British Columbia

'A disturbing trend': over a dozen B.C. mayors and councillors have resigned in the last 2 years

A long-time city manager and local government advisor says British Columbians need to take a look at why so many of their local leaders are resigning.

Long hours, low pay and increased complexity cited

In 2016, Burns Lake mayor Luke Strimbold resigned, citing a need to focus on business and educational opportunities and spend time with family. Strimbold is one of over a dozen local government leaders to step down in B.C. over the past two years. (Village of Burns Lake)

The resignations of over a dozen mayors and councillors in British Columbia over the past two years is "a disturbing trend," according to a veteran of municipal politics.

"It hasn't been a normal practice," said Jerry Berry, who spent 22 years as city manager for Nanaimo and now works as a local government consultant and instructor at Capilano University.

"I don't think I've seen it with any frequency until this term, so it is a disturbing trend."

Four of five councillors in the Village of McBride resigned before serving half of their four-year terms. (Google Maps)

Aside from the time and money that has to be spent on running byelections, Berry said losing politicians mid-term has larger consequences for the communities they serve.

"You lose diversity from the community. You lose those values that they're representing," he said. "There's a lot of uncertainty that makes it difficult to carry on."

Speaking to CBC Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk, Berry outlined the challenges he sees facing mayors and councillors in the province.

Challenge 1: time 

Berry said one of the hardest parts of working in local politics is the time commitment needed to do the job.

Aside from attending council meetings, which can be lengthy in themselves, officials are expected to be members of committees, read budget reports and generally be available to the public.

"There's a vast requirement on people's time and I think that's one of the major issues," Berry said, especially in small communities. You're under scrutiny 24/7, really."

Challenge 2: money

Adding to the challenge of time is the fact many of these positions come with relatively little pay — making them, essentially, volunteer jobs, Berry said.

Prince George city councillor Jillian Merrick has also identified the financial challenges of working in local government.

"A lot of people think that most politicians are pretty flush with cash," she said. "But the reality is that the annual salary for a Prince George city councillor is $31,000 and that job is my primary income."

Merrick started a financial planning support group to help manage her money, but others have found the pay is simply not enough to keep them in government.

In Port Clements, where two councillors are resigning, the annual stipend is just $3,000.

"I'm a full-time teacher, I have two young kids, and the commitments become a little overwhelming," outgoing councillor Christine Cunningham told the Haida Gwaii Observerwhile Matthew Gaspar said he needed to focus on his career outside of council.

Challenge 3: complexity

Finally, Berry said the job of being a local government leader has become increasingly complex as cities and towns pick up more and more responsibilities that used to belong to the provincial and federal governments.

Chief among those challenges is dealing with aging infrastructure, but Berry said "soft issues" like low-income housing are increasingly being downloaded as well.

"North American communities haven't really paid their way since World War II in terms of keeping up with infrastructure demands," Berry said. "They're doing a whole gamut of services that they weren't designed to do, nor is the property tax system designed to pay for [them]."

"The system is set up to fail."

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To hear the full interview with Berry click on the audio labeled 'Why are so many small-town B.C. city councillours resigning?'