What they were thinking?: Metro Vancouver politicians show the perils of setting your own salary
Money is always a thorny issue, but the current controversy shows why independent commissions are useful
It took Greg Moore, the chair of Metro Vancouver, six days to go from defending his board approving retroactive retirement allowances for themselves to admitting it was wrong.
"I think one of the things I've already prided myself on is listening to our citizens on every topic we deal with," he said, explaining why, at the end of this month, Metro Vancouver board members will vote on cancelling their decision to disperse about $500,000 in "retirement allowances" to mayors and councillors currently on the board.
To Moore, it's a case of the system working: getting public feedback and changing policy as a result.
But it's also a case of looking at the real issue of recruiting people in mid-career to run for office and failing because of poor communication and self-interest.
"I think we need to have a broader base, more representation of what our community looks like at our council tables and Metro board," said Moore, defending the principle of the raise.
"Part of that is how do we attract people in their mid-career … to leave that career, come serve in local government and then go back to their career."
'Never surprise the taxpayers'
Moore spent less time addressing two questions: first, why the new allowance couldn't have been implemented for future board members and not retroactively for current ones, and second, why they felt it was appropriate to approve the retirement allowance without any real warning or public process.
"I always had a rule that you never surprise the taxpayers," said former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard, who served on Victoria's Capital Regional District for 27 years, including five as its chair.
Leonard, who is writing a book on local governance, acknowledged that compensation is "the hottest topic I think for local government politicians to deal with," because they ultimately have to vote on what their salary is.
But he said Metro Vancouver could have avoided most of the trouble, if they put the issue to an independent commission, with plenty of time for the public to understand the issue. The commissions generally include members of the public who proactively volunteer, to avoid the perception of bias.
And indeed, that process is in place for all of Washington State. It's happening in Prince George right now. It happened in London last year. And in Calgary. And Edmonton. And plenty of other Canadian cities.
"People weren't even aware it was going to be discussed, let alone decided. Perhaps, in hindsight, they might have wished they had some daylighting of the issue, a discussion paper, getting the public engaged, and determine first if there's a problem," he said.
Blame the media?
Moore conceded they could have appointed an outside committee, but he had a different take as to why people got upset: reporters didn't give the issue the context it deserved.
"The media didn't attend that meeting, didn't talk about anything that actually happened at that meeting, and so, when the media reported on it a few days later, they accused us of having a meeting late on a Friday afternoon, putting it at the back of the agenda. All of that is not true. And so, I think that framed the discussion that most people had."
Leave aside the fact that it was decided on a Friday afternoon and the motion was quite literally on pages 409 to 416 of the 416 page agenda or that Moore didn't dispute any of the facts reported by journalists, he has a point that the furor obscured a legitimate issue.
The median age of Metro Vancouver mayors is 65. Over 85 per cent of them are men.
If you want a more diverse selection of local politicians, discussing greater financial incentives for them to step away from their careers is one tool in the toolbox.
"Third party review by independent groups and consultants do point these things out. I think the validity of having the discussion is there," said Leonard.
Unfortunately, because of the way in which Metro Vancouver went about it this time, it's unlikely the public will find that discussion quite as valid for some time to come.