Reviewing Regional District Accountability
Historical Purpose of Regional Districts
Regional districts were created in 1965 to meet the needs of rural, unincorporated areas that were either completely without services or were using municipal services without contributing to their funding. According to the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and the former Ministry of Community Services, regional districts serve three explicit purposes:
- to act as local governments for unincorporated areas;
- to provide political and administrative frameworks for municipal collaboration on the provision of sub-regional services; and
- to provide regional services.
The opt-in model of regional districts ensures local autonomy of municipalities and electoral areas and allows for flexibility in the design of service arrangements. This means that "over time, member jurisdictions can be molded and re-molded by member jurisdictions to meet different needs and serve different purposes." (Regional District Tool Kit Fact Sheet, 2005)
The changing demographics, economic, political, social and structural conditions with a region can lead to changes in the importance of the regional district and its primary purpose. This means that every regional district is able to model itself to the needs of its constituents.
However, regional districts have recently found themselves in conflict with the private sector by expanding beyond the scope of their mandate. For example, in 2014, the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) attempted to institute market and price controls on the solid waste sector through the extreme Bylaw 280 in an attempt to build an incinerator that has since been proven to be an inefficient and expensive method for waste disposal. They also currently serve as a service provider and regulator in the solid waste sector—a clear conflict of interest.
While the GVRD was attempting to implement proposed Bylaw 280, many other regional districts quickly provided their support and intent to follow suit. This would indicate that when one regional government expands outside the scope of their mandate, it sets a precedent for other regional districts.
As seen in these examples above, regional districts have not always made the optimal decisions for their region. To ensure optimal decisions, accountability measures must be taken.
Reviews and Changes to Regional Districts
As these regional bodies have changed over time, there have been periodic reviews to assess whether the system should be changed. Recommendations from those reviews since the late 1960s have been selectively implemented. However, it has been nearly 20 years since the last comprehensive review of regional governments, during which time the role of these organizations has evolved considerably.
In the mid-1990s, the Province under took a three-part reform of the Local Government Act that resulted in giving broad powers to regional district boards to undertake activities and services that they feel are important to their regions. The services available to regional districts since this change include:
- Water and sewer utilities;
- Recreation programs and facilities;
- Community and regional parks;
- Regulatory services such as animal control and building inspection;
- E-911 and fire protection;
- Economic development and film industry promotion;
- Regional growth strategies;
- Television rebroadcast.
The Environmental Management Act also gives regional districts the responsibility for solid waste management through Integrated Solid Waste & Resource Management Plans.
The last change made to regional governance structures was in 1999, when the Ministry of Municipal Affairs consulted with the UBCM to alter the Local Government Act and the Community Charter. This change was conducted in partnership with local governments and generally lacked input from the business community.
With the last review being over 15 years ago, it would be prudent to review the scope, function, effectiveness and efficiency of the regional district system.
Regional Flexibility and Adaptability
While regional districts were designed to be flexible, most regional district boards also have broad sweeping control of their scope, without any external accountability. Nearly two-thirds of electoral districts have more than 50 percent of their boards appointed by municipal councils. Other regional boards are mostly comprised of directly elected representatives and, therefore, are directly accountable to the electorate for their decisions. Directors of a regional district are expected to make decisions at the board table that are in the best interest of the region—not as representative of the constituency that elected them.
There is also no external body that is responsible for ensuring that regional districts are acting within the scope of their intended purpose. While the Auditor General for Local Government (AGLG) has the ability to perform audits on regional districts, they exist solely in an advisory role, not a supervisory role and have no way of enforcing accountability mechanisms.
While there are varying degrees of accountability with regional districts across the province, it is prudent to recognize that the ability to customize service provision at the local level is important for communities across B.C. and should be maintained in balance with accountability. Due to drastic differences in communities across the province, implementing a one-size fits all solution for regional districts is not an appropriate course of action. However, flexibility should not compromise accountability—this is a key focus of this policy resolution.
With this flexible opt-in model, the size and scope of some of these bodies have drastically changed. They have evolved beyond service provision and moved into a regulatory and policy space that the regional district system was arguably not designed for, and that exists without any certain accountability mechanisms.
As regional districts are legally considered an independent level of government, there should be direct accountability to an electorate, as there is with our federal, provincial and municipal forms of government. At the moment, only some regional districts are structured to have such accountability.
In light of the lack of external, independent review or direct accountability to constituents, the flexibility in the scope of purpose of regional districts can have unintended consequences, allowing regional districts to expand their reach far beyond what is necessary.
Existing Policy Positions
The Chamber movement in B.C. has clearly identified regional district governance as an issue for industry across the province. The BC Chamber of Commerce has already adopted policy resolutions recommending the modernization of regional district legislation, the elimination of the conflict of interest between municipal governments and regional districts, the assigning of specific service provision responsibilities and a study into the best practices for urban and rural regional districts. However, there is still an absence of policies advocating for new accountability mechanisms, which take into considerations their ever-changing role.
THE CHAMBER RECOMMENDS:
That the Provincial Government, due to the consistently changing scope of regional districts and varying levels of accountability to the electorate across the province:
Establish a task force responsible for:
a) Reviewing the scope, governance and accountability of regional districts with the purpose of increasing clarity of role, effectiveness and efficiency while reducing red tape;
b) Establishing concrete guidelines regarding scope, governance and accountability; and
c) Ensuring adequate authority to enforce the above guidelines; and
Include a broad group of stakeholders, such as UBCM, the business community, and citizen groups amongst others, during the review process.