BOOTH: Extra year on municipal terms won’t serve voters well

They say politicians and diapers need to be changed often – for the same reason.

The, um, desire is a noble sentiment, but it isn’t always workable on the political side of the dirty business.

Minority governments make change inevitable while other political leaders call snap elections just to take advantage of favourable polling conditions.

On the other side of the coin, embattled governments often cling to power until the last possible moment in hopes of an electoral miracle. They’re on the road to electoral ruin and know it, yet are reluctant to cede their grip on the reins of power.

In recent years, the idea of fixed-term elections has taken hold in Canada. At the federal level, we remain at the mercy of the whims of the Prime Minister for electoral dates, although the next federal vote – barring another outbreak of scandal – will tentatively take place October 19, 2015. In the provincial and municipal realms, fixed electoral terms are more the rule than the exception. In British Columbia, we know the next provincial election will take place on May 9, 2017 – it’s a done deal.

Municipally, nine of the 10 provinces in Canada hold civic elections every four years. The lone exception: British Columbia. That status, however, may be changing. Last week, the Liberal government in Victoria introduced legislation that will extend the elected terms of municipal officials to four years. Like it or not, the politicians in this province are here for the long haul.

The idea of longer electoral terms for mayors and councillors is appealing, at least on the surface. With elected officials on board for four years, communities will have more continuity in leadership and can address long-term issues more effectively than the current situation.

On the outset, this is somewhat of a specious argument. Most of the heavy lifting at the municipal level is done by city staff – professionals hired by the municipality and who do their jobs regardless of who is sitting around the council chambers. Hire the wrong people and the business of city hall will not function smoothly, regardless of whose mug is plastered on the mayor’s official portrait.

Another point in the favour of the four-year terms is the notion that such a system is more cost-effective. Longer terms mean less frequent elections, which in turn saves the community money.

Perhaps this would be true if the federal, provincial and municipal terms were all synched up on the same dates. In this happy blue-sky world, voters would hit the

polls on the same day once every fours years and elect their federal, provincial and municipal governments.

Back in the real world, however, municipal suits go to the polls this November, the federal hopefuls will hit the hustings in 2015 and the provincial representatives will be determined in the spring of 2017. That’s kind of a disconnect, no? Municipal politics are seen as a vaudevillian stepping stone for future positions in the provincial and federal theatres. An ambitious civic official who wants to take his/her act to Ottawa or Victoria would have to do so when the electoral opportunity arose, which would mean abandoning their civic post midterm.

That means by-elections at the municipal level, and those costs can add up quickly. (Not only that, but referendums on important issues affecting the city would inevitably be pushed back a year just so they can piggyback on the municipal elections instead of holding a costly by-election.) At the other end of the spectrum, knowing municipal politics is a way for aspiring suits to cut their teeth in public office means some are cut out for the job while others, well, not so much.

Adding another automatic year to the terms of councillors means the disillusioned and disinterested will be sleepwalking through the final 12 months of their public commitment instead of being replaced by more ambitious and capable new blood.

In other words, the best councillors and mayors may bail before the end of their terms while the deadweights are forced to stick around for another year.

Probably the worst scenario would be if a single political party was to sweep all of the councillor positions and the mayor’s chair, leaving the city with four consecutive years of decision-making without any rigorous opposition.

Is that good for democracy? Could that city’s residents count on fair representation of all the disparate views in the community by council? What if the party ruling unopposed now had four years to run the city carte blanche and impose its will instead of three? Can you imagine if that happened in a city like Surrey? Oh wait…

Michael Booth can be reached at mbooth@thenownewspaper.com