VICTORIA—The authority of local governments to determine infrastructure development and make decisions on a whole range of issues in their communities was the number one priority for many of the 1,900 delegates who gathered in the provincial capital last week for the annual Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention.
And with Premier Gordon Campbell dropping a bombshell regarding public-private partnerships (P3s) in his closing speech, local autonomy is likely to remain a burning issue for months to come.
As municipal mayors, councillors, school board trustees and regional district representatives poured into the Victoria Convention Centre on Tuesday morning (October 24), a delegation from CUPE BC was meeting at the Legislature with the NDP Opposition’s Economic Development Committee to discuss the implications of the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) reached last April between B.C. and Alberta.
Barry O’Neill, along with researchers Keith Reynolds and Kathy Corrigan, made presentations and responded to questions from several MLAs. The CUPE BC delegation raised specific concerns about the lack of awareness of TILMA’s existence, and the issues of secrecy, loss of local government authority, and removal of standard and regulation barriers under the agreement, which comes into force on April 1, 2007.
The next day on the UBCM convention floor, formal proceedings began with a key resolution demanding that the provincial government repeal legislation that undermines local government authority over independent power projects.
The resolution, which passed with near unanimity, called for the Liberals to repeal Section 53 of Bill 30, which removed local control over zoning decisions in relation to Independent Power Projects. The provincial government had introduced this legislation despite earlier promises to respect municipal decision-making authority. Delegates who spoke in favour of the resolution to repeal it included representatives from Squamish, Whistler, Maple Ridge, Comox and Christina Lake.
The same day, several BC Liberal cabinet ministers attended panel discussions. At the Education and Social Development session, Education Minister Shirley Bond praised the community of Pouce Coupe for ponying up $1 million of the $3 million required to build a new school. When one councillor asked Bond if all new school developments would have to be cost shared this way, the minister’s answer was an implied ‘yes’.
Meanwhile, the Task Force on Community Opportunities issued a report, Building Stronger Communities, that looked at the delivery of local services. While the report makes the obligatory reference to P3s, it also makes clear that P3s will not solve the broader problem.
“Access to an adequate supply of safe drinking water is something the public rightly expects from their local governments,” the report said. “For this reason the task force believes that larger, more capable local governments need to begin planning for a much more active role in addressing the problems found in small communities and rural water systems.”
The report makes clear that local governments are best suited to solve the problems of small water systems.
“Part of the thinking on water,” said one of the presenters, “is that we have local governments that are very, very good at providing high quality drinking water systems.”
On Wednesday night, CUPE BC held its highly popular annual reception. Hundreds of convention delegates attended, along with more than a dozen NDP MLAs led by leader Carole James, and at least one member of the BC Liberal cabinet: Labour Minister Olga Illitch.
During the reception, Kitimat mayor Richard Wozney updated Barry O’Neill on the latest developments in his community. Kitimat has taken the provincial government to court over its decision to allow Alcan to sell bulk power at the expense of local smelter operations. The municipality is arguing that the government is violating both the Industrial Development Act and a 1950 agreement that gave Alcan the right to dam the Nechako/Kemano river systems specifically to smelt aluminium and create industry and jobs. The judge’s decision is expected before Christmas.
The biggest—and worst—news came on Friday morning, with Premier Gordon Campbell’s speech to close convention. The premier said that Partnerships BC would now have the sole authority to decide whether major public infrastructure projects become public-private partnerships (P3s).
Campbell’s announcement came as the province promised to kick in one third of the costs for sewage treatment in the Capital Regional Distric—on the condition that Partnerships BC gets to decide whether the project becomes a P3.
“In fact, I can tell you today that we’re going to be making that a condition of provincially funded capital projects over $20 million in the future,” said Campbell.
“So in the future we’re going to work with you, but we will insist that Partnerships BC look at major capital projects, and the base case in British Columbia will be P3s unless Partnerships BC says there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise.”
The premier’s announcement came only minutes after delegates had passed a resolution opposing the privatization of water services.