BCA votes to protect incumbent politicians

Burnaby school trustee James Wang -
Burnaby school trustee James Wang
— image credit:

The Burnaby Citizens Association (BCA) has taken steps to protect incumbent candidates from being knocked out by mass sign-ups of new party members.

The decision was made at its annual general meeting last month. In it, incumbents who choose to run for re-election for mayor, council or school board have been endorsed and will not have their nominations challenged.

Any openings created by someone stepping down will be contested as in the past. That includes large numbers of new BCA members recruited specifically to vote in a particular candidate.

It's that strategy that the move is meant to counteract.

BCA president Gord Larkin said in an interview that all incumbents went through a vetting process with the party's executive. The decision to endorse the incumbents passed at last month's AGM with 75 to 80 per cent of the vote.

Larkin said Coun. Richard Chang will not be running for council again. School trustee James Wang and Katy Alkins-Jang, who has served on the city's parks commission and library board, will both be vying for the open spot.

Both Wang and Alkins-Jang have been "signing up people left, right and centre," he said.

"When we have our nomination meeting they will run for the vacant spot and have at it. The incumbents will not. The incumbents are considered nominated by the fact that the annual meeting voted that way."

The mass sign-ups tend to swell the party's membership temporarily during an election year, he said.

As for complaints that the new policy is undemocratic, Larkin sees it differently.

"How democratic is it for 900 people to come into a room, technically, who have never been to a meeting, never been involved, to choose our candidates? I don't think that's democratic."

He said the new practice will be reviewed after the November civic election.

As for the opening on BCA's council slate, Larkin said if Wang loses the nomination to Alkins-Jang, as an incumbent he will be allowed to return to the school board slate. If he wins the council candidacy, parks commissioner Katrina Chen will win his vacated school trustee slot by acclamation.

Mayor Derek Corrigan confirmed that the move was made in response to major sign-ups of new members that often have little to do with the party but are there purely to help individuals in their nomination races.

"What happens occasionally is someone innocently gets caught in the crossfire."

He cited longtime BCA councillor Celeste Redman as one example of an incumbent who lost her nomination to the mass sign-up technique in previous years.

"That was something the executive was very concerned about because we could lose very good people as a result of having these kinds of mass sign-ups," Corrigan said. "Unless the executive is dissatisfied with the service of the incumbent, then we're not prepared to say we're going to subject them to that kind of chance."

As for the large numbers of new members potentially helping the party at election time, he said, "One would hope that would happen. But typically what happens is trying to locate those people when it comes to election is almost impossible. By the next year none of them are signed up at all.

"In the past, this has happened, you'll spend hours phoning that list of people for volunteers who will say, 'Who are you?'"

While the mass sign-up conundrum is pretty pervasive in politics, in some ways for the BCA it's the result of its success. After all, it's managed a pretty impressive feat, sweeping all civic seats in the last two elections.

"People are very anxious to be involved in a party that's having success," Corrigan said. "They figure if I'm attached to that party I have a much better chance of being elected. And if what I have to do is I have to sign up 500 people to do that, that's where I'll put my effort in."

Meanwhile, incumbents are put at a disadvantage as they're busy doing the work of councillors and school trustees and don't have the time to sign up hundreds of supporters.

The mechanics of local politics is changing significantly, Corrigan said. The issue of mass sign-ups has been dealt with differently elsewhere.

In Surrey, Mayor Dianne Watts' Surrey First party is a party in name only. Corrigan explained that Watts acts as its president, its directors are its elected councillors, and together they simply choose who its candidates will be.

Vision Vancouver has uses a model similar to BCA's new one, in which incumbents are protected.

Patrick Smith, Simon Fraser University political science professor, said parties protecting incumbents is "not entirely uncommon."

But there are pitfalls, including potentially locking them in to certain candidates and preventing renewal of its slates by bringing in new people.

On the other hand, Smith agreed that mass sign-ups tend to involve a "goodly number" of people with no attachment to a particular party. "Some of them may not even know they have their names signed up."

As an example of when not protecting incumbents can backfire, Smith cited former longtime Vancouver mayor Philip Owen, who lost his Non-Partisan Association nomination heading into the 2002 election. His NPA successor, Jennifer Clarke, lost that election—"a lot of people thought it wasn't fair etc."—and the once-dominant party hasn't recovered since.

The BCA's nomination meeting will be held Saturday, April 26 at 1 p.m. at the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown.

Larkin said the venue is simply a result of the election-season influx of new members. "We don't know how many will show up."

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