Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke isn’t alone.
Other local government leaders are expressing frustration with the NDP government taking away some of their power.
On Nov. 20, Locke said lawyers hired by the city would argue in court that it is unconstitutional for Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to override the will of the 2022-elected city council and accelerate the switch from the RCMP to the Surrey Police Service by replacing the police board with a single administrator.
Two Vancouver Island mayors spoke out last week against Housing Supply Act amendments that diminish municipal control and public consultation over land use decisions.
At the Nov. 14 district council meeting, Sooke Mayor Maja Tait reacted to that day’s resignation of planning director Matthew Pawlow. Pawlow left the $145,000-a-year job to join the Ministry of Housing as the executive for the new Housing Targets Branch, which is responsible for administering the Housing Supply Act and municipal housing targets program.
Tait, who will run in the next federal election for the NDP, conceded she was grateful someone with Pawlow’s expertise will be in the ministry “to at least show the local government challenges with the legislation that they’re adopting.”
“We need to work on this together,” Tait said. “When one order of government dictates to another, it doesn’t go well, it’s undemocratic. I have a real problem with that.”
Two days later, Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch had even more to say in a 12-minute video in defence of local government. He said Premier David Eby’s government is sacrificing democracy in favour of efficiency, by ending public hearings if a zoning application corresponds with an official community plan.
“Why would we gut all the powers of democratic accountability of local governments when we’re trying to address a housing crisis?” Murdoch asked. “I think part of this is that the province has framed this as an issue where municipalities are the bad guy, we’re the ones to blame, that all the housing problems are a result of public input being just too messy and slow.”
Municipalities are recognized by the courts as creatures of government under the 1867 Constitution Act.
In 2021, B.C. was the only province to intervene in the Ontario government’s Supreme Court of Canada case defending Premier Doug Ford’s reduction of wards in Toronto prior to the 2018 civic election. In a 5-4 split decision, the high court upheld the decision, finding it did not breach freedom of expression for candidates or voters.
B.C.’s filing in the case, while Eby was the attorney general, said the constitution granted provinces “plenary power over municipal institutions.”
“Subject to section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, these institutions have no independent autonomy and the province has ‘absolute and unfettered legal power to do with them as it wills’,” said the intervention.
A political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley said politicians are trying to solve 21st century problems with the 19th century constitution.
“That constitution, created in 1867, was designed for the situation that existed at that time, the demographics that existed at that time,” said Hamish Telford. “Provinces were sparsely populated rural areas that made sense to create these entities to govern that. That’s not the world that we live in anymore.”
Under Eby’s premiership, the government decided to take strong action to increase housing supply, sparking the conflict with municipalities. “In fairness to local governments, they think they know their geography and their city makeup better than politicians and bureaucrats in Victoria,” Telford said.
Each order of government, in a quest to fulfil its mandate, is exercising power over another with less power.
“If local mayors are complaining about our provincial governments, Pierre Poilievre. if he becomes prime minister, said he’s going to take out an even bigger stick. Not only to force municipalities in, he’ll strip them of infrastructure funding if they don’t cooperate with him,” Telford said.
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