Premier Gordon Campbell and his cabinet hit the ground running on June 5, after he promised to implement many of the Liberal Partys campaign promises within the first 90 days of office.
One of those promises was to introduce new Community Charter legislation that will give local governments more power over their future than they had under the soon-to-be defunct Local Government Act.
That job will fall on the shoulders of Ted Nebbeling, the MLA for West Vancouver-Garibaldi, a former mayor of Whistler and the first Minister of State for Community Charter.
"I started to work on this three years ago by basically writing a whole new Act, and now its going to be called a charter the reason is that with a charter system, local governments not only get empowerment, they also have the ability to add new elements to the charter," said Nebbeling.
"They can add new elements that are very specific for their community in order to tap into opportunities, whether they are financial opportunities or business opportunities."
According to Nebbeling, the current Local Government Act, "a big fat document of 1,130 sections" is too restrictive, and compels municipalities to take on certain responsibilities "without any financial consequences or financial support. For local government that has been a thorn in their side."
Nebbelings experiences dealing with the provincial government as the mayor of Whistler motivated him to look at ways that the working relationship between local governments and the province could be improved. Local governments are closer to the people, and yet their power to make decisions on issues that are of importance to the community were hampered by the Local Government Act.
"Under the existing Local Government Act, anything of that nature had to be approved by Victoria," said Nebbeling. "Not only was it a very time consuming process, but often the government would not allow it, a proposal by a single community. The standard answer was that if we allow you to do this, then other communities should have the right to do it, too."
Whistler and the City of Vancouver are the only local governments in B.C. to have political powers above and beyond what is allowed under the Local Government Act.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler Act, which Nebbeling says is a kind of charter, allowed Whistler to establish the Whistler Resort Association. "We were the only community for a long time that had a marketing organization that had taxation powers over its members, and Whistler had the authority under the Municipal Act to set aside a certain area where that particular taxation would apply and that was the village," Nebbeling said.
Vancouvers charter "which has been the envy of every mayor and council in the province" gave the city broader control over land use and zoning than any other community in the province.
"Rather than trying to say that maybe we should bring Whistler and Vancouver in line with what other communities can do, I took the position that we should allow every community to have a charter, and make up their own minds."
Although the NDP introduced amendments to the Local Government Act that gave more powers to local governments, the reforms did not go far enough. In a speech to the SLRD last November, Nebbeling said that all the amendments did was extend the leash that could be snapped back at any time.
Two years ago, sensing that local government reform had lost steam and that the Liberal Party would win the next election Nebbeling started to work on the legal document with municipal lawyers and administrators. "Because the NDP amendments had elements that were in the Liberal Partys platform in 1995, we worked on the charter document, which contains just over 200 sections, in secret.
"The product is ready. It has been discussed a lot over the last five or six years but it took a victory by the Liberal Party to have the opportunity to bring it into the house," he said. "It is a charter that reflects that we are living in the year 2001."
The Community Charter will be introduced in the near future, and will be followed by the first and second readings in the legislature. Nebbeling and others who are familiar with the charter, will then travel the province, present it to local governments and collect their feedback. He hopes to give it a final reading and have a vote on the final draft by January, 2002.
After that point, local governments can begin to make their own laws and policies in the areas that will be under their jurisdiction. The provincial government wont be able to offload costs on municipal governments, and local governments will have more autonomy and better planning tools to reduce pressure on property taxes.
The specifics will be announced when the charter is introduced within the next 90 days.
"The basic charter gives communities certain powers. Then they can say, under this particular power, we would like to do the following. They can then come with that suggestion to a board that is made up of municipal representation and some government representation, and the board will look to see if that request will have a negative impact on an adjacent community. If not it will most likely go forward," said Nebbeling.
Although there will be challenges for communities and regional districts, Nebbeling believes that the charter is the way of the future. "The interesting thing about putting this together is that there is not an existing example anywhere in the world to this day that has gone as broad, and as a consequence of that, other jurisdictions will be watching us closely. We started from scratch."