Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley elected as chair of Metro Vancouver

The board of directors for Metro Vancouver has elected Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley as its new chair.

The election to replace Delta Mayor George Harvie comes at a tense time for the Metro Vancouver Regional District, which is responsible for drinking water, sewage, regional parks and some housing.

It faces public backlash over vast cost overruns for a new wastewater treatment plant in North Vancouver, plus questions over spending on international travel.

"This is a big and serious job," said Hurley to his fellow directors after being elected on Friday at a board meeting in Burnaby.

"I will be a strong voice for our needs," he said. "We have to assure public confidence in the services we provide."

Directors for Metro Vancouver vote for a new chair on Friday June 28, 2024 in Burnaby B.C.
Directors for Metro Vancouver vote for a new chair on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC News)

After getting the nod from his peers over the only other candidate, Vancouver Coun. Lisa Dominato, he vowed to correct the "mistakes of the past."

The chair of Metro Vancouver is paid $105,039 a year and is responsible for being the organization's chief spokesperson, presiding over board meetings and establishing standing committees, which includes appointing members.

The 41 directors represent 21 municipalities, one electoral area, and one treaty First Nation within the Metro Vancovuer area.

Harvie was removed as his city's regional representative by his own council in early May, meaning he could not continue as board chair effective July 1. Harvie was not present at Friday's meeting.

Several councillors around Metro Vancouver were critical of Harvie and others for taxpayer-funded travel budget to far-flung locations, billed as opportunities to learn about best practices from other jurisdictions.

Hurley, as chair of Metro Vancouver's liquid waste committee, went to Amsterdam this year to learn about wastewater and diking technology. Harvie was also due to travel but pulled out, saying he didn't want to be a "distraction" due to the public scrutiny he was facing.

On Friday, Hurley defended travelling to Amsterdam, saying it was a "tremendous" learning opportunity he could not have gotten anywhere else.

"It helps me be a better representative," he said.

Hurley vowed to uphold and potentially improve on one of Harvie's last initiatives as chair — calling for an independent review of the wastewater treatment plant, whose cost soared from $700 million in 2018 to $3.86 billion now and whose completion date has been set back from 2020 to 2030.

Hurley said he would bring in a "truly independent" outside party to work with Metro Vancouver to conduct the review.

New Westminster Coun. Daniel Fontaine, who is not a director, attended Friday's meeting to observe.

He said Hurley is the wrong person for the job, adding the Burnaby mayor's involvement in the liquid waste portfolio and his trip to Amsterdam — a trip of questionable value to taxpayers, Fontaine says — illustrated that the board is not serious in improving transparency, accountability and good governance.

"It's all smoke and mirrors. I don't have any confidence," said Fontaine.

Board discord

In addition to the vote for a new chair on Friday, directors referred a motion that would have staff review travel expenditure policies and whether they need to be tightened.

It pushed aside a motion from Bowen Island Mayor Andrew Leonard and New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone that would require more direct board oversight for committee member travel expenses.

Dominato and her Vancouver councillor colleagues, who supported Leonard and Johnstone's motion, said in the lead-up to the vote that whoever became chair will need to make an effort to align the board.

There was discord among directors in May when they disagreed over how much municipalities outside of the North Shore should pay to cover the cost overruns of the wastewater treatment plant — a facility they will not directly benefit from.