Don't Give Municipalities More Power

November 1st, 2018 | R. Rados
municipal governments

Every city, town and municipality in Canada eventually ends up having the same conversation. Mayors and councillors across the country eventually get bored with their jobs. Setting property tax rates and passing a limited number of constitutionally acceptable bylaws is only so fulfilling before the need to have more power supersedes everything else. Municipalities are controlled and limited by provincial governments until they are given more power through “city charters” and amendments to their Municipality Acts, but these powers almost always end up getting abused. Municipal affairs are limited to the mundanity of tax and infrastructure issues—like when to fix a road and where to put a new stop sign—but some provinces have given their municipalities more control, which often includes the ability to create new taxes and implement overreaching new rules and regulations. Based on the evidence, there is absolutely no situation in which municipal governments could be trusted to restrain themselves and to act in the best interests of the people.

In 2013, Vancouver banned doorknobs in all new homes and construction projects. Just this summer, Vancouver banned plastic straws and foam take-out containers. In Calgary, city council is dabbling with reducing residential speed limits to 30kms per hour as a part of its ongoing war on cars, while the city continues to struggle with traffic congestion and a poorly designed infrastructure and road system. In Seattle, council increased minimum wage within its city limits—which had disastrous consequences.

Naheed Nenshi is one of many mayors in Canada that supports “big city charters”, which would allow cities to create new taxes and approve new projects and laws that would otherwise be under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. Naheed Nenshi is also the same guy who supports closed door meetings and less transparency. Nenshi is the same guy who ordered city councillors to remain hush about an expensive sexual harrassment claim which cost taxpayers $800,000 in settlements. He's the same guy who was furious when Calgarians found out about the true costs of an expensive Olympic bid. He's also the same guy who was given an expanse of new powers in late 2017 when Alberta's NDP government amended the province's Municipal Government Act.

Vancouver's Gregor Robertson was no fan of transparency either. Nor was he a fan of seeking the approval of taxpayers to spend nearly $500M to complete the 2010 Olympic Village, which is why he pressed the BC government to amend Vancouver's city charter to allow him and his council to bypass a plebiscite in 2009. The approval was granted and Bill 47 gave the city of Vancouver unlimited access to funding in order to finish what had already become a controversial black hole for taxpayers.

Now imagine giving these two mayors and their municipalities even more power.

When they aren't as compliant as the previous BC government, provincial governments are the only things stopping bored and megalomaniacal municipal governments from bankrupting us and making our lives more annoying. Take Toronto as an example. Doug Ford's controversial plan to slash the size of city council by more than half was one of the new PC government's most meaningful and effective actions. Rather than expanding municipalities and giving them more power, they should be cut down to size—like in Toronto.  

John Tory recently proposed banning all guns in Toronto. This isn't something that should fall under a municipal government's jurisdiction, but that hasn't stopped Tory and his councillors from trying. Despite the evidence and almost unanimous claim by experts that a gun ban would accomplish nothing, Tory and his councillors had a point to make just in time for an election. A useless gun ban in the wake of unprecedented gun violence seems like a smart political move, but it's one that shows how eager municipal politicians are to extend their reach and power.

Doug Ford's council cuts came at just the right time. Just as councillors and John Tory were ramping up their efforts to infringe on people's rights, the newly minted PC government cut their size and reach. This could, of course, make it easier to pass a gun ban by reducing the opposition and bureaucracy, but it also minimizes the presence of a bloated council looking to introduce more selfish political initiatives.

In places like Alberta, when small towns become cities, mayors and councillors are given more responsibility and power. An example is the “town” of Cochrane, just outside Calgary, which has officially reached its population capacity to be officially designated a “city”. This requires a request by council and approval by the provincial government—which hasn't happened yet, for good reason.

People are quick to get excited about having their towns officially promoted to cities, but the new powers and responsibilities that come with it have a downside. Most of it is a matter of opinion, but the downside of becoming a city means that councillors and mayors have more control over infrastructure and funding. In Alberta, towns have to wrangle with provincial governments for infrastructure upgrades and funding when it comes to major roadways and arteries that are under provincial jurisdiction. When towns become cities, many of those roadways become the jurisdiction of the new cities and their governments. This sounds good, but it eliminates what can be considered a rational second opinion or sober second thought on certain projects and upgrades.

Think about municipal governments like the ones described here. From doorknob bans to secret closed-door meetings, it's almost impossible to believe that expensive projects and upgrades wouldn't be corrupted or mismanaged in some way.

Municipal governments are incompetent and ridiculous by nature. This could have to do with the limited scope of municipal affairs and councillors and mayors simply getting bored with their duties, or it could have to do with councillors and mayors generally having less management experience, civil service experience and education than politicians on a provincial and federal level. Most municipal politicians end up being ordinary citizens, from bus drivers to stay-at-home moms. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when entire councils are made up of people with limited knowledge and experience, it can be disastrous.

Take a look at any municipal government in North America and you'll see abuses of power, incompetence and overreach unlike anything you'll see in other layers of government. Another problem exists with voter engagement. Municipal elections have historically low turnouts across the world, not just in North America. When it comes to municipal politics, voters don't care. People simply don't care about municipal politics until they get stuck in traffic or have a sports stadium built in their backyards. Even then, the rage eventually dissipates and people forget to vote.

For these reasons, the scope and power of municipal governments needs to be reduced, not expanded.

Every council and legislature suffers with incompetence and every council and legislature should have at least a few ordinary people as members, but there are benefits to having a healthy mixture of ideas, skills and abilities. When it comes to these things, municipal governments get a far worse grade than provincial and federal governments. Fewer people vote in municipal elections, councils are often made up of inexperienced know-nothings, and municipal affairs can get too boring for everyone. All of these things combine to create an environment that's ripe for corruption, complacency and incompetence.

Having to wrangle with provincial governments to approve upgrades and expensive vanity projects is a good thing when municipal governments are known to abuse their power, misspend their money and mismanage projects. Requiring provincial approval is a good thing when a majority of residents don't vote to elect their municipal governments and when the same corrupt, lazy and incompetent councillors and mayors get re-elected by default because of low turnout and engagement. Provincial oversight is a good thing when dealing with municipal governments like Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver.

For those of you that skimmed to this part because this looked like it was too much to read, let me summarize why municipal governments should not be given more power and influence.

Municipal Affairs Are Boring

Everyone gets bored with municipal politics, including councillors and mayors. Voter engagement is so low in municipal elections that it could almost be considered undemocratic to allow mayors and councillors to make important decisions without the oversight of a provincial government that was elected with higher voter turnout.

When councillors and mayors get bored, they start looking for things to fix. They're like stay-at-home dads who get bored while the kids are napping, so they look for things to take apart and put back together. They look for problems where there aren't any.

When voters are bored, the same councillors and mayors get re-elected by default. All of this combines to create a situation that is ripe for corruption, complacency and incompetence.

Municipal Governments Make Bad Decisions

The evidence is clear, no matter which municipal government you look at in North America. All of these bad decisions relate to the first point above. Low turnout and boredom breed stupidity, complacency and incompetence.

Vancouver banned doorknobs and plastic straws. Calgary tried to ban trans-fats. San Francisco debated banning happy meals. Seattle increased minimum wage. Saskatoon tried banning public gossip and something called “rumour-mongering”. Winnipeg banned pitbulls.

Do I really need to go on?

They Don't Need More Power

Face it. Canadians don't need a third layer of government with overreaching powers. Our own provincial and federal governments have done enough harm on their own. Municipal governments are slightly less competent than higher levels of government, their leaders are less educated and experienced, they have a long history of making stupid decisions and abusing their powers, and voter engagement in municipal elections is so low that it should disqualify most councillors and mayors from making big decisions at the taxpayers' expense.

The evidence is clear. Municipal governments should be limited, not emboldened. As soon as we hear provincial candidates and leaders promising to give our big city mayors “more control”, we should turn the other way. Delegating more decisions to groups of less educated and less democratic people shouldn't be something we encourage.