Municipal
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

What are they running for? A local government explainer

Capital Daily breaks down the responsibilities of municipal councils, school boards, and the Capital Regional District

Municipal
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

What are they running for? A local government explainer

Capital Daily breaks down the responsibilities of municipal councils, school boards, and the Capital Regional District

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Municipal
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

What are they running for? A local government explainer

Capital Daily breaks down the responsibilities of municipal councils, school boards, and the Capital Regional District

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What are they running for? A local government explainer
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Ballots across Greater Victoria will be counted in a matter of days, electing a new crop of Greater Victoria mayors, councillors and school board trustees. Soon thereafter, those lucky enough to snag a seat will get down to work. But what will they actually be doing?

Can municipal councillors actually address homelessness? Does a school trustee have the power to alter the education curriculum? And what role does the Capital Regional District (CRD) play?

Capital Daily breaks down the workings of councils, school boards and the CRD and how they interact with higher levels of government and one another, spending billions of dollars across the region in the process.

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What does a municipal council do?

Council may be the layer of local government residents are most likely to engage with. From deciding whether local development proposals can proceed to developing park plans, city hall and the people who work there play a significant role in the lives of residents.

Municipal councils are headed by a mayor with the number of councillors ranging from four to 10. In Greater Victoria, most municipalities elect six councillors, while Victoria and Saanich each have eight council seats. Following the Oct. 15 election, View Royal will have six councillors for the first time, having added two seats last December. Councils are supported in their work by municipal staff.

The powers and responsibilities of municipal councils are defined in the Local Government Act and the Community Charter, and include managing and maintaining core infrastructure and services—such as local roads and sewers, and garbage collection—setting and enforcing bylaws, and deciding how land within the municipality is used.

Setting spending priorities via the annual budget is “the most important decision that any council makes,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. How much a municipality has to spend differs depending on size.

“Once a year at budget, we allocate resources for everything from road paving to neighborhood traffic calming to new parks and playgrounds,” Helps said. “The budget is a key decision politically, but then all of those other things that you think of the city does are actually operationalized and done by staff.”

Together, the mayor and council set strategic priorities for their municipalities while municipal staff are responsible for what Helps described as “the nuts and bolts” of municipal operations, including providing council with possible pathways to achieve their priorities.

“They work with the community, they do their work, they come back, and then council has to make a decision about how and whether to advance it,” Helps said. “Council is basically the policy setting body and staff is the implementation body.”

Municipal councils also have to advocate for their communities to higher levels of government and work with them to realize local priorities. This is “the least understood and most important part” of local government’s work, according to Helps, who believes local government representatives would do well to remember “the power of collaboration and persuasion with the federal and provincial governments. 

“If you are pointing fingers or trashing [the] province or the federal government in public council meetings [or] on social media, that actually really detracts from the ability for cities to get things done,” she said. “A key role for all council—but in particular for the mayor—is being that negotiator collaborator, link between the city government and the provincial and federal governments.”

And while “stay in your lane” is a frequent refrain to councils—and from some candidates seeking a seat at the table—Helps argues municipal council’s lane “has actually changed fundamentally” over the years.

“We see cities across the country taking a role in reconciliation; taking a role in helping to address homelessness,” she said. “On one hand, there's a kind of sense out there that we shouldn't get into extra-municipal issues, like housing and climate change, but then those issues are literally right on our front doorstep.”

A recent Leger survey shows plenty of BC voters want their municipality to work on tackling issues outside of their usual jurisdiction. Eighty-four per cent of the 984 people surveyed on the Lower Mainland said their local council should be doing more to address housing affordability while 83 per cent indicated they would like to see their council do more to tackle homelessness, poverty, and mental health issues.

What does a local school board do?

Local school boards, though elected at the same time as local governments, have little in common with a local government. Even though they run as politicians in the local election, once elected they have more in common with a corporate board than a municipal council. 

“The ultimate responsibility of a board of education is to improve student outcomes. It's truly as simple as that,”  said BC School Trustees Association president Carolyn Broady. 

Students aren’t likely to see or know a board member, though; the board’s influence over schools is at arm’s length. 

“We are governors of the system. We laughingly say that trustees should not be playing with the train. Boards do not set curriculum, we do not choose learning resources or anything like that. We are dealing with the overarching policy direction for the school district.”

The most important policy they set is the budget. How much they have to work with is decided by the province, in a calculation based on student population, but the board decides how much goes where. Most of it (86% on average) goes towards salaries, the next largest chunk is for operations expenses and utility bills, and the little bit of discretionary budget left over gets allocated by the board where they see the greatest priority. Often, that’s things like supplementing government funding for special needs, or extracurricular programs.

If the provincial income isn’t enough, the board has a few limited options to earn extra revenue, such as recruiting international students who pay tuition, renting out facilities, fundraisers, or selling land. Failing those, boards must find ways to cut costs. 

Last year the Victoria School Board was under fire for proposing to shutter music programs as a way to cut expenses. The board backed off from the cut after city-wide protests—with trumpets and saxophones playing on street corners—and a $200,000 parent-led fundraiser covered the shortfall. This is a small portion of the district’s $265 million budget for 2023. Sooke operates a $172-million budget, and Saanich has $101 million.

School boards are legally required to produce a balanced budget—they’re not allowed to spend into debt. Five times in BC’s history, the government has fired an entire board for submitting unbalanced budgets. Most recently it was the Vancouver School Board in 2016. The Cowichan School Board did something similar in 2012, when the board was replaced by a government-appointed trustee.

Beyond the budget, school boards can set policy that directs the overarching goals in the district, but it’s up to staff to implement. The only employee who answers to the school boards  is the superintendent. 

Last year, when boards decided whether to require district staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, it was a very unusual position for a board to be in. Greater Victoria and Saanich opted against a mandate, while the Sooke school board started with a mandate that only applied to new hires, and then quickly expanded to include all district staff. 

The Victoria School Board again made headlines last year when it decided to suspend two trustees, over allegations of bullying. A BC Supreme Court judge recently ruled that decision was out of the Board’s authority.

Boards are expected to set guiding principles and goals for the district, but since all grade schools in BC are required to follow curriculum set by the Ministry of Education, they have little if any control over what’s taught in classrooms.  

That includes the provincial requirement for school boards to have codes of conduct that safeguard students from being bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). The province has a tool kit, called SOGI 123, that is optional for schools to use, but Broady said that decision would be made at a school level, not by the board.

“Candidates that are talking about changing curriculum, that is beyond the purview of a trustee,” Broady said.

What is the Capital Regional District and how does it work?

The Capital Regional District (CRD) provides services to the 13 municipalities of Greater Victoria and three electoral areas: Juan de Fuca, Salt Spring Island, and the Southern Gulf Islands. All told the CRD serves a population of about 432,000 people with a budget of $681 million, more than the combined city budgets of Saanich and Victoria.

The CRD provides three types of services: regional services like water management as well as regional parks, transportation services, and housing, which benefit all of the member municipalities; sub-regional services that involve two or more member jurisdictions; and local services, which are specific to the electoral areas..

The CRD has a 24-member board of directors with representatives from each jurisdiction. Each electoral area director is a member of the board and, in most cases, the mayor of each municipality is as well. The rest of the members are municipal council members with each municipality sending one representative for every 25,000 residents. Aside from the mayor, additional municipal councillors are added to the CRD board based on their share of the vote in the last election. 

How and to what degree Greater Victoria residents interact with the CRD depends on where they live. 

Helps, who sits on the CRD board as Victoria’s mayor, sees the regional organization as a vehicle for addressing big issues in a way that “no one local government could do as effectively by itself.

“The CRD board is most effective when they say, ‘What are the big issues that are facing all of us as a region and our individual municipalities and how might we work together on these at the board table?’”

In the three electoral areas, the CRD serves as the local governing body with one elected director taking the place of mayor and council—although areas within the Islands Trust also elect trustees to represent them at the Islands Trust Council.

Mike Hicks has served as the director for Juan De Fuca for 13 years, but is not seeking re-election. He told Capital Daily that directors have to balance advocacy and diplomacy during meetings with their fellow directors.

“You can’t punch a person in the nose and then say, ‘Can vote for that for me?’ because you need their votes,” Hicks said. “You've got to be pretty prepared and pretty diplomatic about a lot of things.”

As the sole elected representative for their districts, Hicks and his fellow area directors have more freedom to act on behalf of their constituents than any one municipal councillor would, but they also have to contend with the other members of CRD board of directors on many decisions related to their operations.

“Every decision that's made in our electoral area is basically voted on and approved by the whole of the CRD board,” Hicks said, noting that having so many perspectives in the mix “can be difficult at times.”

Electoral areas have dedicated budgets to cover services such as bylaw enforcement, search and rescue, and fire response. Unlike municipalities, which are responsible for local road infrastructure, roads within electoral areas are the responsibility of the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. 

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