How (Well) Does The Regional District System Work?

Rapid urbanization in the 1950’s caused development in rural areas, with residents commuting to urban centres for work. Development in the rural areas increased demand for services such as water, sewage and zoning. By 1965, the Province amended the Municipal Act to enable the creation of regional districts. Originally, the powers and services of the regional districts were quite limited; however, as regional districts became more established they were granted more power by the B.C. government. Today regional districts help achieve regional economies of scale, and provide flexible service arrangements in which residents only pay for the services they receive. – BC Government Website


Directors are only entitled to vote on matters for which the area they represent has a vested interest. Typically this will include general corporate matters as well as services for which the area contributes financially. – SRD Website

It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are. – Clive James


[EDITORIAL] When things work, at least well enough for our comfort, we don’t have to pay much attention to them. This is how I’ve felt about local government for most of my lifetime. In the course of the last couple of years, however, I’ve been forced to think a lot about how local government works — specifically, the relationship between small rural Areas like Cortes Island, and Regional Districts like SRD.

What makes local government work best, in my view, are three essentials: transparency, democratic participation and devolution. The more open the political process is — including correspondence and voting records as well as minutes of meetings — the better. The more voices are involved in decision making, the better. The more local the deciding body is to the issues being decided, the better. Seldom has a distant, detached government made effective decisions about small communities far away. Seldom has governance by a handful of participants been benign. Seldom have secretive policies resulted in good governance.

In our time, distances seem less than they used to be; yet it’s important to remember that large social and logistical distances can exist between geographic neighbours. Many people in Campbell River have never been to Cortes Island; it sometimes seems a long way from Campbell River. Cortes Islanders don’t participate or witness as much as we could, because of various barriers which I’ll discuss later. And our local governance is not as transparent as it could be. Modern technologies can bridge distance, increase participation, and make governmental transparency possible — but seem seldom used to that end.

This is a longish essay, so I’ve divided it into sections with an index:


What is a Regional District?

The Regional District system is one of delegated democracy, not direct democracy. Each Area elects a Regional Director, and the Regional Directors sit on the Board at the Regional District. Our current RD Board is 13 people. Of these, five represent Campbell River. The remaining eight represent outlying rural areas: Kyuquot/Nootka-Sayward, Sayward Village, Oyster River, Tahsis, Zeballos, Gold River, Quadra/Discovery Islands, Cortes Island, and Kyuquot/Checlesaht First Nations.

This is a mix of dissimilar communities. Remote mountain towns have little in common with remote islands. Small rural communities have little in common with the growing city of Campbell River and its de facto suburb, Oyster River. Cortes Island, for example, has no demand for centralised sewer and water, and very mixed responses to zoning restrictions.

The Regional District system was most likely designed to network rural communities that were more comparable. In the Cariboo Regional District, for example, the 12 member Areas are more similar to one another than in SRD. They share many issues and interests, and the nearest large community (Prince George) is not a member. In SRD, one community (Campbell River) has grown faster than anything else in the region and now controls five seats on the Board. Campbell River has as much influence on that Board as all four rural Areas. [note 1]

The interests of our dissimilar groups are unlikely either to conflict or align. The voters of Tahsis probably know and care little about what the voters of Cortes want.

Despite the language on their web site which tells us that Directors only get to vote on matters that touch their own Area, we know from recent and painful experience that the Board has voted on matters which — one would think — only affect Cortes Island. Presumably it is because SRD funds are expended on the management of a referendum, for example, that the Board can vote whether to hold a referendum or not — even if the bylaw being voted on affects only one Director’s constituents. [note 2]

Given the disconnect between communities, and the broad interpretation of “general corporate matters”, it’s important to realise that Regional District Boards have more power than you might think. For example: after a referendum with good turnout and a 75 percent majority, one might assume that an RD Board would be legally obliged to carry out the will of the electors. Not so. Bylaws are enacted by a vote of the RD board members, not by popular vote in the community. As SRD said in their 28th October announcement regarding the Cortes referenda of 2019, final results “will be forwarded to the Regional Board with recommendations for further action once the window for challenging voting results is over.”

In theory, a RD Board could vote not to enact a bylaw even though a clear majority had voted for it in the only affected Area. This would be extremely unusual, but would not technically exceed the boundaries of Regional District authority.

This kind of hiccup is unlikely. When things are running smoothly, a Regional District is mostly a bureaucratic and accounting service shared by a group of communities. It has an extensive staff trained to handle the gathering, accounting for, and distribution of tax revenues. It processes the wording and enactment of bylaws. It ensures compliance with larger, over-arching law and regulation. It keeps records of voting and decision-making for the region.

In theory, the Board hears reports from the elected representatives of the various communities, trusts their judgment, and in most cases approves their requests for tax services, bylaw language, etc. Only when a proposal from one Area impacts another Area, and there is a conflict to be resolved, would we expect much debate or discussion.


Crooked Timber: Real-World Politics

However, humans are political creatures and any structure can be exploited — for better or worse — by people with agendas. What if this impersonal bureaucratic system wobbles a bit?

In almost all delegated democratic systems there’s a bit of horse-trading: you vote with me on this, and I’ll vote with you on that. Favours can be called in, and grudges can be held if individual representatives don’t agree to join a coalition and vote en bloc on selected issues; there might be payback later.

Also, especially in a smallish world like coastal BC, many personal connections may be invisible to the public eye. We can never hope to know, exhaustively, who Director John or Jane Doe is good friends with, or plays golf with, or is the cousin-in-law of.

From a distance we never know or definitely prove (unless our politicians are reckless) what personal prejudices may play a part in Board proceedings. If older politicians are dismissive of younger ones, if a majority of male representatives disrespect female ones merely for their gender, if race or religion play a part, we never know unless those with the biases or sense of entitlement are foolish enough to blurt them out on the record. (If they blurt them out in camera, that record is buried and again we never know.)

So Directors may interact (cooperate, or fail to cooperate) in all kinds of ways quite mysterious and opaque to the public. Only some of these interactions can be made visible, even with a best-faith effort to be transparent. Without that effort, it’s possible that significant influences on representatives’ voting patterns could be invisible to the electorate. And the potential for wobble doesn’t end there! Without full transparency, we can’t know what shenanigans the electors may get up to as well.


Back and Side Doors to Power

Suppose for example that in primarily Conservative Area X, a small but determined group of liberal/progressive voters are disappointed because a socially and fiscally conservative candidate was elected. However, they do have social and political affinities with a couple of other Directors on the same RD Board. They might then choose to ignore their own Director — whom they know to represent the majority of his constituents — and instead lobby Directors from Areas Y and Z, persuading those Directors to vote in the minority interest against proposals brought by the Area X Director.

Those Directors may in turn, if they are adept at the traditional game of politics, be able to horse-trade and negotiate some more votes; eventually, proposals brought by Area X which are mostly Conservative in flavour (thus accurately reflecting the majority will of its voters), are being stalled or voted down by a bloc of more Whiggish Directors — who were not elected by that Area and hence face no electoral consequences for their voting history. So this is another thing to be aware of: Directors on a Regional District Board can interfere in the affairs of neighbouring Areas at alarmingly low risk.

If we turn my example upside-down, it’s a mirror of what I believe to have been happening for some time at SRD. A small minority of voters, more conservative than the majority of Cortes Islanders, apparently spent some time and effort networking and lobbying to persuade Directors other than their own to interfere in affairs which were strictly internal to Cortes Island — such as the hall tax service which affected no one in any other Area. This lobbying effort was documented when Director Leigh from Oyster River said publicly that she was receiving emails from Cortes Island residents which influenced her vote to obstruct or delay an Area B issue: the hall tax service referendum. Director Leigh’s refusal to share any information about those emails — their content, their quantity, or the number of distinct senders — revealed a deeply troubling lack of transparency at SRD.

No Grownups On The Playground?

A great deal of frustration, anger, and citizen activism was provoked by this issue, and by SRD’s apparent reluctance to correct the situation. So, what’s to be done when the system does wobble a bit? What if some electors feel that their Area or their Director has not been treated fairly, that there is not enough transparency, that they are not receiving good governance? Where do they take that complaint?

Upstairs of a Regional District there is, basically, no one. It is surprisingly autonomous. Separation-of-powers policies prevent federal or provincial agencies and elected officials from interfering in Regional business. So if things do go wrong — if an Area is for any reason dissatisfied with the performance of their Regional District Board — there isn’t any complaints desk except the Board itself. Neither the Ombudsman’s Office nor the Ministry of Municipalities is able to offer much help, unless there’s clear evidence of illegal proceedings; both have, in effect, replied to frustrated Cortes residents with the advice, “Attend meetings, talk to your Board and CAO, participate more, sort it out locally.”


Barriers to Participation

Participating more would, of course, be helpful and is good advice. But the dynamics and logistics of attending government meetings are quite different when we live on a “two ferry” island, as opposed to downtown Campbell River. Traditionally, very few people from Cortes make a regular habit of attending SRD meetings.  In fact, there have been extended periods when only the same one or two people showed up repeatedly.  Why is this?

To attend an SRD meeting (which takes place during the middle of a week day) a working person must skip work, and a parent of young children find childcare.  Furthermore, it takes an entire day;  one must get in the lineup on Cortes at least an hour early to be sure of getting on the selected ferry (one must line up the night before to be sure of the first ferry), and there is still no guarantee of rolling onto the connecting ferry at Q Cove.

Travel time, counting line-ups, will be at least 2.5 hours to get to town, a little less to get back;  call it a little under 5 hours of travel, and an entire day devoted to the trip, just to attend a 3 hour meeting — where only a small fraction of the agenda will be devoted to Cortes business. For the average Cortes Islander, a trip to Campbell River is not a casual undertaking.  It also costs over $40 for one person plus a vehicle, which means that many people don’t make this trip unless they have to, or unless they can run several useful errands before catching the return ferry.  Attending a lengthy meeting greatly reduces the available time for errands.

This creates a kind of automatic selection process for people who regularly attend SRD meetings.  They must have few responsibilities and adequate means, to afford to spend two days a month doing this while getting little other utility out of the trip.  And they must be unusually interested in SRD meetings.

Most people on Cortes, as elsewhere, have busy lives;  they go peaceably about those lives, juggling kids and work and community volunteer activities, and trust their Regional Director to bring their concerns and wishes to SRD.  Auditing SRD meetings is simply not a customary Cortes thing to do, for very practical reasons;  and so by definition the people who do it regularly are not average or representative of Cortes. 

This is one way in which the Regional District System doesn’t really work for a small, 2-ferry island; there’s a built-in barrier to democratic participation, and therefore a built-in tendency for the deliberative body (SRD Board) to experience an atypical sample of the electorate. In particular, people with (a) jobs, (b) lower income, or (c) children will tend to be absent from SRD meetings.

Better On-Camera than In-Camera: Technology and Transparency

Is there a solution? I suggest that live videostreaming of all SRD meetings, as well as an archive of recorded meetings for viewing at any time, would greatly increase participation and insight for all people in remote communities — not just Cortes Island. Technology could be used here to reduce the distance (geographical, temporal, and financial) between the electors and their governing body. Video documentary would allow us to witness the voting and the entire discussion, not just the highly synopsised, elided version in the published minutes.

This insight might help us to understand some of the mysteries mentioned above. Observing body language, manners, language and tone, we would be far more able to decide whether any prejudice was being shown for or against a Director; we would get a glimpse of the affinities and networks at the table, what alliances and hostilities are in play, how our issues are discussed and by whom. We would be better positioned to critique (or support) our own Director, and to understand the relationships between Directors. Archiving is also crucial; we should always be able to review the content of a meeting from a year, or two years, or five years ago, to compare it with more recent meetings.

The high speed internet project coming to our coast offers the exciting possibility of live-casting (and archiving) all Regional District meetings. I recommend that as citizens and voters, we agitate strongly for this powerful bridge of the distance between us and our government.

Another application of technology to transparency is in the enforcement of strict policy regarding correspondence with Directors. It is inappropriate for Directors to use their private, personal email addresses for correspondence relevant to the Board and its decisions. It is also inappropriate to receive correspondence from another Director’s constituents without copying that Director and indeed the entire Board.

Those who write to public officials, in their public capacity, should understand that such correspondence is by definition public. Further, public officials should understand that it is inappropriate to allow covert correspondence to influence their vote; correspondence that sways their vote should be shared with other members of their Board or deliberative body. Secrecy in governance is never acceptable.

How much ethical difference is there between voting based on secret influence in the form of whispering campaigns, and voting based on secret influence in the form of money? Either way, the democratic process is being subverted by clandestine manoeuvres. The proper basis of our relationship with government is trust, but verify. If we are not permitted to verify, then there is no basis for trust.

Directors of a Regional District Board should use official email addresses for all work-related correspondence; all such email traffic should be monitored and published (with redactions as mandated under FOIA) on the RD’s web site. Directors’ votes on all motions should be recorded and published (by video log or and in the minutes). We should know whether the people we voted for are living up to the campaign promises that induced us to vote for them. We should know what is being said to them about our communities, so that we can fact-check and respond. Technology can help us here.

No amount of technology can wholly prevent people from gaming the system, as we know from decades of modern political history. But we can make system-gaming a little harder to do, and a little riskier. We can create and enforce a workplace culture in which covert communications are not business as usual. Sometimes that ‘s enough.


Re-localising Governance?

It is much harder to hold a remote body accountable for its treatment of the electorate than a local one. A local body is made up of people we know, holding meetings in places less than an hour away. We can drop in and audit a meeting without wasting the whole day on it. Ideally, we can all vote.

On the East Coast of the United States many independent townships practise an ancient and practical form of governance for small communities. The community collectively hires a town manager and a couple of staff; all issues of governance are settled by live voting at a series of Town Hall meetings throughout the year. For communities of less than five hundred people, the Town Hall model of democracy can be very effective.

Cortes Island’s community is of an awkward size: a little too large to gather most voting adults into one Town Hall (we don’t have a large enough venue) and yet so small that it seems we are not taken quite seriously by the regional government in charge of our affairs. While our 900-strong community may seem ridiculously small to the managers of a Regional District encompassing over over 40,000 souls, our affairs are nevertheless quite important to us; and we have the same right to good, transparent, participatory governance as any other Canadians.

Our affairs should not be arbitrated by a remote body with no insight into our local conditions, traditions, and lives. It only leads to dysfunction. Either they need to understand Cortes Island better, or we need more of our governance to devolve to our own Area.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Regional District system has not, in recent years, been serving us well. There has been a bit too much wobble and not enough transparency. SRD’s failure to prioritise transparency, and the system-gaming this has encouraged, have only exacerbated community tension and factionalism. We have not been heading in a good direction, and I think it’s time to change course.

Are there ways and means of reforming SRD or the Regional District system itself? How can we encourage or compel them to be more transparent and accountable? Are there avenues through which Cortes Island could claim more autarchy and resolve more of its own issues without reference to a remote body? Can we transcend our own intense internal factionalism, engage in civil public discourse and make community decisions in good faith? Do other island communities share any of these concerns? Have other communities found solutions?

These are questions I think we should be mulling over, a conversation I think we should be starting. We may have many thorny issues to resolve in coming years, and it will be unpleasant and inefficient to reach these resolutions via low-intensity civil war, clandestine political chicanery, or clueless bureaucratic blundering. We can do better than this.

Note: I am far from expert in local governance structures, nor am I a lawyer. I write based on my own observations plus the content of official websites. It is possible that I have misunderstood some points of RD process or organisation, and therefore examples, corrections, and citations are welcome.

END NOTES:

  1. thanks to reader Noba Anderson, who pointed out that “CR has more influence than the 4 rural areas, with one more regular vote plus much more weighted vote on many matters including financial ones.” [back] [updated Nov 20]
  2. thanks to reader Noba Anderson, who explained that “Only Cortes pays for the referendum and associated administration. Only those who pay for and are affected by a service vote on that service, unless it is a single participant servicei.e. only Cortes. The full board votes on these single-participant matters as a default, so that one single director does not become a dictator.” In other words, if the hall service had been proposed as a shared resource between Cortes and Quadra, then only Directors Anderson and Abram would have been entitled to vote. But because only one Area (one Director’s constituency) was affected, the entire Board voted. This is wildly counterintuitive, but the rationale is understandable when you think about it.  [back] [updated Nov 20]

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