EDITORIAL: Who’s in charge?

It would be good to see some strong leaders do a better job reflecting the wishes of the electorate rather than those of municipal staff

Things have changed in the relationship between the tax-paying public and those who work for cities and towns on Vancouver Island.

And not in a good way. Nasty, vitriolic, defensive, offensive — these are just some of the words that come to mind when describing recent events and comments related to how taxpayers view those who work in city and town halls, and vice versa.

It’s easy to cite the Internet as the chief reason for the increased temperature. Those who could not, or would not, bother to comment about a city issue or a city staffer can do so now in their jammies from the comfort of their homes. These comments can also come anonymously, which seems to increase the courage, and rudeness, of posters.

The City of Nanaimo fired back. It sent a letter to three social media website hosts, saying several personal attacks had been made about the competency and character of identifiable city staff. The city’s lawyer asked website moderators to delete such posts and take steps to ensure they do not appear in the future. The letter cited a desire to protect staff from workplace harassment and bullying, pointing out that is also required of employers under WorksafeBC regulations.

Prominent Vancouver-based free speech and media lawyer David Sutherland suggested the letter might be better described as an attempt to dress up the wolf of censorship in the sheep’s clothing of protecting employees. He said if he received such a letter from the city, he would mail the city a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, asking what part of it supports a government seeking to restrict political speech.

While there’s no room for rude, personal attacks on any level, somehow we seem to have lost focus on how this municipal government thing is supposed to work. Then again, the system might be set up for failure.

As long as we treat the mayor and councillor positions as part-time gigs, the real power will always remain with staff. That essentially means the decisions are being made — OK then, heavily influenced — by non-elected people. These non-elected people are experts in their fields, sure, but they were not chosen by taxpayers to steer the ship of government.

Coupled with the part-time politician factor, or perhaps hand-in-hand with it, is the fact we are lacking real leaders who are not afraid to direct staff. Apparently some staff believe taking direction from an elected official can amount to bullying.

It’s time for the people, through strong, elected leaders, to take back our local governments.

— Editorial by John Harding

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