Should governments like Burnaby's look at putting in term limits for politicians? (Burnaby Beacon composite)

What’s Missing in the Municipality: Should Burnaby councillors have term limits?

Half of Burnaby’s council has sat in chambers for at least 20 years. Should Burnaby look at putting in term limits for municipal politicians?

By Srushti Gangdev | September 23, 2022 |5:00 am

This is part two of Burnaby Beacon’s three-part series that takes a  deeper dive into the missing pieces of municipal engagement in Burnaby. Read part one here.

For the first time in more than 20 years, two familiar faces will be missing when a new Burnaby city council convenes in November.

Longtime Couns. Colleen Jordan and Dan Johnston have announced they won’t be running for re-election in the Oct. 15 municipal vote.

First elected in 1993, Johnston is Burnaby’s longest-serving councillor and has been voted to council in nine elections.

“I didn’t expect to win in 1993, and in fact I nearly lost. There was a recount,” Johnston told the Beacon this week.

“I believe I won by 106 votes. But ever since then it’s grown, and last time I actually topped the polls.”

Jordan was elected in 2002, along with fellow council members Pietro Calendino and Sav Dhaliwal—meaning that half of Burnaby’s current council has sat in chambers for at least 20 years.

What does that mean for the state of governance in Burnaby? And should municipalities and governments look at the idea of putting term limits in place that would curb the amount of time a politician can sit on council?

Municipal governments are given jurisdiction by the Local Government Act, so any move to allow term limits would likely have to come from the provincial government.

The incumbency advantage

Stewart Prest of Quest University told the Beacon there are both pros and cons to limiting the number of terms a councillor can serve.

“[If term limits are in place], you are continually moving from one style of leadership to another and one set of goals to another, and it may make continuity in government more difficult to come by. Or, that expertise that comes with being in government may have to be replaced more often,” Prest said in an interview.

“So there are some real trade-offs in terms of putting those term limits in place—but there are definitely advantages as well.”

Prest said term limits can combat the “incumbency advantage,” the idea that incumbent politicians are more likely to get voted in than new candidates based on the fact that they already have the job.

Incumbents have more name recognition, are more likely to have a larger support base, and can point to their previous years in office while campaigning as proof that they can do the job.

Prest said if councillors are repeatedly re-elected, they’ve likely managed to avoid any huge controversies in the course of their work and kept people more or less happy.

But it could also mean voters are simply resigned to the status quo during election season, and don’t truly believe that new councillors could change much if they were elected.

“It could suggest that either people are generally satisfied with the direction of government, that they don’t feel angry enough to support someone different or to get involved themselves. So that might be possible. So a general satisfaction, but maybe also a general kind of apathy,” he said.

“If there’s a feeling that nothing much ever changes during an election, it may make people less willing to pay attention and get involved. And that makes it that much easier for those currently in the roles to continue on. So those are two very different interpretations of what’s happening.”

The incumbency advantage could also mean people from marginalized groups who have been traditionally left out of local governments still find a harder time running against candidates who have run many campaigns in their career.

That means, Prest said, even amid efforts to diversify governments and encourage representation of minority groups, councils can often end up looking the same as they did a couple of decades ago.

Staying the course? Or experts on bureaucracy?

Prest said another disadvantage of councillors serving long terms is that they can sometimes get stuck in their ways.

“People who are elected can become accustomed to doing tasks in a particular way, and they may start to foreclose options that really should be explored further because it was tried at some point in the past and maybe the circumstances weren’t quite right, or there’s a lack of willingness to try something new,” he said.

“… By changing the personalities of the people involved, it does open the door to new ideas, and perhaps a greater willingness to try something different that either has been tried and it didn’t work last time around or has never really been thought of before. So there’s a kind of dynamism that can come from the regular transition to new leaders.”

On the other hand, he noted that councillors with a breadth of experience in local government are more likely to understand the minutiae of what it actually means to do the job. There’s not a lot of support or training provided to newly elected councillors, who instead learn the ropes from those who came before them.

And if a city council is comprised of mostly new councillors who don’t know the specifics of the bureaucracy they’re dealing with, they essentially have to learn on their own.

That’s something that both Johnston and Jordan agreed on.

“It takes a long time to learn the ins and outs of how a city works. And unfortunately, the wheels move really slowly, so it takes a long time to make major changes, and then sometimes you make mistakes or have unintended consequences—so then you have to fix those too. So when you look back on a lot of projects, it’s like holy cow. That took so long,” Jordan said.

Not only do new councillors have a big learning curve when it comes to understanding how to work with fellow council members and city staff, but they have to get themselves up to date on the histories of specific projects—because projects often overlap between elections, and you may find yourself voting one way or another on an item that far precedes your time in chambers.

Jordan said for that reason among others, she’s always opposed the idea that politicians should be subject to term limits. But she also pointed out that regular elections are in themselves a sort of term limit imposed by the public.

“The ultimate term limitation is—every four years people get to say whether your term is up. … So that’s the opportunity to limit my term. It’s in the hands of the people who vote for you.”

Johnston, meanwhile, said that while he’s not outright opposed to the concept of term limits, he would caution any government considering one that the limit should not be too short.

“I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, because I did serve 29 years and it’s easier to save this afterwards than when you’re the young councillor term-wise. … I think it takes two, maybe three election cycles for someone to really become effective on council. You’ve got to be able to work with the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy, in some cases, doesn’t want to do a lot of what you are proposing,” he said.

“… You’re gonna have to be able to figure out whether or not that resistance is legitimate, or whether it’s just—they don’t want to go there. And I think as you’re around the table a little longer, you get to understand when it’s time just to stand tall and [say ‘we] must do this’, and get it done. And other times when you know that staff know more than you know, and that you shouldn’t go there. But I think it takes a couple of years to get that confidence.”

He said a benefit of having long-serving members on council is that those who are more newly elected have someone to look to for advice, and also someone who can point out when a proposed action has already been tried.

But having said that, he suggested that Jordan and himself shouldn’t be the only councillors stepping down after long careers in Burnaby—saying that in recent years, the rhetoric and debate in council chambers have become more “cranky”.

Or, as Jordan said when asked why she decided not to run again:

“It’s best to go before your best-before date.”

Looking back, and ahead

Both retiring councillors said they’re glad that, come November, there will be at least two new sets of eyes and perspectives around the table. And both looked back on their times in council in a positive light.

“Burnaby has grown up. It’s gone up from a ‘burb, in the last 20-25 years, to its own sort of city. It’s still trying to establish an identity, I guess you might say but I think it’s coming to that. And at the same time we’ve still managed to preserve and expand our green space and parks,” Jordan said.

Although she said there’s always some projects she’d have liked to get done before she left, she’ll be avidly watching what Burnaby’s council does and contributing her viewpoint as a private citizen.

Johnston said he hopes councils of the future continue to prioritize Burnaby’s financial viability, noting that the city has put a lot of work over the past few decades into building a strong fiscal base.

He also said that as the city continues to grow over the next few years, our new residents have to be accommodated in a humane, liveable way in relation to those who have already been here.

“We need social housing and new forms of housing, but I don’t think we want to make people live in functional neighbourhoods to feel like they’re forced out,” Johnston said.

“I’ll say that serving on council has been a joy, and I wouldn’t regret a day of my 29 years on the job.”

Prest, meanwhile, has a word of advice for long-term council members.

“There’s a responsibility on the part of the councillor to stay abreast of changes in their communities, because the communities themselves will not look the same as they did 30 years ago, and just the makeup of the community itself,” he said.

“… I think there’s a danger that councillors who serve too long may, not through any fault of their own, just start to either have to work ever harder to understand the challenges that their constituents are facing, or they may start to lose touch with the the particular challenges that more recent arrivals to the community may be may be facing. That’s where you get those labels of being out of touch.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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