Social problems are fair game for municipal leaders

The upcoming municipal elections have sparked a debate about the role and scope of local government in the Yukon.

by Andre Carrel

“Every council candidate is free to define what the issues of concern to the community are or should be.”

The upcoming municipal elections have sparked a debate about the role and scope of local government in the Yukon. Whitehorse Mayor Bev Buckway says that those who want their municipal council to grapple with social problems should take the time to read the Municipal Act.

That is good advice indeed. I fully agree that candidates and voters who care about their community and who want their municipal council to become engaged in the pursuit of solutions to local problems take a close look at the Municipal Act. Here is what section 231(2) has to say: “a municipality may provide a service that it would otherwise not have power to provide” subject to an agreement with the Government of Yukon.

The Yukon’s legislative powers are set out in the Yukon Act. One of these is the power to make laws in relation to municipal institutions. In other words, the Yukon’s Legislative Assembly has a free hand to assign or delegate any of its own responsibilities and powers to local governments.

The Legislative Assembly decided in 1998 to use that power to its broadest possible extent. In its preamble the Municipal Act refers to “services to property and good government to their residents and taxpayers” as constituting a municipal council’s primary responsibilities.

It is important to note that these are referred to as being primary, not exclusive responsibilities. The preamble goes on to state that “local governments have a significant responsibility for furthering compatible human activities and land uses.”

The bulk of municipal services are linked to property: water, sewer, roads, garbage, and fire protection. Parks and recreation services are concerned with land use; by their nature they are quality of life services although they tend to be viewed (and are some times treated) as secondary services.

The Municipal Act does not restrict a municipal council’s engagement and energies to such conventional municipal services. The act neither defines nor does it limit in any way what a “compatible human activity” may be.

The preamble, however, does not confer any powers; it merely provides an outline for the intended effect of the legislation that follows. It is in section 231(2) that we find the full extent of the legislation’s intent in this respect.

No two communities are alike in the Yukon. The upshot of the differences in population between Whitehorse and all other communities, and their relative isolation from each other is that every municipal council is confronted by unique social, cultural and economic problems.

The City of Whitehorse may be struggling with needs in matters of little concern to smaller communities. Dawson City may be struggling with problems that are of little concern to Watson Lake. It is precisely in recognition of such possibilities that the Legislative Assembly brought in new municipal legislation in 1998 to enable municipalities and the Government of Yukon to pursue targeted solutions to problems of a unique local character.

In other words, the Municipal Act’s objective is to facilitate territorial and local governments to work together for the common good.

So concerns about the quality, availability, affordability, or accessibility of any service within the jurisdiction of the Government of Yukon, be that education, affordable housing, or any other territorial service, are topics with as much legitimacy in a municipal election as are issues concerning water, sewer, and roads. This is not a legislative loophole.

To the contrary, it was the Legislative Assembly’s thoughtful, deliberate, and purposeful decision to give municipal councils the authority to engage in any service within the jurisdiction of the Government of Yukon, subject of course to an agreement negotiated by council with the Government of Yukon.

The difference between the scope of a municipal election, and that of territorial or federal elections, is that the election issues are defined by the candidates themselves. Municipal election issues are not determined by political parties, and candidates are not directed by party officials or bound by party discipline. Every council candidate is free to define what the issues of concern to the community are or should be.

Municipal elections provide an avenue in which citizens can debate community issues free of party rhetoric and jurisdictional boundaries, an opportunity to elect a council with a mandate to negotiate with the Government of Yukon community-specific solutions to local problems. Whatever topics may arise out of such dialogue and debate, the election provides new councils with a legitimate mandate to place local issues, whatever they may be, on the agenda for negotiations with the Government of Yukon.

The Municipal Act’s preamble reminds voters and candidates alike that “public participation is fundamental to good local government.” Elections provide a forum for such participation. The value a community derives from municipal elections depends on the local relevance of issues raised by candidates and voters alike.

Andre Carrel is a retired municipal administrator and author of Citizen’s Hall: Making Local Democracy Work. He lives in Terrace, B.C.