Salt Spring Governance in a “Nutshell”

Confused about current Salt Spring Governance? Wonder what would change under a municipal structure? Are your eyes glazing over already? If so, don’t worry. You’re in good company with the majority of islanders who have never taken the time to understand the “unique,” and rather absurd, way we are governed.

Let me start with a simple analogous story. Everyone knows a municipality has a mayor and council, right? Usually there is a total of 7 elected councilors which include the mayor.

Now, imagine the following conversation taking place at a council meeting in a town in Ontario, let’s call it Smartville, just after the mayor has just returned from a two week summer vacation on Salt Spring Island:

Mayor – “My fellow councilors, I have recently visited Salt Spring Island in BC, where I studied their unique form of governance. It is quite unlike anything I have ever seen or heard about. They are in the middle of deciding whether or not they want to become a municipality like ours. I met with, and have been convinced by, a few of the island’s anti-incorporationists, that we here in Smartville should do what Salt Spring did back in the late 1800’s – “dis-incorporate.””

Councilor #1 – “You mean stop being a municipality?”

Mayor – “That’s right.”

Councilor #2 – “But how would that benefit our community?”

Mayor – “Well you see, if we disincorporated we would first take our current land use planning department and turn it into an independent, separate, land use planning authority, and call it…say…the ‘Lands Trust,’ which would take care of things like property zoning and development permits. But, rather than us making all the decisions as to what we can do within our community, we will get 12 other surrounding communities to commit to forming a kind of “Lands Trust Super-Council,” made up of a total of 26 members – two elected representatives from each of the other communities and two from ours. The Land Trust Super-Council will then collectively decide how much money should be spent on our land use planning each year.”

Councilor #3 – “Are you saying you want people from other communities to decide what is in our best interests? That’s kind of crazy….”

Mayor – “…Now, I know it sounds a little different, but wait til you hear the rest and I’m sure it will start to make sense. While members of the Land Trust Super-Council may not really know anything about our community they provide a broader, more objective…a more…global perspective on what should happen with our community’s land. And, to ensure that the other communities’ visions of what should happen in our community are protected, we will form a three person “Local Land Trust Committee” which will be comprised of two Trustees elected from our community and one Trustee who will be the Chair of the Committee, elected from another community.”

Councilor #4 – “Who gets to choose the Chairperson?”

Mayor – “The Land Trust Super-Council” does.”

Councilor #5 – “And what happens if there is a split vote on a land use issue between our two locally elected Trustees?”

Mayor – “In the case of a split vote the Chair casts the deciding ballot.”

Councilor #6 – “So, someone who doesn’t live in our community…someone who wasn’t elected by our community gets to make the final decision on important land use issues in our community?”

Mayor – “That’s right.”

Councilor #1 – “But that’s hardly democratic. I mean, it’s kind of like turning back time and having a governor appointed by Britain rule a colony. What happens if one or two of the councilors have a conflict of interest in a matter, and excuse themselves from discussing or voting on a matter?”

Mayor – “Well then, the Chair makes application to the Supreme Court of Ontario for the Court to decide the matter.”

Councilor #2 – “You’re kidding….right? The Provincial Supreme Court then gets to decide our land use planning?…”

Mayor – “Can’t ask for a more fair and objective view than the Supreme Court can you?”

Councilor #3 (holding his head in his hands) – “OK…so…and I hesitate to ask this…wouldn’t the creation of an independent authority, like what you’re suggesting, mean you would have to have separate staffing and offices?”

Mayor – “That’s part of the overall strategy. Decentralization!  A separate office would be rented for the Land Trust, and, we would have the Super-Council select staff members to run it. All staffing changes would be run through the Chief Administrative Officer’s office located likely in Toronto.”

Councilor #3 (head sinking a little lower) – “But wouldn’t that cost considerably more and be considerably less efficient than keeping our land use planning together with the rest of our services – like our water and sewer management, our fire department, library, parks, bylaw enforcement, transportation needs, etc.?”

Mayor – “I was just getting to those other things…you see, we will create separate agencies for each of those entities too.”

(Councilor #3’s head hits table)

Councilor #4 (while looking sideways at Councilor #3) – “But Mayor, surely you’re not suggesting we split the entire municipal services up into separate functions, each with their own separate offices and staff?”

Mayor – “Actually that’s exactly what I’m suggesting…(audible groans are heard around the table)…Here’s the plan…we next take our current water department and split it into 10 geographical areas and then establish four Water District Boards, each with 5 board members to oversee their operations.”

Councilor #4 – “Four Water Districts….each with its own five member Board?…”

Mayor – “Right. They each get their own office if they want, and can choose their own staff. Then we do the same with the two sewered areas of Smartville and create two Sewer Commissions each with 5 Commissioners…(sensing unrest at the table, the Mayor decides he best quickly explain the rest of his master plan)…and then we create the “Smartville Liquid Waste Disposal Committee,” the “Smartville Sewage and Collection Committee,” three “Smartville Bylaw Enforcement Departments,” the “Smartville Building Inspection Department,” the “Smartville Parks and Recreation Commission,” the “Smartville Transportation Commission,” and the “Smartville Emergency Preparedness Group.”

Councilor #5 – “…each with their own management, office, board, staff, letterhead or whatever? And that’s your plan?”

Mayor – “Ooops…Forgot to mention the fire and police departments….and the library. (eyes looking up for guidance)… I think that’s all…”

Councilor #6 – “So basically you’re suggesting we just split up every one of those services and functions which the municipality, through this council, currently has control over, and, which, the last time I looked were running pretty smoothly, and create a dozen or so mini-bureaucratic empires….that’s the concept?”

Mayor – “Like I said…that’s the beauty of it….it’s a “unique” form of governance.”

Councilor #3 (head rising from the table) – “What a brilliant idea! I would like to formally support the Mayor’s concept and starting formal debate on his vision by proposing a name change to our community.”

Mayor – “A name change??”

Councilor #3 – “Yes. I hereby move that we officially rename Smartville to Dumbville. Do I have a second?”

Mayor – “Surely you’re jesting Councilor.”

Councilor #3 – “Ahhhh….you caught me, Mayor…I hereby withdraw my motion….and instead…I move we remove the Mayor from office.”

Mayor – (looking shocked) “On what grounds!!”

Councilor #3 – “Evidently smoking too much pot when you were on Salt Spring for a start. How could anyone seriously believe that a fractionalized form of governance, such as you have just suggested, would be less expensive, more efficient or more democratic than our current, everything under one umbrella, form of governance with 7 duly elected representatives? “Unique” yes, but sensible?…not in a million years to anyone with common sense. Do I have a second to my motion?”

Councilor #1 (beating three other councilors whose lips had already begun to move) – “I second the motion.”

Councilor #3 – “All in favour?”

(hands shoot up around the table…ending this chapter of the Mayor’s political career)

So, back to reality….let me ask you this -“Would you have voted to keep the Mayor of Smartville?”

Well, the scenario I’ve just laid out pretty much spells out how our governance system on Salt Spring is currently set up.

Below is a list of the services, functions, departments, commissions, boards, districts, committees, etc. which currently make up our “unique” form of governance.

Each and every one of these would become the responsibility of the Island Municipality of Salt Spring Island. I’ve provided hyper links to the relevant sites. Take a moment and look over the list and click on a few links. Once you’ve got a clear picture of what our current governance structures are, imagine them all under one roof and then ask yourself which scenario makes more sense. I did my analysis back in 2001. I trust your analysis will yield a similar result.

And that’s the Salt Spring Civics 101 lesson for today. I’m fairly confident you will get a passing grade…even if you’ve just smoked some of Salt Spring’s finest….and hey…the best news is we get to keep our community’s great name.

Functions and Services to be Transferred to Island Municipality

Capital Regional District Functions

  1. Water systems
    1. Fernwood
    2. Highland
    3. Beddis
    4. Cedar Lane
    5. Cedars of Tuam
    6. Fulford
  2. Sewer systems
    1. Maliview Estates sewage system (Highland Water and Sewer Local Services Commission)
    2. Ganges sewerage (Ganges Sewer Commission)
    3. Liquid waste disposal (septage – Salt Spring Island Liquid Waste Disposal Local Service Commission)
    4. Sewage collection and disposal
  3. Bylaw Enforcement
    1. Unsightly premises bylaw
    2. Noise control bylaw
    3. Animal control bylaw
    4. Clean Air Regulation
    5. Composting Facilities Regulation
    6. SSI Transfer Station Regulation
  4. Building inspection/Numbering of buildings
    1. Building Regulation Bylaw
  5. Parks and Recreation Commission – facilities/programs
  6. Transportation Commission
    1. Pathways and sidewalk planning
    2. Bus service planning
    3. Parking
  7. Library funding
  8. Salt Spring emergency programs
    1. Preparedness Kit Information
    2. Salt Spring Search and Rescue
    3. SSI Emergency Program Advisory Commission
  9. Stormwater quality management
  10. Fernwood Dock Management Commission
  11. Union of BC Municipalities membership
  12. Elections
  13. Community Economic Development Commission

Islands Trust Functions

  1. Local planning work
  2. Soil removal and deposit bylaws
  3. Local land use bylaw and Official community plan bylaw
  4. Subdivision referrals from Approving Officer
  5. Advisory Planning Commission
  6. Ticketing Bylaw
  7. Bylaw enforcement

Water Districts

  1. North Salt Spring Waterworks
  2. Scott Point
  3. Mt. Belcher
  4. Harbour View



  1. 1.       Salt Spring Fire District
    1. a.      Fire Protection
    2. b.      Fire education and safety


Provincial Functions

  1. Subdivision approval authority
  2. RCMP services – 70% of funding
  3. Roads
    1. Ownership transferred to Municipality
    2. Maintenance
    3. Signage
    4. Width of new roads
    5. Sidewalk/pathway permitting
    6. Accesses
  4. Property tax

3 Responses to Salt Spring Governance in a “Nutshell”

  1. If you’re interested what the average property owner on Bowen Island paid in taxes in 2010, a decade into incorporation, compared to 22 other B.C. rural district and municipalites of various sizes, go to page 66 of this document:

    While the average Salt Spring property owner paid about $2350, Bowen Island land owners paid about $7200.

    • For fairness says:

      Unfair to compare Is. Trust with another municipality! One should compare with planning
      Costs of a municipality. This means we pay about six times more than a typical CRD municipal planning organization. Whether this is worth it or not is in the eye of the beholder!

  2. Actually the graph shown on page 66 is rather misleading…and one must wonder why it was presented in such a fashion.

    Take another look it. Just because Bowen Island is listed near the top, doesn’t mean the top line is Bowen Island’s. While the lines shown are all of the municipalities in BC, the line for Bowen is likely closer to $4,700 (compare the red line shown for Salt Spring, which appears to be in line with the bottom of the text “Salt Spring.”)

    However, the graph also gives no indication of what we are actually comparing. It states it is representative of a $450,000 home on Salt Spring, which suggests the taxes for a $450,000 home on Bowen are about twice as much. But does that really tell the tale, or is this an apples and oranges comparison?

    On page 49, the graph there indicates the total property taxes for Bowen were about $4,250,000 for 2009. Given there were 1,640 residences on Bowen in 2006, that works out to an average of $2,591 per residence.

    Using the same formulation, but with the Salt Spring statistics – 5,309 residences @ $2,591 = $13,758,079. To suggest then that Bowen Island taxes are about double what ours are, would suggest that our annual budget (with no increases over current status quo) would be in the neighbourhood of $13,758,079/2 = $6,879,039.

    The 2002 Restructure Study indicated SSI paid total property taxes in the amount of $10,947,517, which further brings into question the relativity of the Bowen taxes to SSI taxes which you have raised.

    On page 65 is the actual property tax increases, from 2002 to 2010, experienced on a SSI property. In 2002 the taxes were $1326.72 and in 2010 they were $1814. That’s an increase of 36.7% or $487.28

    Now look at page 78. This shows the 2002 projected tax increases after 8 years of incorporation (2010) of $192.

    That indicates the actual tax increases we have experienced under the status quo form of governance are 2.53 times more ($487.28/$192) than what was projected if we had incorporated.

    The 2002 Restructure Study indicated SSI paid total property taxes in the amount of $10,947,517.

    Unfortunately the Islands Trust presentation doesn’t clearly indicate an apples to apples comparison. However, the glimpses certainly don’t support the kinds of increases which you have suggested.

    We need more data, which is why an Incorporation Study, with all of the latest tax data, and comparisons with other municipalities, is a necessary piece of the puzzle. Until we have updated data, its impossible to say with any certainty what financial implications incorporation may hold for Salt Spring.

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