Aug 12, 2011

What’s behind the push for a municipal auditor general?


The call for the creation of an Auditor General for BC’s municipalities almost seems like a “no-brainer,” doesn’t it?

Charlie Smith had a good article in the Georgia Straight outlining reasons why a municipal AG would be a good idea. Some people, in some municipalities have had problems with transparency.  And while the Province does have an “Inspector of Municipalities” this position is useless when someone has an actual problem with local government actions.

But the issue is trickier than it looks.  Are we really talking about a mechanism to increase transparency and accountability in local governments? Or are we talking about a mechanism to allow the province and corporations to impose their agenda on local governments?

Under the Canadian Constitution the Province has the power to make laws that govern local governments. But the Community Charter, the provincial law that governs municipalities, has some pretty explicit language on the relationship between municipalities and the Province.

Clause 1 of the Community Charter says, “Municipalities and their councils are recognized as an order of government within their jurisdiction that…is democratically elected, autonomous, responsible and accountable”.  Clause 2 explicitly calls for consultation on local government legislation.

Christy Clark’s unilateral announcement that she would be imposing a local Auditor General was neither respectful of municipalities as an “order of government” nor did it involve any consultation.

The Union of BC Municipalities is usually pretty cautious when it comes to criticizing the provincial government. Their response to the AG plan goes further than they are usually willing to go.  The UBCM pointed out they had offered to participate in a joint Provincial/UBCM policy development process related to the MAG. but that “To date the Province has not agreed to such a joint process.”

The UBCM asked just what problem the government was trying to solve with the proposal.  They asked if it was tied into other commitments made by the Premier on municipal tax reform.

Following a meeting with the Minister, the UBCM reported:

The Ministry noted that AGs are usually precluded from a review of policy decisions of elected officials; no assurances were given that the design of a BC MAG would ensure this; the Minister indicated the MAG would initially be responsible for value for money auditing and best practices, but that further roles, including a municipal tax review, if suggested by the MAG, might be considered

The Provincial Auditor General is forbidden to comment on the policy decisions of the Province. It also reports to the legislature and gives the government copies in advance. There are no guarantees any of these protections would be offered to local governments.

It is not surprising that the Minister’s response makes local governments twitchy.  They have seen what happens when the province imposes an outside auditor who has the power to second guess their policy decisions. That is what happened to the Vancouver Board of Education when the Province sent in its Comptroller to review the Board’s budget. The Board had been critical of the Province and the Comptroller’s report was a hatchet job.

Municipalities are worried they could face the same thing especially since the Province has said this might include a municipal tax review. Christy Clark promised a municipal auditor general when she was running for Liberal leader. It was an odd promise and not one likely to resonate with the average voter. Who then was the audience she was addressing with the promise? 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and other business organizations have been pushing for a cut in local business taxes and all of this looks like part of the same agenda.

It is enough to make municipalities, justifiably, very, very nervous.

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