Afterthoughts for current and past politicians

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC shares his thoughts on this week's local government elections.

by Dermod Travis

Saturday was a good day for local democracy in B.C. As one person noted online: “First time in my life I’ve had to wait to vote in a local election….What the hell is going on?”

What was going on was that voters were coming out of the woodwork by the thousands in towns and cities across B.C. and it seems that those who skipped 2011 had one thing on their mind this time.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson saw his vote go up by 6,524 over 2011, but the overall number of voters went up by 36,884. Turnout increased in Victoria by 7,416 voters, but despite that outgoing Mayor Dean Fortin saw his support drop by 969 votes from 2011.

So while Saturday was a good day for democracy, it wasn’t such a good night for incumbent mayors. In addition to Fortin, mayors went down to defeat in cities across the province, including Nanaimo, Saanich, New Westminster, Mission, Quesnel, Summerland, Sechelt and Lillooet.

If the mayors of Sechelt and Lillooet are still puzzled over why they were trounced, it may have a little something to do with turning an incredibly deaf ear to local citizen input. Ditto for Summerland. New councils: take note.

And there were mayors who astutely put their finger to the wind and decided that greener pastures may lie elsewhere. Prince George, Surrey, Kelowna and Penticton are just four of the cities where incumbents bowed out gracefully before nominations closed.

At least two former MLAs found gainful employment: former Liberal MLA Randy Hawes is the new mayor of Mission and former independent MLA Bob Simpson is the new mayor of Quesnel.

The day wasn’t without its snafus. Some polling stations in Vancouver ran out of ballots. In Victoria, one polling station briefly handed out the wrong ballot and in Surrey the ballot for the advanced polls left off the party name of two candidates.

And there was that bizarre ban on social media. Some candidates claim they only learned about it in the days leading up to the election when Elections BC told them that social media was strictly verboten on Saturday, even a message as innocuous as “vote.”

So just to get this straight: candidates are free to phone voters or knock on their door to get them out to vote, but not tweet them or post to their Facebook page. The powers that be do know it’s 2014, don’t they?

What’s luck got to do with some of Saturday’s results? In Vision Vancouver’s case, a lot.

The party ran a far from flawless campaign. Whether it was the stick handling over Gregor Robertson’s separation from his wife, the letter from Wall Financial Corporation “encouraging” their employees to vote for Robertson or that lawsuit they filed against the NPA, party activists should be thanking their lucky stars they got out of Saturday with what they did.

The flip side is that Vancouver has a more balanced council, school board and parks board. Monolithic slates weren’t the order of the day in other communities as well. That’s a good thing for local governance.

In the “it’s time to bone up on privacy legislation file,” provincial and federal political parties would be well-advised to remember that a voters list is not a library book. You can’t loan them out to candidates or companies.

Tip of the hat to parties in Vancouver and candidates in Port Moody for disclosing their donor lists before the vote. Everyone else in B.C. gets to find out in three months, ironically on Friday the 13th. And to the City of Coquitlam for putting together an election kit as an inexpensive way for candidates to get their flyers to all 50,000 homes in the city.

Elections also offer councils a chance to turnover a new leaf with citizens. In some communities that’s not a bad idea.

Here’s three ways to start: drastically cut down on the number of in camera meetings you hold, dramatically increase the number of freedom of information requests you approve and stop suing local citizens for libel if they don’t like you or agree with you.

If Saturday was a good day for democracy, imagine how much better it would be if it was on, say, a Monday in 2018? B.C. is one of only three provinces to hold civic elections on the weekend. The other seven might be on to something.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.