The revision of the Municipal Act has resulted in more powers being bestowed on local governments but, says West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Ted Nebbeling, the new legislation is nothing more than a leash that has been extended one that can be snapped back any time the provincial government is not in agreement with a local authority.
Nebbeling was speaking at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District Board monthly meeting Monday, Nov. 27.
The municipal affairs critic met with the SLRD board as part of a B.C. road show to promote the Liberals Community Charter. Should the Liberals win the next election, the charter would be introduced within 90 days of forming a new government, Nebbeling told SLRD board members.
He said the charter, first introduced in 1995, would see the relationship between the province and local governments revised and more decision-making power given to local authorities. It would also prohibit downloading of provincial costs and programs.
Nebbeling said he was pleased to be able to talk with board members in a public forum. "Far too often I travel and meet with boards or councils and most of the time the meetings have been in camera. I think this is much better and a little step toward democracy. I would like to compliment the board for doing this."
He told the board that three years have been spent by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the Union of B.C. Municipalities in trying to modernize the Municipal Act. "But I personally have concluded that there is no further clarity to the act. The name has been changed to the Local Government Act but it clearly has not been successful."
He said it is still an incomprehensible document with more than 1,000 sections. The community charter on the other hand, he said, has less than 200 sections.
Nebbeling acknowledged that some municipalities and regional districts may have burnout when it comes to reforming local government laws. "And there is some trepidation over possibly having to go through another three-year exercise to get the work done."
But, he said this would not be the case.
He said municipalities have already had opportunity for comprehensive review of the charter since it was introduced in 1995 and, although aspects have been altered since it was made public, the principles remain the same.
"We intend to present this to the UBCM the day after the election. This will give the UBCM board good opportunity to go through the sections."
He said copies of the revised charter will not be released until after the election.
He said this is because after the Liberals introduced the charter in 1995, the following year the NDP government announced it intended to revise the Municipal Act, taking sections directly out of the charter. "We dont want to do that again. There will be a 90 day period after we are elected where we will introduce all kinds of matters. We will introduce the Community Charter in the fall most likely. We will then come back for second reading in the spring session." Nebbeling said this should give local governments enough time to go over the recommendations.
"Then hopefully we will have a new Municipal Act, or Community Charter that will allow communities throughout British Columbia to do what the City of Vancouver has been able to do for many years," noted Nebbeling. "Vancouver has the city charter which they have been able to use to get away from many hindrances."
Nebbeling said the charter moves away for the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to local government and communities will be able to capitalize on their individual unique traits.
Still being written for the community charter is a new land use and zoning act. This should be ready by April or May, noted Nebbeling. The Liberals are also working on a financial strategy for local governments that will be included in the charter. "We want to give communities a whole array of choices in how they can raise funds."
Nebbeling said, however, the outstanding component is how to deal with regional governments.
He said regional districts are more complicated than municipalities. He noted that the Liberals have received good input from municipalities on the charter but they havent yet got that kind of feedback from regional governments. "That is why we intend to spend six months on the road, meet with all the boards and find out where things are problematic and see if we can find ways to make regional boards work."
Nebbeling was due to leave for Fort Murray and Fort St. James after the SLRD meeting. He said once data has been collected from the trips, a regional district charter will be introduced. He said the uniqueness of communities will also be recognized under this new legislation.
"This is very important to me. It will stop dividing communities as we have seen recently all over the province regional boards are really in a bind. They have been asked to take on certain responsibilities by the provincial government, often without compensation." He said some regions just cant afford the extra responsibility.
He said the Fraser district, including Chilliwack and Abbottsford, is an example of a region divided. "They are having a hell of a time getting a growth strategy going. Not unlike this area."
Nebbeling said a regional growth strategy is one way for communities within a regional district to become one. "But the process as it is today needs some serious revisions to get everyone on side. I will gladly sit down with this board and talk about how growth strategies can work. I am not going to tell you how to do it but just give you my ideas."
SLRD directors took the opportunity to highlight, for Nebbeling, several of their key problem areas.
Directors said they were concerned about the unilateral powers wielded by Crown corporations in this region especially B.C. Rail. They said they wanted to see B.C. Rail pay its fair share of property tax. Nebbeling said, under the charter, the property would be taxed based on infrastructure on the land.
Squamish mayor and SLRD director, Corinne Lonsdale, noted that B.C. Rail holds 95 per cent of all developable land in Squamish south of the entrance to town. She said rather than see B.C Rail sit on the land indefinitely, it should be handed over to the B.C. Assets and Lands corporation and developed. "In my communitys position you are losing B.C. Rail jobs and they are still controlling all the land. Its a double whammy and we are hostage to the whole damn thing," she told Nebbeling.
"We saw McDonalds set up business on a corner in Squamish about 15 years ago and prosper. But we saw Squamish Station get developed only three or four years ago. That corner could also have been developed 15 years ago and done very well, but because B.C. Rail doesnt pay its fair share, it can afford to sit on large tracts of land for many, many years," she said. "I think BCAL would be more interested in seeing wise use of the property."
Lonsdale noted also that B.C. Rail owns Site B, a potential deep sea port. "That means B.C. Rail has the entire waterfront sewn up. They own Vancouver wharves and as long as they can deal in North Vancouver, they are not going to develop Site B. That doesnt mean there isnt somebody else who might want to develop Site B that would give our community some compensation and be good for the provincial economy B.C. Rail actually controls the entire destiny of our downtown area and south. There is no question of that."
Directors also raised the spectre of having to use tax dollars to indefinitely fight B.C Rails pesticide applications in order to protect the health of their constituents.
"We cant afford to keep taking B.C. Rail to task," said SLRD chair Susan Gimse.
Lillooet, on the other hand, has issues with B.C. Hydro.
Nebbeling said changes to the Interpretation Act which would make Crown corporations answerable to local government land use plans and the new community charter will address may of the concerns.
Lonsdale acknowledged the new Local Government Act gives communities authority in some areas while constricting them in others. "But there is some trepidation about the community charter," she told Nebbeling. "I know you have made changes and done a lot of work on it but I have no idea exactly what is in it... some of the areas that I hope you give consideration to are around process; rezoning; official community plan changes those types of things our ability to strike committees with the appropriate representation that we feel we need; stuff around in-camera meetings; freedom of information; revenue stuff and elections even around that there seems to be so many inconsistencies between the levels of government," noted Lonsdale.
"I guess one thing I would like to pass on to you is what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. I would hope that the new provincial government wouldnt be setting standards for local government that they are unwilling to accept themselves," she told Nebbeling. "I think that is key because that is where we are today."