The Regional District of Fraser-Fort George became the second regional district in B.C. to adopt a policy to allow directors to take a parental leave without losing their elected position.
The board approved the policy on Thursday, a month after the Regional District of Central Kootenay adopted its maternity and parental leave policy for directors. In a report to the board, Karla Jensen, district general manager of legislative and corporate services, said the only comparable policy staff were able to review was from the District of Saanich, which adopted its policy in 2021. Few municipalities in B.C have policies in place to allow elected ofiicials to take maternity or parental leave.
Currently, under the Local Government Act, a director who misses meeting for 60 consecutive days or four consecutive regularly-scheduled meetings would be disqualified from office, unless the absence is due to illness or injury, or the director is given approval by the board to be absent.
“We are on totally new ground here. (Staff) didn’t have a lot of other local government examples to start with,” board vice-chairperson Lara Beckett said. “I appreciate that they don’t have to go to the board for permission to care for a new child in their life.”
Under the policy adopted by the board on Thursday, regional district directors are required to provide six weeks notice to the board chairperson and corporate office outlining when they plan to begin and end their parental leave. The regional district would provide additional compensation to make up the difference between the director’s EI benefit and normal director remuneration for the first 17 weeks of their leave.
During a director’s leave, their alternate would attend meetings on their behalf.
“This is an opportunity to take the lead in our region,” director and Prince George city councillor Terri McConnachie said. “In a four-year term, someone could find themselves with a growing family. When we can remove the barriers… we should really do so.”
In 2016, Sooke Mayor Maja Tait found herself in exactly that situation and lost her seat on the Capital Regional District while she was away on maternity leave, the Victoria Times Colonist reported. Tait’s position on the regional district was later restored.
Jensen said since staff had to “start from scratch” to craft a maternity and parental leave policy for elected officials, they used the district’s policy for staff members as a starting point.
“There are attractions and downsides to putting your hand up to run for being an elected official,” Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall said. Hall also serves as a director of the regional district. “I think it opens up opportunities and it takes away one of those decision points for someone deciding whether to run for office.”
Director and Valemount Mayor Owen Torgersen said a motion is being brought forward by the Union of B.C. Municipalities to build maternity and parental leave into provincial legislation governing local governments, but it could take years and multiple local elections before the changes happen.
Hopefully the regional district’s decision to adopt a policy will help bring the issue forward on a provincial level, board chairperson Art Kaehn said.
Director Pat Crook said the policy will hopefully encourage younger people to consider running for office.
“Looking around, there is not too many of us in our 20s and 30s,” he said.
CONCERNS RAISED OVER UNELECTED ALTERNATES
Director Dannielle Alan was the sole voice of opposition to the policy.
“I don’t consider us employees,” Alan said. “It diminishes our role (as elected officials) and takes us out of that volunteer capacity. I can’t support this.”
Alan said she supports the goal of encouraging more women and young people to run for office, but said she would rather see the direction come from the provincial government, rather than craft a local policy.
“The idea is fantastic, but it is too narrow in scope,” she said.
Alan was also concerned about the alternate directors serving on the board for extended periods. The municipal directors have alternates appointed from their respective city and town councils.
“For rural directors, our alternates are not elected,” Alan said. “We could have an unelected person sitting on the board and voting for up to a year.”