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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Looking good

It has been more than a week since we learned the results of the 2014 municipal election campaign, plenty of time for analysis and reflection by those who won and those who didn’t, as well as the rest of us who cheered from the sidelines or from various campaigns. And just what is the takeaway?

Personally, I loved the final results which, while close, outperformed my predictions; they restored my faith in the electorate. Although the overall proportion of eligible voters who turned up at the polls was still low at 43%, that was 4% higher than in 2010, an increase of 10%. That suggests that citizens were paying attention over the last four years; they had determined it was time to do something and they did.

They ousted the Fontana 8. No one who had ever been a part of that voting bloc survived the voters’ wrath. Joe Swan’s charm and urbanity couldn’t assuage it, nor could Paul VanMeerbergen’s anti-tax stance or Bud Polhill’s humble neighbourhood mechanic persona. Even the fridge magnet magnate, Stephen Orser, went crashing to full-time defeat, while his council ally, Sandy White, lost in a rematch to Jared Zaifman, despite her claims of a stellar list of achievements over the preceding four years, including bringing a school to Summerside. Apparently the voters of ward 14 understand the difference between school boards and city councillors. Nor was Denise Brown exonerated by distancing herself from the Fontana 8 when they got in trouble with the ombudsman; she too was trounced.

While campaigning for my successful ward 9 candidate I had certainly heard from the voters that they were not happy with the council of the last four years. I was concerned that all councillors might be tarred with the same brush. Too often I heard the phrase “Throw all the buggers out” and no doubt some votes were cast with that in mind. Not having served on council became an advantage rather than the reverse.

That seems to have been the experience of several contenders who tried to trade on their council experience and name recognition: Roger Caranci, Ed Corrigan and David Winninger. None could rise higher than third place in the polls or the vote even though their experience was on less contentious councils. Perhaps Bernie MacDonald got a whiff of this before he decided to withdraw from the race a second time.

I was also heartened by the distinction that the voters made between those who had served well and those who had merely served without joining the Fontana 8. Long-time councillors Harold Usher and Bill Armstrong narrowly escaped being defeated by newcomers Peter Ferguson and Nancy McSloy respectively. Neither had aligned themselves with the Fontana 8 but both had from time to time sided with them on controversial issues and votes. Perhaps they had simply stayed around too long. Really, if they haven’t accomplished their “vision” in 15 or 20 years, what more are they likely to do in the next four, apart from treading water? It’s a strong argument for term limits.

It’s hard to know what saved them to serve another term. In Armstrong’s case, I suspect it may have been the popularity and hard campaigning of spouse Teresa Armstrong, MPP for London Fanshawe, coupled with the presence of two credible opponents who split the vote between them. Stephen Polhill, who had been gaining on Armstrong in previous campaigns, lost even more to McSloy than did Armstrong. Apparently, name recognition works both ways. In this case, it was not an asset. It wasn’t fair, the elder Polhill complained the following morning on Steve Garrison’s radio show.

The only incumbents who received favourable treatment from the voters were Matt Brown who won with a comfortable 58% of the vote and Paul Hubert with 83% in ward 8.

The rest are newbies. When they assume their seats next month, the average age of the council will be about 41 years. That’s only a couple of years older than London’s overall population which includes children. Two are in their twenties, several have master’s degrees, some have young children. They have a variety of work experience in their resumes. Most have been active in their communities, have attended council meetings and made presentations, know how to use social media, participated in the development of the London Plan. In fact, many of them met each other during public engagement sessions of the London Plan. They may not all be buddies, but they recognize each other and share progressive values to varying degrees.

Only four are women. That’s a concern. It’s less than the 30% generally acknowledged to be the “tipping point” for real influence.

Still, four is enough to provide the kind of support that will be needed to get ideas to the floor. I had been worried that we might end up with a council with only one or two women. That would have been hard. I remember very well how important my female colleagues on council were, especially when I was first learning the ropes. I also remember how competitive an environment of all male colleagues can be.

But all four won decisively: Virginia Ridley with a clear majority over the previously invincible Paul VanMeerbergen; Maureen Cassidy also with a solid majority that left seven other contenders in the dust; and Anna Hopkins and Tanya Park with impressive pluralities despite the presence of competitors with previous council experience and strong name recognition. They have also been offered ongoing mentoring from women with council experience while they learn the ropes.

For that, they have the emergence of some grassroots movements to thank, especially Women and Politics which took up the challenge made at a meeting of another grassroots movement, Pints ‘n Politics. These groups provided a crucial forum for discussion, education, networking and support. Many of those now elected came forward at meetings of one or the other, often both. They shared ideas, concerns, information and email addresses. Most were relatively young although a few of us old-timers were present. I recall at one meeting of Pints ‘n Politics expressing my concerns that so few of those indicating an interest in running in the coming election were female. The following month, that became the topic for discussion: “Where are all the women?” and Women and Politics stepped into the breach.

Still, it will be hard to overcome the loss of three seasoned female council veterans, Nancy Branscombe, Judy Bryant and current mayor Joni Baechler. Thank you, ladies. You will be sorely missed.

Although the final financial reports from the candidates won’t be available for a half year or so, it appears that some other myths have been dispelled, the myth that you can’t run a winning campaign without significant infusions of cash from the development industry. Successful ward 11 challenger Stephen Turner begged to differ early in the campaign by calling a media conference in front of the infamous Billy T’s to proclaim that he would not accept corporate or union donations. Many others eventually made the same announcement although whether this was a result of a principled decision or lack of offers is not easy to ascertain. We’ll know more when the financial statements are filed.

Certainly, Matt Brown’s mayoralty campaign was ground-breaking on the fundraising front, focussing on the neighbourhood garden party to solicit donations from invited guests rather than the formal $750 a plate dinner that attracts corporate sponsors. He released the names of his donors early, nearly 1,000 of them. Not in alphabetical order, it should be noted. If you wanted to locate the name of a specific party, you had to comb through all of them.

Not that he’s finished fundraising. There’s still an opportunity for those who put their money on someone else to donate until the end of the year. No doubt there will be offers.

The same can be said for other successful candidates as well although I understand that most have managed to cover their campaign costs before Election Day. Any further donations would just be returned or confiscated by the city clerk under the Municipal Elections Act. But it is of interest that candidates may have finally learned to finance successful campaigns without relying on developers, something that we certainly didn’t see with the Fontana 8. For information about campaign donations in 2010, see Hey big spender: Who pays for municipal campaigns?

Some observers and unsuccessful candidates have worried publicly that the new council are too na├»ve and too idealistic (or too inexperienced and too progressive) to make good, pragmatic decisions. I’m not too concerned about that. True, they are younger, but they also have more energy and are less jaded than a council comprised of old-timers. And they will benefit from listening to the advice of an experienced and knowledgeable staff, something the past council was often unwilling to do.

That staff is eagerly awaiting the changing of the guard. “I’m pleased,” one staffer told me a few days ago. Then she whispered, “Actually, I’m ecstatic!”

No wonder. This staff has been dismissed and insulted by many on the current council. It will no doubt be a delightful change to be treated with respect.

“My job,” former city manager Jeff Fielding used to tell us councillors, “is to make you look good.”

I expect that current city manager Art Zuidema shares that view. Perhaps with the new crop, he’ll get a chance to do so.


George said...

Very good summary of the results of our municipal election. Mr.Matt Brown has over spent and asking for more funds from supporters. Some people are blaming him for mismanagement of funds and how it is going to affect the management of our city budget. But he is not the only one who is going to manage our city budget.
George Cherian

Rick Odegaard said...

Great summary, Gina. It might be worth also mentioning that of the 15 candidates elected to council, six of them had more people vote against them than for them. The support ranged from 28% to 48%. London needs an electoral system that allows first, second and perhaps a third choice for voters. That way we ensure that candidates with true majority support are elected.

Vicki Van Linden said...

Thanks to the last council for some really positive changes regarding animal welfare in London, matters that mean a lot to me.

Thanks to the new people who put together great campaigns and prepared well for council positions.

To those who will not be returning, even those who did not always vote according to my preferences, thanks for past work and your willingness to do what you believed was best for the city.

To those who have put themselves forward to take positions where you know that you will be a frequent target of complaint, thanks for your willingness to serve and your preparation to take on the task.

Thanks, Gina, for keeping us up to date on the inner workings of city hall. The more informed we are, the better we can be involved. I am very hopeful for the next four years.

Anonymous said...

Great Vicki, more cats to kill birds. Of course Brown waited until after the election to ask for more funds. Now the developer cheques can roll in. The release of donors before an election can be gamed.