British Columbia

Low pay, big issues: What it's like being a small town mayor in Metro Vancouver

"Inevitably, in a small community where you know everybody, you're going to disappoint people."

Lions Bay, Anmore, Belcarra and Bowen Island aren't in campaign season but expect a large turnout anyway

Lions Bay mayor Karl Buhr says their big city counterparts often see small town mayors as nothing more than 'well-meaning volunteers.' (Christer Waara/CBC)

"We're rubes. We're country cousins."

That, says outgoing Lions Bay Mayor Karl Buhr, is the biggest misconception leaders from Metro Vancouver's smaller municipalities face at regional meetings. 

"The average mayor thinks that because it's small, the only reason people would [run is] because they're a well-meaning volunteer."

Lions Bay, Anmore, Belcarra and Bowen Island all have populations less than 4,000 (Vancouver's is 630,000) and annual budgets less than $10 million (Vancouver's is $1.4 billion).

But like the other 17 municipalities in Metro Vancouver, they face the same issues of maintaining roads and sewers, being financially secure and building for the future.

And like the other municipalities, they face a large leadership turnover in the fall — only Anmore's John McEwen is running again. 

"It really is a tough sell to get people involved," said McEwen. 

"Inevitably, in a small community where you know everybody, you're going to disappoint people."

Small pay, big drama

Unlike most of the region, campaigns in those four municipalities haven't begun in earnest yet. McEwen doesn't have declared competition, while in Lions Bay, Anmore or Belcarra, nobody has publicly started their campaigns . 

McEwen, who created an informal working group of small town mayors, believes it's partly due to it being harder to recruit candidates because of the smaller compensation.

The mayors of the municipalities received between $13,000 and $25,000 in 2017 (the next lowest was Port Moody at $60,000), while councillors received between $6,000 and $13,000 (Port Moody was at $29,000). 

"You have to love your community quite a bit to put your hat forth," he said. 

McEwen said challenges with lower pay also extend to senior city staff. 

"We're kind of used as a training ladder before they move up to a bigger municipality, where they can offer bigger compensation. And our bigger municipal people aren't able to live in our communities, because they're so exclusive. It's a big challenge."

Buhr concurred and said another source of stress for elected officials was knowing the majority in their community directly. That, combined with election turnout rates typically double the percentage seen in the rest of the Lower Mainland, can create added tensions. 

"Common decency sometimes goes out the window, even with friends and neighbours" he said.

"I've learned two things in this job: the first is that you find out who your real friends are, and the second is, be very careful what you wish for." 

Talk things through

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, who is retiring this October after 35 years of mayor, said the only way to reduce small town political drama is to take advantage of the smaller population by talking things through. 

"Often, it's as much about making all the information available," he said.

"People react to rumours and things quickly, and if you don't correct that quickly … then you run the risk of being seen as high handed."

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew says when you're the mayor of a small town where everyone knows each other, it's about making all the information available to avoid being seen as 'high handed.'

And Drew said making information available was as important when talking to local citizens as it was with big city mayors.

"They'll listen to your comments, and if you manage to establish credibility, they will stop and listen," he said.

"I like to use the phrase, 'it's not the vote, it's the voice.' I have one vote out of 149 [on Metro Vancouver's board] but it's about being able to influence the thinking of others." 

Buhr agreed.

"It's not our spending power that's going to get us any influence. It's building our relationship with other municipalities."

Keys to the city

Whoever becomes the new mayors of Belcarra, Lions Bay and Bowen Island will face the same tensions: giving residents the services they expect, with a budget that's usually much smaller than the municipalities they moved away from.   

And Drew predicts they'll have growing pains. 

"Often, people who run, they somehow feel that they're going to change the world, and then they find out that no, you work within a framework, and there's only so much you can do to influence regional issues," he said.

The population and budget may be smaller than Vancouver and Surrey. But the level of complexity in getting bylaws passed and infrastructure changed is often exactly the same.

"People have some strange ideas as to what the authority and power of a mayor are," said Drew. 

"They figure you wave your hand and things happen."

CBC Vancouver is exploring the mayoral campaigns in each of Metro Vancouver's 21 municipalities leading up to civic elections on Oct. 20.

Read more from CBC British Columbia

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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