If Lower Mainland residents vote for a new tax to finance transit expansion, billionaire Jimmy Pattison will oversee spending of the tax, area mayors said Thursday.
British Columbia's most prominent entrepreneur has signed on to lead a public accountability committee for the proposed new tax, set to be the subject of a mail-in plebiscite this spring.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said Mr. Pattison is suited for the job because he is one of the province's most successful and high-profile entrepreneurs. They also said his commitment to the issue of oversight of tax funds for transit should reassure voters who fear the money may not go where intended.
"Having Mr. Pattison and a team of experts help oversee the funds being directed into projects is an extra level of accountability," said Mr. Robertson.
Mr. Pattison's company has interests in car dealerships, broadcasting and supermarkets, among other enterprises. He also led the organizing of Expo 86, which was held in Vancouver.
The announcement about the chairman and CEO of the Jim Pattison Group comes as polls raise the possibility that voters, angered over suggestions the regional transit authority TransLink has been wastefully spending public funds, may reject the tax.
Ms. Hepner said Mr. Pattison and the panel are a "very transparent" response to voters who are thinking of voting No because of concerns about accountability.
In addition to Mr. Pattison, the accountability committee will include "trusted, expert" individuals experienced in infrastructure and financial planning, Mr. Robertson told a news conference. Mr. Pattison will help recruit that team, which will report to the public.
Mail-in plebiscite ballots are to be available from March 16 to May 29. At issue is a proposal to have the province enact a 0.5-per-cent regional increase to the 7-per-cent provincial sales tax, which would help fund transit improvements such as a new Vancouver subway and light rail in Surrey.
Mr. Robertson made the telephone pitch to Mr. Pattison and said it was an easy sell.
"Jimmy was keen," Mr. Robertson told reporters, explaining mayors had been thinking about accountability options for some time, but that recruiting Mr. Pattison was a "recent development."
In a telephone interview, Mr. Pattison said he was happy to accept the volunteer assignment because he cares about the Lower Mainland region.
He said he occasionally takes public transit, notably the Canada Line light-rail line to Vancouver International Airport.
"[Mr. Robertson] phoned and said, 'We need some help here.' I said 'Absolutely,'" said Mr. Pattison.
But he made it clear he will not be getting into the politics of the plebiscite. Instead, Mr. Pattison said his role is to focus on tracking the spending of the transit-improvement tax if it is approved.
"If this passes by the public, my job is to make sure the money that comes in for that purpose is spent for that purpose," he said. "I am not into the politics."
Mr. Robertson backed that up. "He's not involved in the campaign in any way. He's taking an independent role here to scrutinize that spending and ensure we all have confidence in it."
Mr. Pattison also declined to comment on whether regional mayors have done a good job selling the prospect of voting Yes to the public.
But Jordan Bateman, the head of the B.C. wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a leader of the No side in the plebiscite debate, said recruiting Mr. Pattison was little more than a "stunt" to distract voters from TransLink's record of waste.
"The mayors' new plan is to hope that some of Jimmy Pattison's good reputation will rub off on TransLink, but it is too little, too late. This is nothing more than a cynical PR ploy that will do nothing to improve accountability at TransLink," he said in a statement.