Province has its own bridge problems

A couple of compelling grassroots issues are percolating in the hinterland

Brian Kieran

A couple of compelling grassroots issues are percolating in the hinterland, but our provincial government seems to have dedicated itself to a doctrine of indifference and deniability.

At a time when the province desperately needs to be building platforms for consultation, the folks who live and serve amongst us to build better communities are getting attitude.

Why? Because attitude starts at the top. In a recent National Post interview, Premier Christy Clark was asked: “Why isn’t your message grabbing more people … what’s missing?”

Demonstrating how blissfully indifferent she is to the intelligence of the newspaper’s readership and how little tolerance she has for public push back, the premier responded: “I think people’s attention is missing at the moment. I don’t think most people are paying a lot of attention to the alternatives, or even to the current [government].”

She went on: “My theory is that … people just aren’t engaged in the day-to-day governance of a province if things are going pretty well. I think when we drop the writ, people are going to start really thinking about the alternatives.”

That glib dismissal of the grassroots flies in the face of recent events up in the Okanagan and here on Vancouver Island where municipal and education leaders are thoroughly engaged and fighting hard to be heard.

Last week, Penticton played host to the inaugural meeting of the B.C. Mayors Caucus, the largest stand-alone gathering of mayors ever in B.C. This lobby — spearheaded by Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts — wants a new deal for communities.

Currently, local governments are responsible for nearly two-thirds of Canada’s core public infrastructure, but they receive just eight cents of every tax dollar raised. It is time to “proactively restructure the partnership,” the caucus says. “It’s about using tax dollars more efficiently,” says Mayor Watts. “Let’s streamline things and use existing dollars in the best way.”

Sounds reasonable. The government response? Community Minister Ida Chong says the province already discusses these concerns with the 1,600 members of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. “I don’t think we want a duplication of what the UBCM does.”

The minister challenged the legitimacy of the caucus’s 86 members, suggesting they may not have the support of their respective councils. She also disputed whether the province was “downloading” responsibility for services to local governments.

For the record, Watts says the caucus is working with the UBCM and will meet next in September just before the annual UBCM AGM.

Closer to home, Education Minister George Abbott told the trustees of School District 79 (Cowichan) to toe the government line or get fired.

For the first time in 27 years, the school board has voted for a “restoration” deficit budget, which is illegal under the School Act. The decision received a standing ovation from dozens of observers. The trustees have made it clear they don’t want war; they just want to work with the ministry to bridge their funding gap, but Abbott is in no mood to negotiate.

“They’re big kids, as we’re big kids here, and they’ll make their decisions,” Abbott said. “If it is their decision … to submit a deficit budget, the remedy in the School Act is clear, and that is the board will be relieved of its duties.”

Not the stuff of bridge building, is it? M

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