Electoral reform for Collingwood


Collingwood elects all of its council at large. There are no ward systems for local or neighbourhood voting. But is it the best system for Collingwood? I don’t think so, and want it to be discussed by the next council. And maybe a referendum question on the next ballot.

At-large are good for mayor, and deputy mayor (if the latter is elected directly and not otherwise selected from the representatives). Everyone gets to vote for the top positions. But the next seven we choose are also elected at large. And why should everyone have to vote for all of council? Why not simply for one ward representative?

Can any councillor elected at large truly represent all the interests, issues and voters throughout the community? Based on my experience both as a reporter covering the region for a dozen years and a councillor for three terms, I don’t believe so. The electorate here is very diverse and what affects, say, voters in the long-established far east side of town may be very different from what affects them in the new subdivisions in the west.

This term the problems of at-large of representation have been exacerbated by a large group on council focused not on the electorate, but on furthering their own agendas and entitlements. As a result, the community has suffered much these past four years. Electing blocks like this is harder to do under a ward system.

Back when I was on a previous council, I wanted to have a ward system added to the ballot for a referendum, but the council of the day voted it down. I want to open that discussion again. And if not a referendum, I want it to be an open, public discussion with public input. (There was a staff report, 2009-11, that is on p. 63 of the agenda package, which noted that in a ward system, “Elected officials have the ability to build strong relationships with the people he or she represents, becoming more aware of their needs and concerns and are more accessible to those people.”)

There are some good reasons for a ward system:

  • Residents always know to whom they can turn or can call about local issues.
  • Localized issues that may get overlooked by an at large council can be brought to the table more easily when there is a ward advocate.
  • Election campaigns for wards are less work and less expense, so they allow a wider selection of candidates to be able to run.
  • In wards, people often vote for (or against) someone they know, not a stranger, so the choices are more personal.
  • In an at-large system, areas of the municipality may be under-represented or not represented at all by anyone on council.

An opinion piece advocating ward systems in the Windsor Star from 2015 noted:

The arguments against a ward system of representation largely focus upon two things: the potential for divisiveness, especially between rural and urban dwellers; and the historic concerns about what used to be termed “ward heelers,” or ward bosses… 
Arguments supporting a ward system relate to two major areas. First, clear identification of who represents whom on a municipal council… A specific issue on your street or in your neighbourhood forces you to try to identify which member(s) of council might be willing to represent your concerns before council. Old-boy/girl networks certainly come into play. 
Second, at-large council representation systems make the costs of running an individual election so much greater for prospective council candidates.

The latter is no small issue. The cost to run a campaign in Collingwood- with signs, mailers, media ads – can be expensive. I’ve seen campaigns run well over $10,000 (not mine, however). Because of the costs, most candidates ask for donations and the people who can afford them are often people with a vested interest in some part of the community. Developers or business owners for example.

It’s also easier in a ward to deal with voters on a one-to-one basis, both during a campaign and when elected. Having done door-to-door campaigning in three terms, I clocked many, many kilometers, but the time I could spend at any one was limited because there’s so much space to cover and so little time.

All-candidate meetings tend to be more focused when voters need to select a candidate from among three or four as opposed to some of the monstrous lists faced by voters…

Collingwood has 19 candidates running for seven council seats. We’ve had more in the past. This makes all-candidates’ meetings difficult and long for both attendees and candidates. No one really has a chance to hear from candidates or engage with them. The last election saw mayors and deputy mayors split off into a separate meeting, which meant the electorate had to attend two that same day to get a feel for who to vote for. That’s inefficient and clumsy.

This has been a debate in many municipalities across both the province and the country. In the North Grenville Times, for example, a 2017 article listed the advantages of both systems. Here is what it listed for a ward system:

  1. Broadens accountability of elected officials to voters as citizens have greater access to their own City Councillor.
  2. Voters get to know their Ward representatives better than at-large ones.
  3. Ward Council members are more sensitive to small but important problems of their local constituents.
  4. The Ward system improves citizen participation as Council members respond more to the needs of their constituency.
  5. At-large system can serve as a barrier to fair representation for social and economic minorities.
  6. High cost and time spent campaigning restricts the number of candidates seeking office as campaigning is contained within the Ward.
  7. Less costly to replace a retiring Ward Councillor than an at-large one.
  8. Council members are more diverse and come from varying social and economic backgrounds from different neighbourhoods.
  9. At-Large system can lead to unequal distribution of Councillor residency.
  10. Ward system curbs influence of inside power brokers and interest groups.
  11. Ward system offers more balanced representation, fulfilling a definition of democracy founded on the belief that government should reflect the diversity of the constituents being served.

The article also notes,

Looking at recent trends, however, over 250 cities across the United States have recently removed at-large seats from their city councils, switching to the Ward or District System for greater resident accountability and equitability… In sum, the benefits of the Ward system clearly outweigh those of the At-large system.

The trend across the continent in municipal politics is to ward systems. A 2004 article from an American publication noted,

Removing (at-large system) has been so popular that “the second most commonly considered change [in municipal government structures nationwide] was to eliminate at-large seats on the council and replace them with ward or district elections.”

That piece adds this,

While a candidate for a ward seat can knock on every door in their ward, it would be impossible for an at-large candidate to knock on every door in the city. This forces at-large candidates to replace personal contact with media saturation. As such, they engage in one-way communication, broadcasting their ideas out to the people, hoping voters find their sound bites more appealing than the other candidates’ sound bites. In contrast, a ward candidate continuously engages in two-way communication with the voters.

The US National League of Cities (somewhat equivalent to our own federation of Canadian Municipalities, or FCM) has a piece on ward (which they call district) vs at-large voting systems, making these points:

  • District elections give all legitimate groups, especially those with a geographic base, a better chance of being represented on the city council, especially communities of color.
  • District council members are more attuned to the unique problems of their constituents, such as crime levels, small lot development, trash pick-up, potholes, and recreation programs; and
  • District elections may improve citizen participation because council members who represent a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.

Another argument for ward systems is that ballots are easier to comprehend. Instead of selecting up to seven from a list of 19 (by the way, you CAN select less than seven, just not MORE than seven!), voters would choose from only the smaller list of candidates in their ward.

Yes, it would take some education and a campaign of reminders to tell people what wards they were in. But it would also be rather easy to have ballots (especially electronic ballots we now use) customized for the voter so they only see the choices in their ward. 

There are arguments for at-large systems, too, but I don’t feel they are as strong, and fail to address the basic inequality of campaign financing inherent in that system. Simply put: at-large systems tend to encourage the wealthier or the better-connected-to-wealth candidates to run for office, and discourage others not so fortunate. They are not as equitable as ward systems.

The issue of wards was raised earlier this year in Wasaga Beach. Why hasn’t this been raised in Collingwood this term? Probably because the majority of the current council is too focused on their own agendas to look into what the electorate needs.

When elected, I plan to raise the issue of wards again, get a new staff report and open a public discussion where the electorate can have its say on the choices. If that doesn’t give council a strong sense of the community’s wishes, I will ask for it to be a referendum question next election. 

There were ward boundaries in place here, by the way, but they were established pre-amalgamation and dissolved in 2009. They would need to be re-drawn.

Collingwood deserves better.

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Ian Chadwick
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