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Municipal watchdog no cure-all

RARELY if ever have I seen advocates of limited government get so excited about expanding the province's bureaucracy.

RARELY if ever have I seen advocates of limited government get so excited about expanding the province's bureaucracy.

But if you're a believer in the state raising less tax revenue and doing less stuff, then the phrase "municipal auditor general" is likely music to your ears.

District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton believes he actually witnessed the genesis of this idea. He was in the audience of a B.C. Chamber of Commerce event during the B.C. Liberal leadership race. The moderator - Anne McMullin of the North Vancouver chamber - asked the five hopefuls what they thought of creating a municipal auditor general, given that "business is overtaxed" and that "municipal spending is out of control." Those are my quote marks, by the way.

To no one's surprise, every last one of them thought it was a great idea.

"Why would a candidate not have said that?" observed Walton. "They would have been cutting their throats with that audience."

I guess one of the hazards of picking a premier through an internal party leadership race is that politically expedient promises to the faithful turn into province-wide policy programs. Premier Christy Clark now has to follow through on her pledge to the business community.

I'm not against this idea in principal, but I am a bit alarmed at the expectations that are being heaped on a plan that is, to date, three words long.

Certainly it enjoys some reflected glory from its senior government counterparts. Sheila Fraser in particular retired with a folk-hero/rock-star reputation that rarely attaches to federal government accountants. At first glance it looks great: a new sheriff rides into town(s) and, one hopes, uncovers millions of dollars in municipal waste, unburdening businesses and taxpayers and in the process ferreting out the thieves, communists and drunken sailors who, it's said, populate our municipal halls.

That level of expectation is my first cause for concern. But I'll come back to that.

Nobody I've heard from thinks their local government is actually corrupt. Civic budgets are internally and then independently audited every year. The City of North Vancouver, for instance, keeps such immaculate books that finance director Isabel Gordon and her team can boast a half-dozen or so consecutive national awards. But that's a different process - checking to see that everything is accurate, legal and done according to accepted practices. The question we would want an auditor general to answer is not whether our money was spent honestly, but whether it was spent wisely.

That's where I see complications. Should a provincial appointee be passing judgement on local policy choices? To use an example Walton offered me: If a community spends a lot more money on recreation and libraries than another, is that wasteful? Who makes that call? I'll come back to that too.

There's also a certain conflict of interest issue here. What would an auditor make of local tax dollars spent on carbon offsets? It's money down the drain from a property taxpayer's point of view but it's also required by provincial law. Ever heard of PRIME?

Well, the Police Records Information Management Environment is a provincial police database that communities are required to pay for on a fee-perofficer basis, with no opt-outs allowed. In 2009, then-solicitor general Kash Heed doubled those fees with a stroke of his pen. What would an auditor say to that $32,000 hit on the City of North Vancouver's budget? There are many more varied examples of the province passing the buck. Does a line item get an automatic pass simply because it's provincially mandated?

With all that said, there are two important opportunities for municipalities here - to dispel the cloud of innuendo that has long hung over local budgets and to finally clarify their fraught relationships with the province. For those reasons alone, I say it's probably worth it.

Probably? Well, setting up an auditor general worthy of the name is going to take some money. The provincial auditor general, for example, chews up a bit more than $15 million in tax dollars each year.

So if we're going to open a whole new department, we need to have a careful conversation about its budget and then another one down the road about whether the savings found justify another office in Victoria full of professional staff who will probably have quite a lot of travel expenses. Early on, Clark

signalled that the province would be paying, but there have been rumblings lately that municipalities will be footing the bill. Don't worry, this won't affect your property taxes - honest!

As for expectations and who ultimately judges policy choices: I think it's a dangerous cop-out to hope that some new bureaucrat is going to make everything hunky-dory. Sheila Fraser was incredibly good at her job, and almost single-handedly brought down the Paul Martin government with her exposure of the sponsorship scandal. But that didn't stop the Conservative government that replaced it from blowing an astonishing amount of money on G8/G20 photo ops, many of them conveniently staged in a Tory minister's riding. At the provincial level, government watchdogs have repeatedly savaged the B.C. Liberals for abandoning vulnerable children in dangerous homes, but still nothing has been done about it. So while it's fine for a municipal auditor general to examine the accounts, the accountability must still rest with us, the voters. Granted, budgets don't make for the most thrilling reading, but every municipal dollar spent is a public record, every finance decision made is a public event - more than you can say for the province.

So if you want to know who our new municipal auditor general will be, take a look in the mirror.