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.

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Who ya gonna call?

This song keeps running through my head:

If there’s something strange in you neighborhood
Who you gonna call? (your councillor)
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call? (your councillor)
With apologies to Ray Parker, composer of the Ghostbusters theme song.

More than three years after I left council, I still get calls from residents, still get stopped in grocery stores or when I’m walking my dog, dragged into conversations with residents unhappy with local politics and how they’ve been treated by this council. Specifically by members of The Block Seven.

I get asked about snowplowing, about why we don’t have more stop signs, about off-leash dog parks, about tree planting, about our utility bills, taxes, sidewalks, the BIA and pretty much everything else. I think I’ve been approached by more residents and town staff to discuss local issues these past three years than I was ever approached when I was actually on council.

I listen politely, remind them I am not on council and cannot do much as a private citizen, then I always ask, “Have you contacted someone on council about it?” And every time I get one or more of the following responses:

  • I tried, but they wouldn’t listen.
  • They won’t answer their phone (or email).
  • They brushed me off.
  • They wouldn’t give me a straight answer.
  • I don’t trust them.
  • They never returned my calls (or emails).
  • I tried but they couldn’t understand my problem.
  • They told me to speak to someone else on council.
  • They told me to call someone on staff.
  • After what they did to our hospital, I don’t want to speak to any of them again.
  • I did but they’re as thick as a brick.
  • They talked down to me.
  • I did and they promised to look into it but never got back to me.
  • I did and they promised to look into it but nothing ever got done.
  • And so on.

Well, it’s not true of everyone at the table, of course. Only The Block. Seems many residents find The Block uncommunicative, impolite and inept. Not a surprise, given their love of secrecy and deception, and dislike of learning and reading. Of course, no one ever claimed we elected the best, just that we elected a clique of self-serving people with private agendas and vendettas. But I’ve said that before. But that’s not where I was going. This post is about how to elect people you can speak with, by improving our election process.

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