Community Charter tabled in Victoria 

Document will replace Local Government Act, grants more powers to municipalities

The Liberal government’s Community Charter cleared the first hurdle on its way to becoming law on Tuesday, as Ted Nebbeling, the Minister of State for the Community Charter, introduced the legislation for first reading.

If all goes well, Bill 14 should pass its third reading within the next month, but won’t become law until the province has had about six months to meet with municipal governments and bring them up to speed.

"This is a new concept for B.C. and for Canada," said Nebbeling. "It will take time for everyone to understand how it will work, the impact it will have, and the new powers and autonomy local governments will have."

Nebbeling and staff have worked on the Community Charter for the past 18 months, meeting with various community stakeholders and the Union of B.C. Municipalities on a regular basis.

The Charter doesn’t deliver two of Whistler’s most sought after concessions – financial tools, to create a resort or other tax, and jurisdiction over the surrounding environment where Whistler’s interests were at stake. Instead, Nebbeling says the financial tools are part of a finance bill that will be released in the fall, and the environmental tools will be released in another charter for regional district governments.

The bill does deliver a greater level of autonomy to local governments to make decisions and enact bylaws without involving the provincial government.

"The sections that pertain to the powers are my biggest pride," says Nebbeling. "They really empower local governments to deal with areas of municipal law that up until now were totally dictated by Victoria. This is what the governments were asking for, and it’s the biggest departure from the relationship between municipalities and the government we have seen in 150 years."

Among the benefits of the Charter are:

• New Provincial and Local Government Relations – the community charter transfers provincial authority to municipal councils who best reflect the wishes of citizens, and municipalities will no longer need provincial approval for many decisions, such as road closures. The province will continue to have authority over the economy, environment, wildlife and public health.

• Greater Autonomy to Meet Community Needs – Municipalities will have more power over bylaws and regulations, public activities, road closures, animals, trees, and nuisances.

• Building a Stronger Economy – The charter cuts red tape for municipalities and the provincial government in decision making, and gives municipalities the tools to develop public-private partnerships. Municipalities will also have more powers to negotiate land development and use of open spaces.

• Greater Accountability – More municipal powers are tempered by more public accountability as councils are required to promote public participation in decision making. The Charter also requires mandatory annual reports and public meetings, and councils can solve issues by referendum or alternative process. In addition, the Charter holds council members and municipal officials to new ethical requirements.

• Protection Against Downloading – More powers shouldn’t mean higher costs. The provision against downloading protects municipal government by guaranteeing the resources to go with new responsibilities.

According to Nebbeling, the Charter places a lot of emphasis on removing hurdles that prevent local governments from working with local governments to find common solutions.

For example towns like Squamish and Pemberton will benefit from a provision in the Charter that allows local governments to maintain assessments for businesses that renovate and improve their properties.

"When a local business spends $50,000 on their property, the value goes up and the government is going to tax more. Now the municipal government can waive property taxes on the added value," says Nebbeling.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities supports the Charter, having worked to reform the Local Government Act, which has more than 1,130 sections, for the past decade.

"The introduction of the Community Charter is a milestone in local-provincial relations," says UBCM president Patricia Wallace. "The charter establishes a modern constitution for local governments that will allow them to respond effectively to the needs of their communities."

A copy of the charter is available on the B.C. government Web site at http://www.mcaws.gov.bc.ca/charter/.

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