The Discourse crash course: Municipal politics 101

The Discourse tackles the municipal politics questions you were too embarrassed to ask.
The front of city hall is burned.
In many B.C. communities, less than half of eligible voters participated in the 2018 municipal elections. Photo by Jesse Winter/The Discourse

It’s municipal election time, that election you might be too embarrassed to admit you really know nothing about. On average, 35.6 per cent of eligible voters had their say in the 2018 local elections,  which is unfortunate, according to Alistair King, who leads social studies education in Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools (SD68). 

“Most people don’t consider just how directly they’re connected to city governments,” he says. “We drink water every day, toss our garbage and recycle, [take a] bath, travel on our streets, use parks,  rely on street lights. We’ve come to expect the city to keep up with maintenance, but we fail to see the importance of electing good government.”

For those of you going, “Hehe, I don’t drink water every day,” I’d like to remind you that iced coffee has liquid and solid water in it. 

So what exactly do local politicians have control over, and just how do their actions affect you day-to-day? 

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With the help of King’s Grade 10 elections curriculum, here’s your chance to get that A or C+ you wish you earned. Cs get degrees, folks.

What do local governments actually do?

There are three main branches of government you’ll interact with just about every day, federal, provincial and municipal. 

Federal governments are in charge of things like railways, telephone infrastructure, fisheries and criminal law.  Provincial governments are in charge of health care, education, and natural resources like forests. Local governments — which, by the way, can be called municipalities, cities, towns, districts, etc. — manage community water and sewage systems, emergency services like fire fighting and community services such as libraries and street cleanup.   

These levels of government also share responsibilities. For instance, all levels of government have a hand in housing. 

Municipal spending largely comes from property taxes. While municipalities hold significant assets in property, they are limited in the ways they can borrow money.  This means local governments rely on grants from other levels of government to fully fund things like housing developments and the infrastructure around them. 

When it comes to land, local governments also rely on negotiations with First Nations. Even though municipalities have a legal obligation to work alongside First Nations as partners, the level of engagement varies widely between communities. 

When it comes to planning out where and how housing development takes shape, that’s where local politicians take the lead. “There are extremely important things happening at the municipal level, not the least of which is zoning and planning,” King explains. 

“We rail against the federal government for not doing enough or doing too much on climate change, the housing crisis or crime. But a lot of the hard work falls on municipalities — that’s RCMP funding, bike lanes, density, housing.”

The climate crisis is another big issue on voters’ minds, and municipalities have a role to play.  Federal governments can sign international agreements and set overall targets, while both provincial and federal governments can collect carbon taxes and regulate certain emissions

Our next mayor and council won’t be drafting carbon taxes, but they will be developing plans that affect how many people live in a certain area. Increased density can mean more cars, thus more emissions. But density planning can create mixed-use neighborhoods where people walk or bike to get what they need. 

Another key area municipalities regulate that can combat the climate crisis? Municipal green spaces. Not only do these green spaces provide public spaces to gather, but they also support the non-human residents of our communities while mitigating the effects of warmer temperatures and floods. 

Now, what about crime?  The federal government determines what’s a crime. These laws are enforced, in many regions, by the RCMP. In regions without a municipal police force, local governments have contracts with the RCMP to deliver policing services. These contracts eat up a big part of a city’s overall budget, usually around 15 per cent, and are made up almost entirely of officer wages. Typically the RCMP delivers a budget to council that explains what it needs, and council approves it. When a local government and a police force disagree, it can get complicated.

What is the role of mayor, councillor and staff?

The mayor is not king of the city, much as your local parades might infer. Mayors have the same voting power as everyone else. Their distinction is being the leader of the group. On behalf of council, the mayor will attend ceremonies, communicate with the public, chair council meetings and make sure council decisions are implemented. 

The mayor represents the council, and the council represents the voters. Council members are responsible for considering the well-being and interests of the municipality. That involves bringing motions to council meetings, researching solutions and policies that can be implemented in their region, and carrying out duties the council assigns, like heading various committees. 

Municipal staff are the individuals hired by the city to put decisions in motion. There’s usually a chief administrative officer or city manager who is in charge of overall services as well as staff. While you don’t vote for them, they are hired by individuals voted into power and ensure the city has the expertise to operate efficiently.

What are the powers of local governments?

So, now that we’ve got a slight idea of what responsibilities municipalities have, how can they go about managing it all? Let’s have a quick look at bylaws and budgets. Budgets are set by council each year to determine exactly how much money they will collect from taxpayers and other levels of government, and how they will spend it for the year. 

Bylaws have the unfortunate task of representing nearly every municipal decision made. While this can include intense matters such as Fire Protection And Life Safety Regulation Bylaw No. 7108, it does also include the less exciting bylaw Council Procedure Bylaw 2018 No. 7272. Bylaws can do everything from limiting how people use parks, to controlling the use of political campaign signs to banning fossil fuels for heating buildings. 

Bylaws need to be drafted and approved by members of council. Some decisions, usually related to borrowing money, also require approval by the province which, by the way, is effectively a municipality’s parent

Most local governments make long-term decisions in the form of official community plans, which shape community growth and determine how land can be used in certain areas. These are usually revisited every decade or so, and the public is invited to engage in the process.

City staff then take these bylaws, plans and other directives from council and put them into practice. They also weigh in with advice and recommendations as bylaws are passed. 

While municipal councils keep the adoption of bylaws open to as much public input as possible, bylaws need three readings before a vote of adoption, so it can be hard for the general public to follow closely. This is why we choose representatives to act on our behalf. 

“These folks are going to be directing the city bureaucracy for four years,” King says.  “How do you choose the right person?”

Well, isn’t that the million-dollar question.

What makes a good candidate?

Local government, no matter the size, is a complex operation. As soon as you start having to plan out what sewer line will run alongside what underground power line, that’s too much for someone to single-handedly take on. So, we rely on teamwork. You, the elector, leave it to your council or board to govern together in the best interests of your community.

“Democracy is about having a diversity of views,” the provincial government reminds us in a guide for prospective candidates. While that might lead to some inter-office conflict come pizza lunchtime (does pineapple go on pizza?), when they are back on duty, elected officials are expected to come up with solutions even when they don’t agree. 

Elected representatives must show up having done their homework (lots of reading!) to make informed decisions. Just like in high school, if you skip out one too many times, you won’t be around for much longer.  As the province explains, an elected official who misses out on 60 consecutive days or four consecutive meetings (unless given permission) could be disqualified from office.

Thankfully, democratic meetings have their own user manual: Robert’s Rules of Order, an 1876 publication from Henry Martyn Robert. While I’m not a fan of keeping a how-to manual for that long, these rules help define things like when to speak, how to present ideas or actions to discuss as a group (known as a motion)  and how to respectfully disagree with other members of council.

In any democracy, ethical conduct is key.  Scandals like the spending spree within Thompson-Nicola Regional District remind us that we should prioritize ethical behaviour from the get-go. The provincial government has guidelines for ethical conduct, and municipalities may create their own. These are integrity, accountability, respect and leadership and collaboration.

What is the role of a school board and school trustees?

While the province is in charge of education, school boards oversee the activities of local schools. They set priorities, like reconciliation, and draft budgets within the overall framework and with the money provided by the province. They may, for example, set rules around corporate sponsorships or surveillance.

You can play a part in how provincial policies are implemented at the local level by voting for school board trustees in your school district. Trustees serve on a school board with a mandate to improve learning for all students in the best interests of the communities they serve. While not everyone in a municipality has a kid, youth within municipalities will most likely grow to be future voters and candidates.

And, if I might get a little less fun, what students learn in schools will help determine how they participate in democracy. LGBTQ2S+ students who grow up in unsupportive communities, for instance, have a higher chance of experiencing mental illness, and many report leaving these communities that desperately need their voices and leadership. 

In recent years, school board elections have become a battleground as some candidates take issue with school curriculum on issues like sexual education, which provides students with language around puberty, sexual health and gender identity and expression. 

However, contrary to some of the rhetoric you may read online, school trustees work under the direction of the province, and the ministry of education sets overall learning goals. Trustees do not have the power to rewrite school curricula, although they do have the power to approve local course materials for use in the district. Board decisions must comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other laws in Canada, which apply to all people including children, and protect rights like freedom of expression and privacy.

What about regional districts? 

Picture a sunny-side-up egg, with a golden center and perfect whites. Your city is the yellow, the regional district all the white around it.  

Regional districts support the needs of people living in towns and communities surrounding larger municipalities.

To ensure each section of the egg white — bear with me — is represented fairly, voters elect a director for each district within the regional district area. If you live within the egg yolk, a municipality, your council will appoint elected representatives to sit on the regional district board to represent your needs. In some cases First Nations appoint representatives, too.

Together regional district directors assess what corporate or municipal partnerships are needed for services such as solid waste management, transportation, water and sewer, and emergency services. They also make their own long-term plans for things like growth, housing, climate change mitigation and stormwater management.

How can I engage with my local government?

So, what comes next? To figure out who is running in your area and how you might get in contact with them, check out our elections page for your local election guide. 

Once the votes are tallied, how do you keep tabs on what your local candidates promised? 

Civic Info BC provides information on your local representatives, municipal staff and regional district directors throughout the province. 

Local governments have to announce when various meetings take place in advance so you can see what is being discussed and what will be decided on. In most cases, you can apply to appear as a delegation where you can raise questions or concerns.

When committee or general meetings take place, local governments have to update their constituents (that’s you!) in the form of minutes. You can usually find these on your local government’s website. Many municipalities also have newsletters to deliver information. You can also usually find other information like building permits, zoning records, payroll and contracts with vendors, like garbage disposal.

I’ll admit, our democracy isn’t quite as easy to manage as ancient Athens, where the few who could vote got to hang out in an amphitheater and yell at each other. But it’s leagues more representative. And that starts with knowing how you can have a say in this complex system.

Speaking of flaws, if I show this guide to my old social studies teachers, you think they might bump up those junior high grades?

Editor’s Note Oct. 6, 2022: A previous version of this article stated 42 per cent of eligible voters participated in the 2018 local elections. In fact, this figure is 35.6 per cent for municipalities and even lower for regional districts, according to Civic Info BC.

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