Who ya gonna call?

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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.

VotingFor many years both as a reporter and as a councillor, I was a strong supporter of Collingwood’s at-large election system. I naïvely believed that all members of council shared my sense of responsibility that we represented the entire community, not just a few friends, neighbours or supporters. That in an at-large system, representatives would focus on the greater good, not just look out after their own personal interests.

For the most part, at least while I served, this was true. Not today. My faith in that system has been utterly crushed this term. Instead of looking to the greater good of everyone, The Block use the at-large system to avoid responsibility. Since no one has an immediate relationship with any part of town, they feel that none of them have it. It’s always someone else’s responsibility (or fault).

Which is why Collingwood needs to look into a ward system. That way residents will know who to call, and who is responsible. No more ducking and weaving and not answering calls or pretending it’s up to someone else.

The upcoming municipal election should have a referendum vote on the ballot, asking if residents want to adopt a ward system, and phrased in such a way as to be clear yes or no response, and binding.

Most municipalities in Ontario have a ward system that divides the community into areas of roughly equal numbers of eligible voters. At-large systems tend to be used in rural communities with large land areas and thin populations. Once a municipality matures or reaches a certain size or density, ward systems make more sense.

Few go from a ward base to at-large. Niagara Falls was an exception: it had a ward system until 2000, when it changed to at-large. This triggered a loud public outcry, and an OMB challenge (which lost). But by 2014, both the public and the candidates were clamouring for a return to wards.

Niagara Falls mayoral candidate, Connie Topolinsky, made it on of her top priorities in 2014. She was quoted as saying,

The ward system would better serve residents, better represent the people of the city. The at-large system tends to cater more to popularity, along with popularity comes money.

She lost the race to incumbent Mayor Jim Diodati. who also noted the fly in the ointment: that incumbents are harder to turf and so don’t want a level playing field:

An at-large system favours the incumbents. In a ward system, it’s easier to get elected in a much smaller area — less time and less money, so I can understand why those who are trying to get on council may favour that system.

South Bruce attempted to move from a ward system to at-large in 2009, but an OMB appeal rejected the bylaw. The OMB ruling included the statement, that, “I am not satisfied that the proposed By-law is in the interest of the Municipality, moves it forward or is an improvement to the existing (ward) system.”

The argument for a ward system was well explained by C. Lloyd Brown-John in the Windsor Star in 2015:

Arguments supporting a ward system relate to two major areas. First, clear identification of who represents whom on a municipal council. The argument I’ve heard in Kingsville, that “we all represent everybody,” is both a clear abrogation of specific responsibility and, arguably, an insult to voters.
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. Who, for example, represents Ruthven?
Second, at-large council representation systems make the costs of running an individual election so much greater for prospective council candidates. Recent mandatory filing of candidate election expenses in Windsor indirectly illustrates the point. While all candidates are limited in expenditures, those candidates seeking election in Windsor at the ward level spend considerably less than they would have to spend to seek an at-large seat on council as does, for example, the mayor.

As I see it, lower costs means more potential candidates, thus increasing the voters’ choices and options. And it means more direct contact and responsibility for the winner. That translates into more democracy. I know, I know: The Block HATE the idea of more democracy because it would also mean more openness and accountability to threaten their beloved culture of secrecy.

Brown-John concludes with another benefit for voters: better access to candidates. Collingwood traditionally has about 20 candidates vying for the seven council seats, but I can recall there being more in the past. That’s difficult for voters, especially new residents, to choose from, or even to speak to everyone. As Brown-John notes, a ward system simplifies and clarifies everything:

…it is a good deal easier to meet voters on a one-on-one basis if the number represented is limited to those voters within a ward. 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 in Kingsville, Leamington and Amherstburg last October.

There’s a good review of electoral options from 2016 on the East Gwillimbury website. That municipality uses an at-large system but investigated the ward system for the upcoming election. A referendum question on the municipality’s 2010 ballot came back with strong voter support for wards, but council refused to implement them. The report notes, “Wards will be favoured by people who want to promote the representation of territorially-concentrated minority groups, build closer ties between local communities and individual councillors, and reduce campaign costs for council candidates.”

For example, small groups such as those in a new development who have concerns that are specific to their development (like we had with Georgian Meadows last election or Eden Oak has now) could have a stronger voice in a ward-based campaign than in an at-large. And it would be harder with wards for candidates to avoid going to contentious locations and thus avoid having to make decisions or promises about issues, as some did last election.

The East Gwillimbury report called for public consultations – a process that is anathema to The Block, who if faced with this choice would instead scurry behind closed doors to avoid public scrutiny, just as they have done with every other issue they’ve managed to screw up. But let’s not talk about the hospital, the airport, Collus, the water utility, the IT department, their failed financial management or the many other debacles for now.

I tried to get this issue on the 2010 ballot, on April 26 of that year, but it was defeated because of the strong self-interest of the incumbents (the vote lost 7-2, with myself and DM Cooper voting to ask the question, Mayor Carrier and Coun. Edwards, Foley, Sandberg, Jeffrey, McNabb and Labelle against. You should recognize two who are still at the table serving their own needs). I expect the eponymous Block would do the same: vote it down to protect their self-interest in the status quo. Still, it should be raised by one of the two non-Blockheads at the table.

It’s time for Collingwood to bring it back to the table and let the people decide. If anything this term has taught us – and it has been very educational about the abuse of power and authority- is what happens when the majority of council shirks its responsibility to the residents and is secretive and inaccessible. It won’t be as easy to duck and disappear under a ward system.

Collingwood deserves better.

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