in favour of our OCP.

In other words, council can?t just make things up as they go. Our OCP sets boundaries and council shouldn?t do things that affect our collective future just because the BC legislature says they are allowed to or because someone thinks that doing such-and-such would be a good idea.

Before going outside the boundaries of the OCP, council must undertake the lengthy public process required to amend the OCP. They must ask us if our wishes and desires have changed. And that fact is useful to us during the election campaign.

So, what does this mean in the practical world? It gives us a fairly simple comparative tool. First, all we need do is be aware of what the OCP contains. A few minutes at the municipal office and a notepad is all it takes.

Second, when we recall the things done by council in the past three years, anything inconsistent with the OCP will jump out.

And third, if a candidate has a ?vision? for our community, we can easily recognize if it differs from our OCP.

If past council members did something that differed from the OCP, then I want an explanation why they deviated from MY plan without MY permission. If not a reasonable story, I?ll not give them my vote.

If a new candidate has a ?vision? differing from the OCP, I expect him or her to be able to explain the differences, to sell me on them and to tell me how it can be delivered when he or she will have just one vote on council.

In my opinion there are few things more costly than a candidate with a cause? particularly if local government hasn?t the power to deal with the subject and if it isn?t part of the OCP. I think it?s far better to find out now, rather than after the person is elected. So, call me picky?

The most important power used to implement our future plans are those related to spending. We can use the sorting and comparison technique to help us with them, too.

Amid the maze of service charges, property tax mils, fees, levies, grants, capital project costs, depreciation, debt cost servicing, ad hoc charges, etc., etc., there really is something for the non-expert to use very effectively: expenditures.

Once you know the basic content of the OCP, it?s a fairly simple matter to learn how much emphasis council placed upon the item or items of interest to the community in general, and you in particular. All the ?plussy-minussy? stuff is important, but how much is spent on a particular thing is a good reflection of how much importance council gave that subject.

Every year council is must devise the ?Five Year Financial Plan? and every summer they must provide an annual financial report. By simply looking at just the ?Expenditures? pages, you can readily see what was INTENDED each year, and also what was ACTUALLY spent.

If I see more than a small percentage difference between the ?intended? and the ?actual?, I expect an explanation from council members looking to be re-elected. If a new candidate doesn?t know the basic numbers or can?t explain how his or her ?vision? fits into the overall story, well, there we are?

Please try these techniques at least as part of a minimal approach to ?sorting?, and please plan on voting.

David and his wife Colleen live in Port McNeill. He holds a degree in Canadian Government and Politics and retired there after a lengthy public service career. He may be contacted via this newspaper.