The Metro Vancouver board is a taxpayer-funded playground for civic politicians to spend wildly, rake in extra pay and travel the globe.
So says Coquitlam Coun. Lou Sekora, who argues it’s time the mayors and councillors who serve as directors on the Metro board were more directly elected by local voters.
Metro directors are currently selected by each city council.
Their seat on the regional stage brings a higher profile, influence on key issues, travel to international conferences and an extra pay cheque typically worth around $15,000 a year.
But Coquitlam council will debate next month whether to leave the choice up to local voters, who would fill out a second ballot during civic elections on their Metro preferences.
The two elected council members who get the most votes on the Metro ballot would go to the regional board, Sekora said, with no chance for the mayor or majority on council to control the selection.
“It’s wrong,” Sekora said of the current method of appointments. “They’re not accountable to the taxpayers whatsoever.”
He calls it a patronage system where local mayors reward their supporters on council with Metro board seats and board chair Lois Jackson likewise dispenses favours with her appointments to committees.
“It’s money, money, money and spend, spend, spend. And appoint your own friends.”
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said the vote reform idea is worth considering – if it improves public confidence in the regional government.
“I don’t think the public has any idea where Metro Vancouver gets its authority or for that matter what Metro Vancouver does,” he said.
Stewart noted Sekora was once mayor and served on the Metro board without complaint then.
“He has seen both sides of it. I’m not going to second guess any motives he might have. But I don’t have any problem with having the discussion.”
Metro board members oversee the regional district’s $600-million budget, 84 per cent of which goes for water, sewage and garbage services for the region.
Metro-levied taxes and utility fees total about $513 a year for the average household.
But other directors argue it would be a mistake for Coquitlam or other cities to make their Metro seats directly elected.
“The issue is who you are representing,” said Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, a past regional board chair.
“If Metro is a federation of municipalities working to do things together that they can’t do on their own – sewer, garbage, water and those sorts of things – then I think it’s important that the people who are here represent their council and the wishes of their council.”
Making directors directly elected makes it possible for voters to send a populist councillor who tops the polls but might not have the majority support of council.
That could be a source of conflict and dysfunction between the region and local cities, Hunt said.
“To contemplate direct elections is to restructure the whole concept of regional governance, to make it a truly separate level of governance totally independent of municipalties,” added Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew.
“That would be a mistake. We have a good system. It’s worked well, notwithstanding some of its warts and wrinkles.”
Gordon Price, a former Vancouver councillor and Metro director who is now director of SFU’s City Program, also urged caution.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said.
Metro’s council-appointed directors are accountable in the sense their council can rescind their representative’s appointment midway through the term if they’re unhappy with the performance.
But a board populated by directors empowered by voters with no restraint from their home councils could turn into a monster.
It might seem more democratic, Price said, but it creates another level of government with much more potential for finger-pointing.
“It will eventually desire to expand its powers and it will come in conflict with the local level,” he said.
Reformers could instead try to amalgamate all 21 Metro’s municipalities into a single super city.
Price predicts most voters and politicians wouldn’t want that, fearing a loss of local autonomy.
The experience in Toronto and Montreal suggest the supposed benefits of a Metro amalgamation into a super city wouldn’t be worth the trauma, he said.
Even a limited amalgamation – say of the North Shore cities – might make sense geographically but would be “a drag out fight.”
Price believes the federation of cities method here has actually worked well even if it seems less democratic than a directly elected super city model.
“While you lose something in accountability, you gain something in the consensus building, sharing and knowledge that mayors get by sitting around the same regional table,” he said. “It may not be the case it’s so broken it needs to be fixed.”
Metro Vancouver isn’t the only big regional governing body run by a board that’s not directly elected.
TransLink’s board, overhauled by the provincial government in 2007, consists of appointed professionals who control spending of nearly $1.3 billion a year. The regional mayors’ council can only approve or reject proposed tax or levy increases to fund expansion.
The mayors also have final say on which directors are appointed to TransLink’s board, but only after candidates are vetted and short-listed by a screening panel controlled by business-oriented groups like the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council and Vancouver Board of Trade.
The Fraser Health board, appointed directly by the province, oversees a budget of $2.5 billion.
There is one directly elected representative on Metro’s board.
Maria Harris is the electoral area A director, serving unincorporated areas with no municipal council including Barnston Island, the UBC lands and parts of Howe Sound and Indian Arm.