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COMMENT: Local councils are not fiefdoms

Small town B.C. may be facing a plague of what disgraced former U.S. vice president Spiro Agnew called the nattering nabobs of negativity or at least that's what a number of B.C. mayors and their allies would have you believe.

The crime these nattering nabobs have committed? Having the temerity to challenge council gospel.

In one town the local mayor accused those who opposed plans for a new sewage treatment plant as behaving like bullies, in another the chief administrative officer referred to his critics as “a cancer.”

Someone else took issue with a newspaper column critical of the local mayor and inquired through a letter to the editor as to “What are her sources? Are they my neighbours, your neighbours?”

Some of it reeks of McCarthyism, some amateur hour.

One B.C. mayor went so far as to criticize local citizens for contacting the media and province-wide watchdog groups (including IntegrityBC), while falsely claiming that no one in his administration would ever stoop to such a dastardly deed.

Blissfully ignoring the fact that his chief administrative officer was given free rein to attack local ratepayers on CBC Radio.

Pick-up many of B.C.'s community newspapers and chances are you'll see these fights playing out in the letters to the editor section, if not on the front page. Sometimes those same papers find themselves drawn into the brawls through no fault of their own.

Trace the origins of many of these civic street fights and the common denominator seems to be what the Captain said in Cool Hand Luke: “What we've got here is a failure to communicate.”

It's as though “you can't fight city hall” is giving way to “you can't criticize city hall” and that's not a good omen for local democracy.

While some town councils are finding innovative ways to engage their citizens online, in town halls, and through creative advertising; others are hiding behind closed doors, barring citizens from critical decisions that effect their community's future.

Something is seriously amiss when Central Saanich meets in camera more often than the City of Toronto. Chances are most local councils across B.C. are in the same boat. And what's getting decided behind those doors isn't small potatoes.

White Rock ratepayers woke up one morning to learn that their council had decided to purchase the municipality's water system from the City of Edmonton-owned Epcor, even though the system isn't for sale and no one is saying what it might cost if Epcor was willing to sell it.

The report council based its decision on must be stamped “Top Secret,” because outside of a select few no one else has seen it. Councillors allegedly don't even have a copy.

In a tongue-in-cheek series of newspaper columns – 13 Ways To Kill Your Community – Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths wrote: “the seventh of thirteen things that you can do to ensure that your community fails and dies is to refuse to meaningfully cooperate with other organizations, businesses, agencies, boards or communities.”

Griffiths could have easily added ratepayers to that list, because election to local office doesn't come with a blank cheque. Democracy doesn't end when the polls close. To succeed you need buy-in.

And when two out of three voters stayed at home in the last civic elections, councils should be encouraging citizen involvement instead of trying to snuff it out.

Consider that in 2011, Prince George mayor Shari Green was elected by 13 per cent of all registered voters, Kelowna's mayor Walter Gray by 15 per cent of voters, and Nanaimo's mayor John Ruttan by 14 per cent.

With local elections a little over a year away maybe it's time to hit pause on the vitriol, because there's something to be said for civility.

In his new book, The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency, McGill University professor John A. Hall explains that civility is the glue that holds society together.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Hall went on to explain that: “Talking is crucial because, if you talk, you make people more reasonable. Civility on the part of government is absolutely vital.”

Hall's book should be required reading for local councils and every candidate before next year's local elections.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.