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Expect Responsible & Respectful Government

Part of me is a bit saddened by the fact that we need to have clearly-defined policies about what constitutes good conduct for elected officials. The other part of me thinks “It’s about time!” with a touch of amazement that it has taken so long.

And then we get hit with a pandemic, and there’s a whole new level of focus on elected officials and how they show leadership and good conduct in a crisis.

In BC, new standards and guides are being created to support codes of conduct for elected officials in local government, and a code of ethics for local government professionals. In the spring edition of Exchange, there is overview of the Model Code of Conduct and Companion Guide developed by a Working Group on Responsible Conduct that involved staff from the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), the LGMA and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. There are also two excellent examples of how local governments have successfully adopted a code of conduct for their elected officials, along with some tips and resources on how to establish these types of policies.

At the same time, it’s equally important to look toward the local government profession to see how we can elevate the bar for ethical standards. Towards this goal, the LGMA has developed a Code
of Ethics for local government professionals. In Keeping the Public Trust, we learn more about the context for why signing the Code of Ethics is now a requirement for LGMA members and how it will be implemented, including training and enforcement.

Policy decisions aside, this is really all about supporting good governance through responsible leadership and professional conduct. So when we suddenly found ourselves dealing with COVID-19 and a pandemic impacting countries around the globe, I began watching everything through this governance and leadership lens.

As well, as someone who specializes in crisis communication, I find myself assessing how elected officials and various subject matter experts comport themselves, and how their messaging and communication reflects on their leadership, authority and ability to instill trust.

The results out there are mixed, but I’m happy to note that in B.C., I think things have been handled quite well. In fact, in most of Canada, elected officials have been stepping aside to allow the health experts to deliver messages, and I have not seen many instances of politics interfering with communication. I have also, for the most part, noticed that local governments and businesses are being careful in their messaging and actions to flag that they are taking direction from health officials.

Flip to our neighbours in the south and we see a very different approach, where the most senior politician undermines health authorities based on a “hunch” and jumps randomly to multiple, conflicting messages leaving an escalated level of fear and an underlying lack of trust. The elected officials are out in front of cameras most of the time, rather than the health experts. While there have been some good examples, too much of the communication shows a lack of leadership and a serious breakdown in terms of local, state and national cooperation. It’s fascinating…for me anyway.

Overall, I think these crazy days we’re experiencing point to how important it is to have leaders who can be trusted, who demonstrate responsible conduct and who adhere to high standards of good governance. All of those attributes need to be established well before the crisis strikes, and then they become essential for guiding communities through to recovery.

My thanks and sincere appreciation go to all of the people who are working long days to keep our communities safe and our core services in place.

With the pandemic, there’s a whole new level of focus on elected officials and how they show leadership and good conduct in a crisis.

Age-friendly communities involve more than courtesy

As I start creeping closer and closer to being able to qualify for seniors’ discounts, discussions about creating age-friendly communities attract my attention and interest in what it means to me and where I live. Like many people, I also have friends and family members who are struggling with dementia and looking for ways to stay at home with their families. With this in mind, it’s reassuring to hear that there is a growing awareness of the need to create age-friendly communities and a wide range of programs and services that are already in place to help support older citizens.

I first became aware of the need for better planning and programs to help enable aging residents who want to stay in their homes a few years ago when my cousin, Yvonne Poulin, co-authored a book – Aging Safely in Your Home – that provides a simple yet comprehensive guide for seniors and the people who care about them. My cousin told me how there are ways to assess what personal and housing adaptations may be required to age safely in your home, and when it might be a better choice to relocate. Up until then, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to what it must be like to find it difficult to complete simple household tasks or even move safely around your home.

What I learned as I did the interviews and research for this edition of Exchange is that there are programs and planning underway that take the same approach on a community basis – creating an environment that is safe and welcoming for all ages and abilities. I was also surprised to learn that local governments don’t need to be the leader in these initiatives – they just need to be part of a partnership that also involves the provincial government, community-based seniors’ services and other province-wide organizations like BC Healthy Communities and the United Way.

In Creating Age-Friendly Communities from the Ground Up, it was amazing to see the work that has been done in recent years to take a fragmented sector of community service providers and pull them together into a more cohesive network that collaborates and shares resources and expertise to benefit communities across the province. There is a stunning amount of work being done to support these community-based services as well as local governments who are pursuing age-friendly policies, plans and initiatives. As someone who is edging closer to some of those demographic markers for seniors, I’m happy to see this trend to improve everything from the built environment to social programs to make it easier to live in and enjoy the community as we age.

It was also helpful to hear from two local governments who have been recognized for their work in creating age-friendly communities. In Becoming Age Friendly: Case Studieswe learn how they have connected with their local seniors and community organizations to create programs and plans for seniors in their community. Because seniors are involved at the earlier stages and are consulted not just on the barriers or other concerns but also on viable solutions to address their needs, the resulting plans and recommendations have added weight when presented to Councils. It’s also nice to see a recognition that seniors have a lot of value to bring to the table, and we need to find ways to help them become more integrated into decisions that affect them.


Mother Nature delivers services?

Have you heard of natural asset management? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really know what it was all about. Then, as I spoke to some of the key people involved in the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative (MNAI), I was more in a state of shock that something so obvious has been missed for so long. I know how easy it is to take the things we enjoy every day for granted – beautiful forests, amazing mountains, gorgeous lakes and rivers, and stunning oceanfront landscapes. When it comes to nature in B.C., we seem to have it all. But I had never thought about all this amazing nature in the context of services being delivered in a community.

Essentially, it became clear as I worked on both feature stories in Exchange that local governments are relying on nature for a number of services, but they may not fully understand the scope of the services or the implications if those natural areas are degraded. I’m also really impressed that the Town of Gibsons is the pioneer leading this important insight into the value of preserving nature to secure sustainable, resilient services. It all started with the Gibsons aquifer, and now the world is watching and learning from work being done in our province.

It seems like these are just early days in the study of natural assets in the context of the services they provide, but it’s also likely that we may only be skimming the surface right now. I found it interesting that researchers who examined tree cover in 10 large cities found that tree canopy provides those communities with an average of $500 million annually in benefits like reducing air pollution, improving water management and lowering the “heat island” effect. Those are significant impacts that in the past may have appeared to be too intangible to measure but are now being quantified in terms that are relatable and can support decision-making, such as when planning neighbourhoods or establishing tree protection bylaws.

I suppose it’s not surprising to anyone that Mother Nature is a lot better at handling weather impacts than what we can design and build. But what is more surprising is that the evidence from Gibsons and other MNAI pilot communities shows that it consistently costs less to expand and maintain natural assets than to build and maintain engineered options. So nature is proving to be more resilient and more cost-effective. This is particularly critical as communities across Canada face the challenge of their aging infrastructure, budget constraints to maintain or expand engineered assets, and continued pressure from more severe weather events and related impacts such as the wildfires and floods experienced this summer. Now local and regional governments just need to find out how to leverage these natural advantages in their local communities.

With work being done by Gibsons, MNAI and other researchers, there is a growing set of tools, expanded research, new policy direction and increased awareness about natural assets as part of core service delivery. With more communities joining MNAI pilot projects, there will continue to be more studies, more evidence and more tools to assess and quantify natural assets so that they can be embedded in local and regional asset management planning.

The next time I get asked about natural asset management, I’m glad I’ll know a lot more about what it’s all about and the tremendous potential it offers our communities.