Podcast | Local Government 101 with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs

With the BC local government elections coming up on October 15, 2022, the BCMA, BC Alliance for Arts + Culture, and Arts BC are discussing all things advocacy. In this special Advocacy Week podcast, Ryan Hunt, BCMA Executive Director, speaks with Marijke Edmondson, Strategic Advisor, Local Government at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. 

The BCMA has asked members for questions they have about how local governments work in British Columbia. Join Marijke and me as we discuss everything from “what’s a regional district,” to the importance of building relationships with local government staff, to why local government elections all happen at the same time.

Interview Transcript

The BCMA team is experimenting with transcribing podcast interviews to make the content more accessible to a broader audience. Below is a lightly-edited transcript from Ryan Hunt’s conversation with Marijke Edmondson. Please let us know what you think about transcribing podcast interviews by emailing

Ryan: [00:00:00] Marijke, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about the role of local governments in our province, how they work and really explore this topic in a bit more detail, because I think that of all the branches of government, local governments can be the least understood by people.

So I really appreciate having you here to share your expertise with us today.

Marijke: I’m very happy to be here, Ryan. It’s a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. I agree with you that people bring a lot of uncertainty and assumptions about local governments and they play such a pivotal role in services and fostering community identity and dialogue.

Ryan: So in talking to a lot of arts culture and heritage organizations there’s a lot of organizations that have really strong ongoing relationships with local governments, but there’s also a lot who haven’t really invested the time in building those relationships and getting started. Opening a door to dialogue with local governments can feel daunting or even a [00:01:00] bit of a mystery.

Broadly speaking, how can local governments and arts culture and heritage organizations work with and support each other?

Marijke: One of the things to understand is that local governments can really provide a very broad range of services. Although there are very few that are strictly required.

It really depends on the quality and quantity of services that the council or the regional district board believe the community is prepared to pay for. And sometimes the amount of accountability or control that the council board will have over how money they need to seek from the taxpayers will ultimately be spent.

So I, I imagine that the golden ticket that the arts and culture sector is interested in, would be levying taxes to contribute directly to arts and cultural organizations, but that’s not at all the only way that local governments can support the sector. In many communities, they’re actively engaged in providing facilities that can host exhibit spaces and programming.

They host community events and that’s a great opportunity for partnerships [00:02:00] and amplifying awareness of the and culture organizations in their communities. They can encourage private investments in arts culture as part of land development community building. They have tremendous influence when someone wants increased density or a change in use to sit to talk about what the built environment needs to include in order to have a vibrant community and that includes the culture sector. They can be involved in supporting tourism initiatives and economic development services that drive traffic to your exhibit spaces. And some of them even provide capacity building services for community groups, through volunteer management opportunities, training, or grant writing services.

It’s easy to think of support in a very narrow financial term, but there’s also a lot of opportunities for cost saving or enhanced opportunities with services and programming.

Ryan: Things that make opening that door to dialogue challenging for arts culture, heritage organizations is knowing where to start, who to talk to.[00:03:00] Take the BCMA, our office is in Greater Victoria on Lekwugen territory and where our office is we are technically in the city of Victoria, but we’re also in the Capital Regional District, which is a regional district.

So if you are an organization that might be in more than one jurisdiction of a local government or might be neighboring another local government or a First Nations government what are the differences between these forms of local government and how broadly would you recommend people figuring out where to get started in building relationships?

Marijke: The right strategy for starting on the relationship really depends a fair bit on your context. Cuz you can have success with either form of local government municipality or regional district. But you need to understand that they are set up to operate a little differently. My area of expertise is not necessarily in First Nations’ community government but they also have interests that are both narrow geographically defined and more broadly [00:04:00] defined.

Municipalities and regional districts can certainly operate on very different geographic scales. There’s some places where municipalities serve one or just part of one community. Regional districts are designed to serve many communities. You describe the capital regional district and the city of Victoria, arguably city of Victoria has a piece of broader community that we used to call Greater Victoria but I think now that Saanich is actually dominant in population has become perhaps less popular. But where, whether the municipal boundary actually reflects the extent of one sense of community and the beginning of another is hugely variable. And the two forms of local also have different degrees of flexibility to spend money.

So if an element of your relationship is about financial contribution. Helpful to understand that municipal councils are responsible for composite budget. Most services are paid for by the entire municipality through general tax levy or by individual [00:05:00] users of services, perhaps of fees. So all the proposed expenditures are added up to determine the amount of revenues required and as long as total revenues and expenditures remain balanced, municipal council can rearrange the spending however they need to, and they levy you the amount of tax. That’s what they wanna spend minus what they think they’ll take in fees and grants. The rest goes on the tax bill, regional districts, they operate services on a lot of different scales.

So they’re required to have a separate balance budget for each and every service. So they can’t necessarily find savings in the water budget and apply it to the sewer budget to use a very sort of technical hands on example. They can however, provide service to just one community, to an entire electoral area, which is like a provincial constituency, but a regional basis in local government context or to a combination of several electoral areas of municipalities or to whole region. [00:06:00] So when you’re thinking about matching what’s the community that you’re serving with the local government, that’s where I say depends on context in Greater Victoria, working through the capital regional district potentially draws in participation from 13 different municipalities.

If you are in Christina Lake, you’re dealing with the regional district. If you are in the Trail area, however you could be approaching Trail and Warfield, maybe Freevale and Montrose, maybe bringing the regional district for the rural Beaver Valley. It really depends on how you see yourself fitting with, within your context.

So deciding which form to approach may also wanna consider that something municipalities will be more willing to sign on to a service and make a contribution. If they know that adjacent communities are also chipping in. Others are quite happy to go it alone as a point of civic pride, and that might be [00:07:00] a good place to start if your organization’s identity is already aligned with with the identity of municipality.

Ryan: And also, I wonder if some of the uncertainty about where to start is stems from not knowing who specifically within a local government to talk to? I think broadly, a lot of people think, oh, I should talk to the mayor or I should talk to my council person. But I wonder if people don’t fully understand the kind of dynamics between elected local government officials and local government staff, because often talking to a CAO or an approving officer or a corporate officer, or, if there’s a heritage planner in your community many times those staff roles have a lot of ability to move an idea in front of decision makers. Can you talk a little bit about the different roles that are involved in local governments and how cultural organizations can focus on building those relationships?

Marijke: Absolutely. [00:08:00] Yeah. In my work career with ministry of municipal affairs, I’ve wonderful opportunity to work extensively, both with local government staff and with elected officials from around the province. And what I’ve really observed is that there’s a there’s absolutely a recognition that, elected officials make the decisions that make them as a group. Unlike other provinces where sometimes the mayor will have actual distinct powers. That’s not really the case in BC, but the mayor very often acts as spoke person can be very influential for a municipal council. And similarly, the chair of a regional district board will speak on behalf will be their, the official voice of the broader group. But it’s very useful to talk with at a minimum, the majority of the elected officials and new local government, because no one vote determines how things will go and municipal councils and regional district polls, they make a range of decisions [00:09:00] through bylaws and resolutions. And those bylaws can define services. I don’t mean to keep harping back on the money, but I just sense that’s where a lot of the interest will be.

That has some rigor and gravitas to it because it binds the organization things and the budget and tax rates are set in those bylaws. And it takes a majority to see one of those come through. Council can also give direction to staff through resolutions and in smaller places, actually, maybe in all places the shaping of the draft bylaws come forward is definitely done by staff. When council begins to consider a bylaw, it, those rarely hit the council table or the floor of the board meeting room without a fair bit of preparation by staff. Sometimes they come forward as part of a annual routine cycle, and there’s a whole process that staff guide to do things like [00:10:00] build up a proposed budget and other times there’s resolution from one of the elected officials that’s got some support that send staff off to go and figure out what’s the information they need to make a decision. What are some credible options? So although the most visible part of government local government decision making is where the elected officials are deliberating.

The staff are quite important in terms of creating process and understanding the budget pressures and opportunities that arts and culture organizations can have to create, situations that are gonna be beneficial to both the local government and to that organization or to the broader community.

And staff can also be very helpful and suggesting potential partnerships. If they see a request coming in that isn’t maybe a right fit, they’re in a really good place to be able to notice who else is [00:11:00] operating in the same search space and suggest ways of getting together to, to make more powerful proposals.

Ultimately, the purposes of municipality include providing for good government that’s community for services and laws for community benefit. For stewardship and public assets of the community and fostering economic, social, environmental wellbeing. The purpose of regional district are really quite similar.

So whether you’re talking with an elected official or staff member, they’re all gonna be very passionate and committed to that sense of community. Understanding how your organization contributes this, you can pull out of them in conversation, but also yeah, express to them, particularly if it helps with their accountability to community.

Ryan: If an organization is attempting to figure out who to talk to whether that’s an elected official or a staff member where would you find that contact information? Would you recommend going to the local government website and thinking through there, or are there other services or sites that collect that information?

Marijke: The specific local [00:12:00] government website is always a good starting point. I will admit that they could be a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve sometimes struggled a little bit to find I’m never sure if I am, that person, that the web metrics are not made up for, I’m not showing up as a resident or a business or or a visitor.

But a lot of ’em do have great contact information on their websites. And you have the bonus of being able to find a lot of the documentation about what are the issues and priorities that the local government’s dealing with on their websites. Absolutely start with your local government local website.

If you need to quickly get information about who to contact a range of local governments, or if you’re struggling with your particular local go website. My go-to move is always, which is an information clearinghouse for local governments in British Columbia. And they have a fantastic directory, so you’ll find the names and contact information for all elected [00:13:00] officials and most of the senior staff in every local government. It is kept up to date by the local government themselves. Sometimes they might fall behind if there’s been a staffing change. But that’s actually where our ministry relies on as our sort of Roledex.

Ryan: That’s really helpful. I think that’s a lot of really solid actionable advice for building relationships. I don’t wanna boil everything down to money, but I think a lot of arts culture, heritage organizations are interested in creating those relationships because they want to establish relationships of funding and support with local governments.

How do local governments make funding decisions? Is that something that you could encourage a local government to do, to say, create a museum or a gallery or an arts organization in a community?

Marijke: It is. I alluded earlier to the differences in the ways that municipalities and regional districts need to approach their budgets. And there [00:14:00] is more, they’re more procedural rules for regional districts, if they were to decide that they wanted to set up a museum or to provide a, an ongoing contribution to an existing institution then there would be for a municipality. The municipality can simply develop a plan, put it into their five year financial plan that they’re going to make whatever financial investments in each year and they just go. For a regional district, they need to establish a distinct service.

And because regional district decisions are usually made by a combination of the very local representatives and representatives from other parts of the region they have some stricter rules that require approval of the local taxpayers to create a fund services. So the interest of the community and factors into the decision making regional districts are required to seek the approval of the [00:15:00] electors when they want to create a new service and the process they need to follow involves adopting a bylaw that describes the service.

So a museum at such and such location and the maximum cost of this service, which translates to a maximum annual property tax. And then they secure the approval of the electors either through a referendum or an alternative approval process before having a review by the provincial government, and then finally adopting the service and regional districts can either operate a service directly.

So it could be a regional district museum. In a regional district facility, or it could provide a grant in aid to fund activities or services provided by community groups. This is a fairly common arrangement with say volunteer fire departments or public library, associations, or other community groups that provide a [00:16:00] grassroots, do it yourself service to the community, but it’s not under the control of the regional district or the municipality and the local government doesn’t necessarily want to take on control because there is the society that’s running that activity or program or service, has long history and has credibility in the community has their own base of employees and or volunteers.

But a regional district still needs to go through that process of making sure that the taxpayers are willing to pay for the annual contribution, creating a new service in terms of advocacy will require support from one or more directors to bring the regional district board on side with seek sector approval and will also benefits from support from the administration to work out what the funding arrangements might be and develop the bylaw and the budget, the all the way up board in a municipal context, I mentioned earlier,[00:17:00] majority of the council is needed to make an idea really fly. Same principle holds true that you need a sponsor, you need a champion and you need to make sure that you’ve worked out with the proposal, what are gonna be the sticking points and there’s staff that can usually help with that contribution arrangement. And you’re looking to take that to the next level. That’s probably going to be a scenario where the cost of the service is gonna exceed the maximum specified in the existing bylaw. And the regional district does need to go back and use a similar process to seek the approval of the participating communities for an increase in the maximum amount of the tax levy. That can happen at any time, although we do see regional district boards tending to consider that either where there’s been rising service costs or where it’s convenient to, to bundle requests to the electors on a common ballot. So there are probably a fair number [00:18:00] of communities that are gonna have questions on the ballot around amending the amount of funding towards different service in conjunction with the local election that’s coming.

Ryan: Local government elections are coming up in October of this year. First just a random question. Why do they happen all at once in BC?

Marijke: That is a good question. I’m going to make up an answer. And part of it is that they are all concurrent. It allows for all the members of our regional district to be, elected at once, either within a municipal council and then from that council draw, who will be representing the council at the board table or directly elected from among the various rural areas.

Once upon a time, there was a if we go back to, a hundred years, the term of office was actually an annual cycle and there were some communities that would, when that started to move to two year [00:19:00] terms, they would alternate see a lot of improvement districts still do that, where the full compliment of the board of trustees is not elected all at once there. If there were five trustees they’d be elected two, two, and one, they have a three year term type. And so in that case, you have all those concurrent election races going on. I’m not sure whether Elections BC finds it more challenging to cope with the 189 concurrent local government elections that are happening because campaign financing all gets reported through Elections BC.

Ryan: And thinking about the elections themselves. Do municipal elections say a city of Victoria function similarly to regional district elections?

Marijke: They do operate under the same general rules which dictate the day of the general local election, what’s the eligibility to stand for office, what’s the eligibility to be [00:20:00] a voter. And there’s also a bit of scope for each local government to, through an elections bylaw, to scope out whether they want to do more or less advanced voting. For example, whether they want to offer mail, ballot voting, which can be costly. And there’s some controversy vote, whether the juice is worth the squeeze that will determine how many voting places they might have that sort of customizing.

But the in general they’re very analogous. So they’ll have the same nomination requirements, the same nomination period. The rules are a little different. If you have a a situation where you have a lack of candidates, and what happens then? But the elections are administered in the, almost the exact same way between municipalities and electoral.

Ryan: And thinking about elections as well. Right now school board trustee elections have made the news a bit [00:21:00] more this year than they might in a typical year. While you for school board trustees in October alongside local government elections are considered part of the local government system?

Marijke: They are not, although the often the local government will run the elections on that’s a requirement under the legislation. And it was probably a legacy in the time when school boards and municipalities could in fact have been quite integrated. They haven’t been for many decades, but the legislation and my colleagues over at Ministry of Education have concluded that local governments are much better position to the infrastructure to administer elections.

You do have with a school district a similarity to local governments where you have elected officials and you paid professional staff and the distinction between which makes what types of decisions is quite clear. But school trustees don’t have the same authority to levy [00:22:00] taxes that a municipal council does.

They’re fairly constrained to the management of the budgeted amounts that are allocated by the provincial government based on what’s taking in the school tax of. So they’re not in, usually in the position.

Ryan: After people listen to this podcast and get excited about the upcoming local government elections, and they want to learn more where can people look to learn positions of candidates, people who are running and start to engage with some of the issues?

Marijke: The election race in some communities has already been underway for quite some time, even though nominations couldn’t be submitted until August 30th and candidates, won’t actually officially be declared until September 9th. But municipalities and regional districts at on the 9th of September will provide a list of official candidates and they’re a good starting point. They may offer a brief space for candidate profiles and information on all candidates debates. Those are often quite well advertised and are an opportunity if you’ve got a specific set up [00:23:00] questions that relate to arts and culturally. If you wanna be able to compare and contrast the positions of different candidates, you can ask them a question at an all candidates event. In fact, museum and gallery spaces might be good venues to invite local governments in the public to see themselves in your space by hosting an all candidates meeting.

But we often also see local media will circulate questionnaires and publish the answers provided by candidates, depending on whether there’s local newsletters, actual local newspapers or websites. There’s usually, there’s lots of opportunities and candidates will not be shy if you ask directly. A lot of them would probably really appreciate being asked a set of questions. I did notice actually that the BCMA website has some great information. And a primer on local elections that also offers a bunch of suggestions for getting to know your local candidates. And I am gonna send some of my colleagues there potentially after we finish recording podcast.

Ryan: Well, Marijke, thank you so much for your time [00:24:00] today and sharing some of your expertise in the realm of local government in BC. I know that there is so much information here that we. Explore and chat about and unpack. And I really encourage people who are listening to this to, get invested in their local governments and dig into the history of how decisions are made, start building relationships with partners and governments.

Because at the end of the day, in many ways local governments are the level of government we interact with most in our daily lives. From the roads we drive on, to the way our cities are planned, they really shape community. So is there anything else that you would like to say or anything you’d like to promote that your ministry is working on right now?

Marijke: We’ve been working quite closely with the Local Government Management Association, the Union of BC municipalities, the lead up to the local election to provide some good sort of pre candidate information and some guidance to the folks who are considering being candidates in local elections that can be found on our website. I think on actually, if you go to [00:25:00], they will have links to it all. Which is really helpful in terms of understanding the context in which local elected officials are seeking office and talks really a lot about their roles. This is a, this is always a great time to be thinking ahead and looking ahead at relationships and considering how to open doors.

There’s lots of good ideas out there. Lots of people who are full of goodwill for making the communities that you live in a better place. And go out there and work with them. Thanks, Ryan. This has been fun.

Ryan: Thank you so much.