What can a mayor or councillor actually do?

Before you cast blame or believe a promise, you need to understand what issues mayors and councillors can actually control

By Tyler Olsen | October 14, 2022 |5:00 am

Your commute is a mess. Your kid is learning in portables. It takes hours to see a doctor at the hospital. The climate keeps warming. And it’s tough to get a camping spot these days.

At least it’s election time, when you get a chance to punish the politicians who have left you so annoyed or reward those making attractive promises.

But are you blaming the right politicians? And when those politicians suggest that other levels of government are to blame for something that annoys you, do they have a case?

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Co-operation makes stuff happen

Municipal politicians have significant power over how their communities change and grow over time—if they can work with others.

In BC, no single municipal politician can enact policies or approve projects on their own. Mayors and individual councillors do have the ability to voice ideas, make proposals, vote on motions, and start conversations.

But any action requires a majority of votes, and a mayor opposed by the rest of council will be unable to fulfill his or her promises. Similarly, some projects require not just a unified council, but the support and funding of local, provincial, and federal governments.

Growth and development

Your local mayor or councillor probably won’t be picking up hammers and building homes directly. But they can certainly make it much harder, or easier, for others to do so.

By deciding when a property can be rezoned and how it can be used, a council has a huge influence over how a community changes, and how quickly that change occurs—especially when land and homes are in high demand.

Councils influence the kind of buildings that can be built, and where, in two main ways.

First, they set the stage for—and approve or reject—key plans and policies that guide a city’s development. Developers look to those plans to understand what they are allowed to build. City staff use the plans both to provide further guidance and feedback, and to evaluate whether to recommend council approve new proposals.

Second, council has the final say when a property owner applies to change the use of a piece of land by applying for rezoning. They can reject almost any rezoning. (They cannot approve everything. There are provincial regulations around certain land use types, like farmland, that supersede municipal authority.)

Through both the plans they create and the individual projects they approve (or reject), a council can incentivize or deter new building projects, thereby speeding up, or slowing down, the rate of change. Local politicians can also influence the type of buildings that are constructed. Are most new homes rentals or owner-occupied? Are they apartments, townhomes, or single-family houses? Are units like tiny homes, carriage houses, and secondary suites permitted, required, or banned? A council can have a huge impact on all those things.

But the building environment is also heavily influenced by economic factors.

Income levels at local businesses, the supply of homes in other municipalities, and global market conditions all have an impact on a community and are largely out of the control of individual local politicians.

In the Lower Mainland, which includes dozens of municipalities, the influence of individual cities is diluted. The market is highly influenced by regional trends and behaviours. So even if Chilliwack builds 20,000 new homes next year and Abbotsford builds none, the gap in home prices between the two communities is unlikely to widen too much because people from one community will seek to move to the other.

Roads

Your city council has control over the shape, size, and quality of almost all the roads in your municipality.

If your city’s roads need improvement, it’s your municipality’s job to fix them and local politicians’ responsibility for setting priorities.

But there are a few large exceptions. Most obviously, the province controls and manages provincial highways. Those include Highway 1, but also some highways that may look a lot like city streets, including Highway 7 in downtown Mission, Highway 9 through Agassiz to Harrison Hot Springs, Highway 13/264th Street in Langley, Highway 11/Sumas Way in Abbotsford, and Highway 1 in Hope. (Notably, Fraser Highway between Langley and Abbotsford is not a provincial highway.)

The province also has a say in infrastructure changes near those thoroughfares (though it rarely blocks improvements).

Cities do have some role to play in highway improvements though: the provincial government usually requires municipalities to cover the cost of interchanges and junctions with its highways.

Transit

Here’s a complicated one.

Cities set service levels and transit budgets, but in most of the Fraser Valley, all work in tandem with BC Transit, which operates buses across the region. BC Transit’s budget is determined by the provincial government. (In Langley, transit is overseen by Translink, which is governed by Metro Vancouver’s dozens of municipalities and which sets transit policy and operating levels.)

Meanwhile, the federal government often kicks in funds for vital infrastructure, like Abbotsford’s new bus maintenance facility.

All of which means that almost any transit improvements in the Fraser Valley require BC Transit and the city to be in agreement. Many improvements also sometimes require money from the province or the feds. If any of those bodies lack the will or capacity (sometimes expansions require tangible things, like more available buses or parking facilities), an expansion is unlikely.

At the same time, municipalities and local governments have also shown they can act independently to improve regional transit. Notably, the Fraser Valley Regional District took the lead in launching the Fraser Valley Express regional bus that runs between Chilliwack and Lougheed Skytrain Station. The FVRD is made up of local politicians from around the region (Langley excluded).

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Pedestrian and bicycle paths and lanes

It’s on your local municipality to determine when and where sidewalks and bike lanes get built.

They can do so on a case-by-case basis, by setting budgets for annual improvements, by buying land for multi-use trails, or by creating policies that may require sidewalks to be added when new homes are built.

Because provincial and federal governments have largely ignored inter-city pedestrian and cycling transportation, it’s also up to cities to work together to create cycling and pedestrian routes between communities.

Parks—

Every level of government has their own parks department.

That’s true for the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. It’s also true for the Fraser Valley Regional District, which operates a handful of parks around the region.

A city’s politicians can influence how many, and what type of parks their community has. They also have influence over maintenance budgets, capital plans, and usage policies. Crucially, they also are involved in land acquisitions. Discussions about such purchases usually occur behind closed doors, with the public informed only after a property is bought.

—and recreation (and culture)

A core duty of a BC municipality is to plan and manage recreational amenities for its residents.

City politicians determine how much money to spend on recreational and cultural amenities like pools, gymnasiums, theatres, and museums.

Local politicians, staff, and community representatives and organizations all have a say in the type and scale of amenities a city invests in. It’s up to politicians to make the most important single decision, though: the amount of money to devote to recreation and cultural amenities. That money is inevitably raised mostly through property taxes.

Police

Most cities spend more on policing than any other service they provide.

Municipal politicians set those budget levels. The cost of police officers means that increasing the number of officers comes with a hefty price tag inevitably borne by taxpayers. It’s up to the politicians to balance the cost of policing with its perceived benefits.

It’s also up to politicians to determine whether a city should have its own police force or contract out policing to the RCMP. They can exert pressure over how a force operates by promising funding for certain initiatives. And municipalities with their own police force, like Abbotsford, also have a police board, traditionally headed by the mayor, that sets policies and oversees the governance of their local force.

Fire and paramedics

Next to police, fire departments frequently make up the next biggest chunk of city spending. And, like with police, the salary and equipment demanded of firefighters means cities must find an equilibrium between cost and service levels.

Local politicians, notably, have a say over how a fire department is organized.

Some cities maintain large numbers of professional firefighters. Others, particularly in the Fraser Valley, use a “paid on-call” system. Those departments have a relatively small number of full-time firefighters and a much larger contingent of part-timers who work jobs they can leave quickly if called to a fire or other emergency incident.

As for paramedics, BC’s ambulance service is entirely funded by the province. Local politicians do not influence how many ambulances are in service in their community.

But: in many communities, firefighters attend medical calls in order to provide immediate help, when necessary. Local decisions impact how quickly those firefighters respond to medical calls to provide potentially life-saving help. Municipalities, though, are wary about taking on a health care-related cost that is usually covered by the province.

Emergency preparedness

Technically the province lets municipalities take almost complete control over handling evacuations, emergency alerts, and fire and flood protections within their borders.

In practice, cities have relatively limited financial resources to create disaster-proof infrastructure. BC’s lackluster diking system is the most obvious case in which municipalities have been handed the keys to a car that has no wheels.

After last year’s floods, the province appears to have realized this and now says it intends to overhaul how flood preparations are funded and managed. Still, much of the on-the-ground work is likely to be left to municipalities. And both in the past and the future, cities will be able to choose to spend more money to prepare for a future disaster.

But municipalities have varying levels of expertise and knowledge about hazards. That is, partly, a result of budgeting and time allocation within government bodies, as well as human resource policies, and planning and preparedness work.

Schools

Municipalities have no power to authorize or fund the construction of new schools to meet the needs of growing communities.

It is the job of elected local school boards to set infrastructure and capital priorities, while the province is generally responsible for funding new schools.

Cities can indicate to school boards where they expect new growth to take place. But their greatest impact is in setting the conditions for enrolment growth in one area by approving (or not approving) the construction of new homes.

Health care

Like with schools, cities don’t have jurisdiction over health care. They can neither determine funding levels, or what type of infrastructure is built in their communities.

But local politicians do have a loud voice. They are largely independent from federal and provincial political parties and can use that distance to exert pressure on senior levels of government and health authorities to improve local facilities.

Politicians can choose to speak in public, lobby for projects behind closed doors, or do both. They also sit on the board of the Fraser Valley Regional Hospital District, which traditionally provides around 40% of the cost of local capital projects. (Members of that board have recently begun agitating for more input into local health spending decisions.)

Reconciliation

As elected leaders of municipalities that exist on Stó:lō territory, the Fraser Valley’s mayors and councils play a crucial role in plotting a new relationship between Indigenous communities and local governments.

Mayors, especially, play a key role in the government-to-government relationship with First Nations that enjoy many, though not all, of the same responsibilities as their neighbouring municipalities.

Within municipalities, local politicians determine the scale of reconciliation efforts and the degree to which city infrastructure acknowledges and incorporates the region’s full history—not just that since the arrival of Europeans.

Water, sewer, and garbage

Delivering water to residents and dealing with waste are some of the least glamorous and most important jobs performed by any municipality.

Although the ins and outs of these systems are left to staff, local politicians take a key role in setting policies that affect residents’ day-to-day, determining the structure of key systems, and preparing for the future.

It’s not a glamorous job. But it’s an important one.

Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

Get FV Current in your inbox.

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By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

Having trouble with the form? Contact us at contact@fvcurrent.com.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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