Remember the first thing Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson did after he was sworn in after he won re-election? He talked about raising salaries for city council and the mayor – which just so happened to be him.

Well, he got his review to look into raising their salaries. It didn’t matter that not one of them ran on a platform of more money for politicians. After the election, it was one of their top priorities.

Well, it turns out that while Robertson was distracting us all with talk of higher salaries, he was feathering his own nest in another way as well.

On Tuesday, the City of Vancouver passed its 2015 budget – which included an overall spending increase of 3.7%.

Some line items in that budget got smaller and some got bigger, a lot bigger.

For instance, spending on housing services is up over 30% and certain small grants nearly doubled in size.

But one spending increase stood out for me – the mayor’s budget grew by an astonishing 23.6%. That works out to $233,000 more than in 2014.

Significantly, it’s one of the biggest increases of any line item in the entire city budget.

So why does Robertson need more money for his office? Well, the budget explains it is to support his roles as the chair of four organizations: The TransLink Mayor’s Council, the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, the Vancouver Police Boards and the Vancouver Economic Commission.

But that doesn’t make a lot of sense. By definition, the mayor is the chair of the police board and economic commission, and has been for years. These are not new responsibilities that require more staff – they are part of the job that never needed special funding before.

The two other jobs may need some extra effort from his scheduler and a bit more prep work on the mayor’s behalf, but they hardly justify nearly a quarter-million more in office spending. In particular, the Big City Mayors’ Caucus only meets two or three times a year – it’s hardly onerous on office resources.

Buried even deeper in the budget documents is the fact that this level of spending is projected to be maintained for the next four years. We’ve seen the TransLink job change hands fast – so it seems premature at best to assume Robertson will still be running the show in four years. But the money is there.

Robertson’s office budget has ballooned by 23.6%, and it really isn’t at all clear why. A giant leap in spending like that should be scrutinized, justified and explained in more detail than a vague paragraph buried deep in a budget document.

Running a successful election campaign isn’t cheap. Phone banks, campaign literature and advertising all cost a lot of money. Parties depend on their donors to help them deliver a win by writing cheques.

We are used to hearing about big money being spent in federal and provincial election campaigns, but in 2014, according to information released by Elections BC, municipal election spending broke records.

Unlike other levels of government, there are no election spending/donation limits at the municipal level. This means that parties can spend what they want, and corporations and unions are free to empty their pockets for their candidate of choice.

It is always insightful to look at who is writing campaign cheques.

So who were the big campaign donors across the Lower Mainland in the November municipal election? You guessed it – developers, unions and special-interest groups.

Overall, Vision Vancouver spent just north of $3.3 million to secure its win – an astonishing sum of money. Vision spent more money in the 2014 campaign than any other party in Vancouver’s history.

The vast majority of Vision’s $2.9 million in campaign contributions came from corporations – which accounted for $1,917,822.98 of Vision’s total raised dollars. Developers were among the most generous donors to Vision. Some examples include: Amacon Management Service Corp, $75,000; Aquilini Development and Construction, $50,000; Concord Pacific Developments, $46,000; and CM Bay properties, $25,000.

Unions also gave just over $360,000 to the Vision war chest.

The NPA raised just over $2.4 million to finance their failed election bid. Of that, only $3,000 came from unions. A significant chunk – $1,748,244.88 – came from corporations.

In Surrey, the winning party Surrey First spent a whopping $1.2 million. Most of their funds were donated by corporations, which collectively contributed $902, 195.

The re-elected Burnaby Citizens Association spent around $473,000 to sweep all seats. Merely $18,000 of the contributions were donated by individuals. The rest came from corporations, businesses and unions. Cupe Local 23 alone donated a massive amount – $91,125.

In Richmond, independent Mayor Malcolm Brodie spent just over $450,000 to secure his win and raised around $265,000. A large portion, around $170,000, came from corporations, and a good chunk came from not-for-profit organizations.

It is clear that when it comes to electing local government in B.C., corporations and unions play a massive role. This isn’t a good thing, and it’s about time to make some changes.

The provincial government promises that municipal campaign expense limits are on the legislative agenda and that we can expect to see significant changes in time for the next election.

Let’s hope this is a promise government intends to keep.

This week, White Rock City Council voted to scrap question period.

Just like that, White Rock has obliterated a hallmark of liberal democracy.

White Rock residents will no longer have the opportunity to pose public questions to their elected representatives following council meetings.

The 15 minutes following each bi-weekly meeting was reserved for this important purpose, but no longer.

According to Mayor Wayne Baldwin, question period “does not seem to be of any value.” Coun. Lynne Sinclair has stated question period “serves no purpose.”

Baldwin cited question period’s lackluster turnout and the tendency of people to use it as a forum to make speeches as his reasons for wanting it on the chopping block.

So what? These are not reasons to kill this important forum for the public.

Now that question period no longer exists, how are the people of White Rock supposed to pose questions to the people they elected to represent them?

According to Baldwin, “there is plenty of ample opportunity for people to question council.” Those “ample opportunities” include things like approaching council members on the street or writing a letter.

That’s right, the mayor of White Rock laughably thinks the random chance of bumping into a councillor on the street is an acceptable replacement for question period.

Perhaps Baldwin also believes his constituents should be using carrier pigeons to relay their questions. Or maybe use smoke signals.

This week’s vote was the final nail in the coffin for White Rock’s question period. Its slow death began in 2013 when council voted to shift question period from the beginning to the end of meetings at 9:30 p.m. (when the TV cameras often stopped recording), and to limit its scope to matters that were only on that day’s agenda. Previously, residents could ask about any matter, regardless of whether or not it was on the agenda.

White Rock now joins a host of other B.C. municipalities that do not have question period, such as Langley and Surrey.

This is disturbing to say the least.

Politicians may not like question period because the idea of being questioned publicly in front of their peers, the media and their constituents may be both terrifying and potentially embarrassing for them. Perhaps they would rather simply receive an email or a private phone call, and not have to face the public and their peers.

But that is not how democracy works. In a democracy, politicians must be held accountable, and the public must be able to openly question them in public forums.

Shame on White Rock for this move. Email Mayor Baldwin at and tell him to bring back question period.

Last time I checked, the streets of Richmond were not paved with gold.

But city hall sure seems to be.

Richmond’s taxpayers are on the hook for some of the most extravagant salaries in local government. In fact, of the 13 best paid local government civil servants, four of them work for the City of Richmond.

We expect big cities to pay big salaries for their top bureaucrats, and it’s true that both Vancouver and Surrey pay some employees more than Richmond’s top earners.

Richmond City Hall’s biggest paycheque in 2013 went to Joe Erceg, the deputy chief administrative officer. For being the No. 2 civil servant he was paid $345,605.

That’s a lot of money. It’s even more than what Vancouver’s city manager makes ($339,219) and, to be fair, Vancouver has three times as many residents as Richmond.

In 2013, Erceg made more than his boss, George Duncan, the chief administrative officer, who pulled in only $308,334. Two more Richmond employees round out this list of shame – both general managers making around $295,000.

To put these outrageous salaries into context, the prime minister is paid $327,400 to run the entire country.

Now, every time salary numbers are published, we hear the same thing from city politicians – that you have to pay top dollar to attract top talent. This is true, to a point. No one is suggesting that the manager of a big city shouldn’t be paid in line with their skills and experience. But these rates are out of control and unnecessary. There are many brilliant, experienced people who would happily run a city like Richmond for under $200,000.

And the proof of this is the raises they keep giving themselves. The private sector has not been having a banner few years, and city hall doesn’t have to keep handing out huge raises to keep their talent from fleeing to better opportunities.

Those two general managers at Richmond City Hall made just over $230,000 in 2012. Their salaries jumped 28% in one year – can you think of anyone you know who kept the same job and got a 28% raise last year? I can’t. That kind of jump in salary in only one year is not typical of any private-sector job.

Richmond has to get its act together – there is absolutely no reason to fork out $1.25 million of taxpayers money for only four employees.

The next time your child asks you what career they should follow to make lots of money – tell them to get a job at Richmond City Hall.

It is no secret that Vancouver’s city council has had odd priorities over the years. Pet projects and wonky initiatives that benefit a small number of people often take precedence over serious city issues that affect all residents.

Urban hobby beekeeping, backyard chickens and tackling loneliness are some of things the City of Vancouver has seen fit to focus on – and direct resources to – in recent years. I suppose this is all part of some master plan to turn our city into a giant, friendly farm.

Now, Vancouver’s government has a new issue to tackle. One so critical it was top of the agenda for the post-election mandate.

Can you guess what it is? If you guessed taxes, transportation or affordable housing, you are beyond wrong.

The new issue, in keeping with the rural theme, is fighting the light bulb.

As I sit here on a dark, rainy night, basking in the glow of my laptop and lamps, I can’t help but marvel at modern technology and all the wonders it has brought us. The ability to continue being productive, even after the sun has set ridiculously early in our northern winter climate, is just one example.

But for some people, namely Non-Partisan Association Coun. Elizabeth Ball, the light bulb is no hero. It is a problem which must be dimmed. Ball tabled a motion on Tuesday to create a task force that will make recommendations for an outdoor lighting strategy. The motion passed unanimously.

According to Ball, light pollution is hurting our health and negatively affecting insects, flora and fauna. She wants to create a strategy that would regulate the use of light at night, which would limit “light trespass” and “obtrusive light.”

Yes, these are things. Apparently in our effort to keep outdoor lights on to keep out trespassers, we have created a whole new problem of light trespass. Apparently light is going places light ought not to go, and it must be stopped.

According to Ball’s motion, a darker sky will “improve the nighttime environment for astronomy.”

You know what else improves the nighttime environment for stargazers? Not living in a city.

Cities are wonderful places that offer many great things, but a crisp view of the big dipper is not one of them. Drive out to the country for that.

And let’s face it, Science World just wouldn’t look the same if it was cloaked in darkness.

Instead of fighting light bulbs, city council should get its priorities straight and fight things – like higher taxes.

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