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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Municipal by-elections?

In March of 2008, Council rescinded its earlier bylaw which regulated the appointment of replacements on council in the event of a vacancy. What should we do now?

Until that point our policy provided that a vacancy would be filled by appointing the runner-up from the list of persons who ran in that ward in the election provided that this person had polled at least 50% of the number of votes cast for the second councillor. If no runner up met the criteria, then council could make an appointment agreeable to a simple majority.

This bylaw was put into place at a time when there were two councillors in every ward and elections were held every other year. Later, the length of the council term was extended to three years but no change was made to the bylaw.

Our attention to this matter had been spurred in part by the likelihood of a federal election in which Ward 10 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen would represent the Conservative Party of Canada in that same riding. He had sought his party’s nomination early in 2007 some three months after being re-elected municipally although an actual election did not occur until the fall of 2008.

The City Clerk put forward a recommendation to the Board of Control that the policy be amended to fit the one councillor per ward system. That meant the 50% proviso would apply to the first place winner. In the Ward 10 case, no contender met that criterion. The alternative, we were advised, would be to repeal the policy and rely on the Municipal Act on an ad hoc basis. We recommended the latter.

The Municipal Act 2001 as amended gives council the option of appointing a willing eligible replacement or holding a by-election providing that at least 90 days remain in the term. It was the opinion of the Board and later the council that given that we now had a four year term and only one councillor per ward, the method of replacement needed to be more flexible, taking into account the specifics of any potential situation. We felt that a by-election might be preferable in some cases, especially if a vacancy occurred early in the term or if there were many contenders with close votes.

As well, the work of the Governance Task Force was just beginning at that time. It was felt that this matter might be of interest to the task force as it deliberated changes in the structure of city council.
However, since the Governance Task Force did not deal with the issue, it may be time for council to re-visit this.

Personally, I favour a by-election in most cases for a number of reasons.

First, municipal government is the level of government that is closest to you, that affects people most directly where they live. At its best, it is nonpartisan; that means that you have to rely on the character of individual to represent you, both in dealing with your immediate concerns and in setting the policies that will affect you and your immediate environment. Municipal representatives, at least in London, do not have personal staff to attend to your concerns. You depend on the hard work and interpersonal skills of the councillor. There is no party machine to research issues and develop platforms; it is up to each councillor to identify issues, and to research, to analyze, to listen to others, to develop a position and then to convince others to support that position.

Second, the runner-up, unless a very close second, will not command the same support from the community to do the job as a clear winner. He or she will not have a clear mandate.

Third, the departure of the incumbent changes the whole political picture. This is evidenced by the fact that the closest races, and the greatest interest, tend to occur in wards in which no incumbent is seeking re-election. By appointing a runner-up, the opportunity for a strong, well-qualified field of candidates is lost.

Fourth, appointments may be convenient and cheap, but they are inherently conservative and tend to strengthen the status quo. When made on the basis simple majority, they augment voting blocs and militate against what could be a refreshing change. One need only look at citizen appointments to see how often the same names appear term after term, committee after committee.

Fifth, all other levels of government seem to be able to hold by-elections. While there is some cost involved, given how infrequent vacancies at the municipal level actually are, the hit to the taxpayer will not exceed $1 per household, over a four year term. That’s a small price for democracy.

Finally, appointments to council are likely to have an impact on local government long after the term has expired. At the local level, incumbency, no matter how it is achieved, tends to provide a huge political advantage in subsequent elections, both in name recognition and in knowledge of the issues. Such advantages should be earned, not conferred.

In retrospect, I believe Board of Control and Council should have created a new policy in the previous term rather than allowing this to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis. It is much easier to develop a rational process when specific personalities and cases aren’t entered into the equation.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

Well put Gina. It will be interesting to see what Council does if Nancy does win London North Centre. I, for one, will be sad to see that happen as she is an excellent councillor. If it does happen, a by election call will certainly attract a number of candidates and that would be better for democracy than an appointment.