Waters: Kelowna city council turns democracy on its head once again

City hall to use controversial reverse option billing method to show it has voter support to borrow $42 million for new cop shop.

Kelowna city hall is doing it again. But this time, $42 million is on the line.

The city is using its reverse option billing tactic—officially known by the suitably vague moniker “alternative approval process”—to win what it considers public approval in order to borrow the money it needs to build a new police building.

But the AAP turns the idea of public approval on its head.

Instead of holding a vote to win support for something the city wants to do, this flawed process lets it proceed based on a lack of opposition rather than a majority of support.

In this case, the city wants to borrow millions that local taxpayers will be on the hook for in years to come. The province says it needs public approval and says the AAP is an acceptable way of getting that.

The cop shop plan itself is not a bad one and it’s clear a new police station is needed. So  in this case, it’s not the borrowing that’s in question but the process. Of course, some may disagree. But will they make an effort to sign a petition opposing the plan?

To make sure the city gets what it wants—without the messy process of democracy getting in the way—it will put the onus on opponents to marshal opposition rather than go out and work to gather support.

It’s the lazy of getting things done by politicians and bureaucrats.

The process gives opponents five weeks to gather the signatures of 10 per cent of eligible voters. If successful, the city can still proceed with the referendum it should have held in the first place.

But from city’s hall’s point of view, it’s an ideal way to govern. It’s a generally effective process, it doesn’t necessarily kill a project it you miscalculate, it saves you money and lets you proceed by telling the electorate you’re right unless they do the work to tell you they think you’re wrong.

The city knows it’s unlikely enough people will get out to sign petitions to make a difference and, if they do, it still has the referendum as an out.

In the case of this latest foray into reverse option billing for taxpayers, the city says it will hold two open houses on the police building project before the March 28 AAP deadline. That’s its bow to public process.

There’s a reason private companies in this province are not legally allowed to do what the city is doing—making the bill-paying public opt out as opposed to opting in. There’s also a reason taxpayers need to approve big-ticket borrowing by their municipalities.

This isn’t the first time Kelowna, or another other municipality in B.C. for that matter, has used the alternative approval process to get what it wants. And it won’t be the last.

The city knows the odds are stacked in its favour, so why mess with success?

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.




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