Hot air in wards warning

October 5, 2004

As public debate heats up for the October 16 referendum on Vancouver’s electoral system, we’re hearing plenty of dire warnings, gross exaggerations and outright silliness about the “dangers” of a ward system.  One dire warning being sounded by some (including former councilors who should know better) is that wards will cost the taxpayer dearly — that a switch to wards will result in higher city spending, debt and taxes.There are no comprehensive Canadian studies on the economic impacts of municipal electoral systems. So, to back up their claims, these ward opponents are pointing to an American study that looked at whether there is an economic cost to ward systems in the United States. However, there are more than a few problems with importing this analysis to Vancouver.

The study was conducted by a Professor Southwick in 1997. Speaking to a Vancouver audience recently, the professor made no secret that his interest in this topic is much more than academic.  At the time of his study, he happened to be a commissioner elected at-large in the town of Amhurst New York. And he happened to be strongly opposed to a campaign to have the Amhurst council switch to a ward system. So he started looking for evidence to support his view that at-large systems in the US are more economically beneficial to citizens.

But more importantly, the experience of US cities is of little relevance to Canada for a number of reasons.

One of the distinguishing features of local government in the US is its ad hoc growth and evolution due to the absence of a central authority responsible for imposing order. As a result, states have been unable to rationalize their local government structures and municipalities enjoy a formidable degree of independence and power.

In contrast, local governments in Canada have no independent constitutional status, and only exist to the extent that provincial governments allow. Within each province the system, structure, boundaries, responsibilities and finances of local government is uniformly established through provincial legislation.

In BC the legislation that governs the structure and operation of municipalities (the Community Charter and Vancouver Charter) dictates that operating budgets must be balanced; no debt can be incurred to fund operational expenditures; and borrowing (increased debt) is restricted to general capital expenditures and must be approved by plebiscite of all electors.

Regardless of the system of council representation, Vancouver communities have the ability under the Local Improvement provisions of the Vancouver Charter, on an area or block basis, to petition and vote for capital expenditures to improve their local streets, lanes, sewers and drains, street lighting, sidewalks, develop parks, provide collective parking areas, etc. However, under Local Improvement Projects part or all of the associated costs are paid for by special levies collected from the property owners in the area benefiting from the project, and do not have to be imposed on all property owners.


The reality is that more than 85 percent of the City operating budget is for city-wide systems and services, such as police and fire protection, public works, water, sewer and solid waste utilities, parks and recreation facilities, public libraries, etc.  And borrowing for capital expenditures (other than Local Improvement Projects) must be approved by the entire electorate.All of these constraints on municipal councils in BC significantly moderate any economic impact the choice of electoral system could have, and make simplistic Canadian-US comparisons meaningless.The bottom line is that there is no legitimate economic argument against wards. Ditching Vancouver’s at-large system may mean a small increase in costs at city hall to accommodate a larger number of city councilors and their staff. But there is no evidence to suggest wards will send the budget spiraling out of control.Vancouverites should put aside the false warnings that wards will drive up spending, and decide what form of electoral system they feel will provide the best form of local democracy.

--David Fairey is an economist, director of the Trade Union Research Bureau and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.