Big Brother’s coming to city hall

Remember two years ago when B.C. Liberal minister Peter Fassbender took on the B.C. Teachers’ Federation?

The province weathered its longest-ever public school strike, five weeks of full-scale shutdown from disrupted graduation to cancelled fall classes, with the B.C. government dividing up the salary savings and sending cheques to thousands of parents.

The province’s most militant union was wrestled to the ground, its strike fund exhausted, and the BCTF signed a five-year agreement with economic growth sharing similar to all the other provincial government unions.

Premier Christy Clark then assigned Fassbender a new job: do the same thing with municipalities. It started last year, when a provincially commissioned study on municipal wages was leaked just as mayors and councillors from around the province gathered in Whistler for the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

The study showed that municipal staff wage increases had been running at about twice the rate of provincial wage settlements, as the province came out of a recession-driven wage freeze and into a period of slow economic growth. NDP leader John Horgan and the Canadian Union of Public Employees dismissed the study as full of holes, partly because left-leaning cities refused to supply the data. It seems some municipalities, particularly in Metro Vancouver, are not keen to have Big Brother get involved in their contract negotiations.

At this year’s UBCM convention in Victoria, Fassbender let it be known that a review of municipal compensation is underway. That means not only CUPE agreements, but executive pay and even the rich arbitrated settlements handed out to municipal police and firefighters. I asked Fassbender about the plan after his speech Friday, and he was the smooth salesman. He emphasized, as Finance Minister Mike de Jong did last year, that there is no legislative hammer hidden behind his back. At least not at the moment.

“I’ve had a number of good discussions with mayors as I’ve traveled around the province who clearly recognized one of their biggest cost drivers is compensation, and they are more than willing to talk about it,” Fassbender said. “It takes their provincial organization, I think ideally you have UBCM and all of its members, and I emphasize all of its members, willing to sit down and start that conversation.”

The likelihood of that appears to be somewhere between slim and none. Just before Fassbender’s speech, local government leaders debated a resolution dealing with the province’s last effort to help them run their affairs, the Auditor General for Local Government. The upshot of that was similar to last year: Dear Minister Fassbender, put this thing where the sun don’t shine.

Several mayors and councillors suggested the UBCM should lift its ban on cooperating with the auditor, but in the end the majority sided with Invermere Mayor Gerry Taft, who pointed out the province’s new municipal auditor spends $5 million a year to find ways for communities to cut costs. The only way to get rid of it is to change the provincial government next year, Taft said.

So this will be one of the showdown issues in the next provincial election: strong fiscal discipline vs. meddling in the affairs of local governments.

It will inspire CUPE and other unions as they ramp up their third-party advertising campaigns next spring.

tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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