Electoral Area A: The strange B.C. byelection for a place with no local government
Winner will represent people in the most populated place in Canada without a mayor
Next month, there will be a byelection in Metro Vancouver.
The winner will sit on TransLink's Mayors' Council, the Metro Vancouver board, and will be the only directly-elected regional politician representing more than 15,000 people living at, or around, the University of British Columbia.
But people running for Electoral Area A director have a tough time describing the job to voters.
"Most people have no idea what it is. In fact, I didn't know until recently what it was," said Simon De Weert, a transit bus operator and one of five candidates in the race.
The byelection is scheduled for June 15, and was called after Justin Leblanc resigned just a couple of months into the position, citing a higher than expected workload.
Whoever wins won't just have a tough time explaining the position — they will also have difficulty exerting real influence in the most populated place in Canada without a directly elected government.
What is Electoral Area A?
The province has 27 regional governments, and people who don't live in a municipality elect directors to advocate for their interests and vote on certain infrastructure and land-use decisions.
In Metro Vancouver, Electoral Area A includes Barnston Island, on the Fraser River south of Pitt Meadows, the west side of Pitt Lake, and the area between West Vancouver and Lions Bay.
However, more than 98 per cent of Electoral Area A residents live in one area — the lands west of Blanca Street in Vancouver — overseen by a patchwork of community associations, unelected government officials, UBC's Board of Directors and the Musqueam First Nation.
People who live on campus belong to the University Neighbourhoods Association, paying a services levy to UBC and a rural tax to the provincial government. People who live between UBC and Blanca are part of the University Endowment Lands (UEL), and pay property taxes to the provincial government.
Low voter turnout
The director has just one vote on the Metro Vancouver and Mayors' Council board, and all of the lands UBC oversees have been exempt from municipal or regional oversight since 2010 — all while the university has approved more and more condos and mixed-use developments available on 99-year leases.
In short, it's a limited amount of oversight with no comparison in Canada, which might explain why voter turnout has always been among the lowest in B.C.
"It's definitely one of the most unique places I've come in contact with," said candidate Madison Moore, who has lived at UBC and vacationed at a Pitt Lake cabin for much of her life.
"Regional government is not as advertised as other areas and I'm not sure people fully understand that there is a regional government," she added — a somewhat ironic comment, coming from the daughter of longtime Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore.
Possible student representation
Moore is one of two candidates who are graduating from UBC this month, and both say it's important for the thousands of students that live in Electoral Area A most of the year to have a greater voice.
"A lot of times student voices are harder to get represented through politics, so I think it's good to have a recent graduate who understands the student voice," said Elizabeth Garvie, who just finished a year as the campaigns and engagement coordinator for UBC's student union.
At the same time, Garvie said she knew faculty, staff and community members would also benefit from having a greater regional voice.
"What I see a lot on our campus is a lot of different communities that have a really hard time knowing how to voice their concerns and their vision for the future," she said.
There have been few explicit promises or policy proposals made by any of the candidates, likely owing to the fact that the Electoral Area A director's ability to make changes is limited.
"We are already starting to see ... a greater push by residents to look into ways to to have a sense of governance," said candidate Jen McCutcheon, who secured the endorsement of former longtime director Maria Harris.
"It doesn't make sense long-term to have a large urban population like this not have governance, and have nobody really accountable for the land-use decisions."
However, there's been no desire by the province or university to reopen that contentious issue.
Which means the next director will have plenty on their plate — including upcoming discussions on a possible SkyTrain line to UBC — even if their voters don't fully understand their role.
"We do have a voice," said McCutcheon. "We don't have a voice in local government as a municipality. But we do have a voice in these things that really will shape our future."