Metro Vancouver brouhaha points to public service’s growing problem

A former town councillor from Penhold, Alta. named Danielle Klooster wrote a widely read op-ed a few years back titled “5 terrible reasons to run for municipal office.” I would urge every person thinking of running for mayor or city council to read it before entering politics.

In her piece, Klooster also describes why anyone should consider running for public office at all.

You should seek elected office, she writes, “because you wish to serve your community, to provide good leadership, to plan and build for the future. You should run because you have a contribution to make, ideas to be shared, passion that won’t abate and a commitment to do the right thing no matter what.”

Then she adds, “You should run if you understand that you will have to sacrifice popularity and family time, and that you will have to sometimes make decisions that benefit the community as a whole but don’t benefit you personally.”

What Klooster does not say, however, is that you should run because of the pay cheque.

The recent actions of local government politicians — in particular Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore and deputy-chair Raymond Louie — have put the question of what being a mayor, city councillor or a Metro Vancouver board member is into a hard light.

Is elected office about serving the public, or is it about the remuneration and the travel perks you receive?

Through their public statements and their actions, Louie and Moore and many of their colleagues have signalled they view public life is about the latter.

The chair and his deputy have recently returned from their taxpayer-funded Australia junket, billed as a transit system “learning tour.” According to Moore, this is a trip where he mixed in a little vacation time, telling a reporter he would add a stop to the Great Barrier Reef — presumably to “learn” about coral.

According to the Province newspaper, Moore has racked up more than $80,000 in travel expenses since 2013, jetting around to nearly 20 global destinations including Paris and London.

This the same Greg Moore, by the way, who announced — via a statement issued (inappropriately in my view) on the City of Port Coquitlam’s website — that he is not seeking re-election in October.

Can someone help us to understand the value of flying low-level public officials to far-flung destinations? These trips burn through tens or hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars each year.

In a recent interview, West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith was apoplectic over the duo’s latest Aussie junket.

“I think it was last year Louie and Moore went to Ecuador for a conference. These travel expenses are never brought to the board for approval and there is no explanation why they need to go. And there is no subsequent report coming to the board what came out of the conference,” commented Smith.

Of course, this travel brouhaha follows Louie and Moore’s full-throated defence of a “retirement allowance” (retroactive to 2007) for board members who leave office either voluntarily or with the help of voters.

After much public backlash, Moore announced last week the board will reconsider changes made to the remuneration bylaw.

If the board fails to rescind that allowance, chair Moore stands to earn a $65,000 lump sum payment.

Speaking at Metro Vancouver, Louie argued for the back-dated “pension” scheme by saying, “Part of the attraction and retention of getting people to come to this table… is to ensure that they are appropriately compensated.”

As Louie and Moore have, municipal officials all over the province are voting themselves pay increases, mostly arguing they are not paid enough.

The stipend municipal officials receive is for their time spent preparing for and attending meetings. Being a city councillor was never intended to be a full-time position, yet these positions have become filled with career politicians who hold seats for 10, 20 and sometimes more than 30 years.

The constant increases in pay and perks explain why we see so little turnover in local government. The very idea of serving the public is being extinguished by self-interest.

As Klooster says, run for office because you want to abide by your passion for your community, not because you want a job. Those seeking municipal office should have a plan for what they want to accomplish in that role and — importantly — have a plan to get out.


Originally published in Vancouver Courier, New Westminster Record, Burnaby Now and Tri-City News newspapers.