New voices would bring greater choice to municipal elections

A call to community involvement was the cornerstone of Doug Griffith’s “Somebody Should Do Something” presentation in 2019 courtesy of Woolwich Healthy Communities. It’s fitting, then, that the Calgary-based author of ‘13 Ways to Kill Your Community’ who runs a consultancy specializing in helping co

Last updated on May 03, 23

Posted on Apr 14, 22

5 min read

A call to community involvement was the cornerstone of Doug Griffith’s “Somebody Should Do Something” presentation in 2019 courtesy of Woolwich Healthy Communities. It’s fitting, then, that the Calgary-based author of ‘13 Ways to Kill Your Community’ who runs a consultancy specializing in helping communities prosper, should be taking part in next week’s Run for Office event.

With the event, WHC is encouraging people to step forward and run in the municipal elections set for October 24 this year. Having more people involved and contesting seats on local councils makes for better governance and better democracy, the organization argues.

We’ve certainly seen more than a few seats filled by acclamation due to a lack of competition. That’s to be avoided, and more choice is always better. Whether or not you agree the incumbents are doing a good job or like what the newcomers bring, putting them through the trial of a widely-contested election is a good thing: good for voters, good for debate and, most of all, good for democracy.

I certainly join in WHC’s call for public-minded citizens in the townships to come forward and stand for election – the pay’s not too great (mayors’ aside), the hours erratic, the public ungrateful and the media coverage scathing, but aside from that, it’s a great job and a way to both shape and serve the community where you live.

Municipal councils do have a great deal of influence over the quality of life in their communities. That’s especially true in the townships, where even small decisions can have a noticeable impact. Because that’s the case, it’s even more important to have community-minded people at the helm, those with the drive to enhance the quality of life here.

That requires candidates who are willing to act in the interests of the public. That seems self-evident, but in Woolwich particularly that’s far too often not the case. As with the bureaucrats to which councillors often defer, the elected officials conflate their interests with those of the citizenry. Co-opted into the bubble, they take on the mindset of the public sector employees whose interests are increasingly at odds with residents’ needs, particularly when it comes to spending priorities and keeping budgets under control.

For the system to work properly, even municipal politics must be like the legal system: adversarial. When warranted, council members must be at odds with staff and even with each other, as debate makes for better representation. Unfortunately, such democratic and accountable action is in short supply.

With aging infrastructure putting mounting pressure on budgets at the same time as most Ontarians face rising costs, particularly for housing, and stagnating incomes, something’s got to give. That will require council decisions that puts the public’s needs ahead of administrative and program spending that serves few if any residents. Properly engaged councillors will identify cuts and stick with doing what’s best for residents, bringing their own strength to an environment that will try to co-opt them.

Municipal elections have long been plagued by low voter turnout. Don’t expect this year to be any different. And that’s a shame, and not only for the obvious reasons. Looking ahead, it just might be that small local democracies play a big role in preserving our way of life.

Small and local are already buzzwords in farming: we’re catching on to the fact food produced close to home on family farms provides widespread benefits.

In the bigger picture, a return to localized activities and small-scale farming represent something of an antidote to the growth mantra that permeates our culture – “go big or go home” doesn’t benefit us.

Growth-related issues have been on display in the townships of late. Growth – i.e. development – is likely the most divisive and galvanizing issue in municipal politics. Change almost always fosters resistance. That’s especially true as much of the change is not for the better.

This is not an isolated issue. The entire system of government and the economy are both predicated on growth. None of our politicians at any level is talking about reversing that trend, even though constant growth is by definition impossible. Life on a finite planet makes that clear.

The environmental impact of human activity is the clearest indicator of where growth is a problem. We use up non-renewable resources and we spew pollutants into the air, water and soil. That can’t go on forever.

Nor can we continue to pave over land, especially productive farmland, in perpetuity. That, of course, is one of the arguments made in favour of the transit system: the war on suburban sprawl.

We live in a society that is obsessed by growth economics – growth for growth’s sake. It’s an obsession that no longer serves us.

Our current lifestyle has a dramatic impact on the Earth. We consume at a rate beyond sustainability, with each of us putting a claim on an increasingly large chunk of the planet’s surface to make possible our consumerist tendencies.

While we’ve recognized some of the perils, if only in little ways, our efforts have been largely ineffective. Yes, we separate our trash into various recyclable components. Yes, we look at ways to make items with fewer materials. Yes, we try to get greater fuel efficiency out of our vehicles. But the ecological damage of extreme growth continues because there are more of us consuming more goods as increasing numbers of products come to the market. With technology, we see built-in obsolescence and rapid turnover fuelled by our desire for the latest and greatest, for instance.

Any movement to counter that trend needs to take aim at what economists have long called externalities: transferring to society the costs of production while the profits go to individuals and companies. If we’re going to change the system, we’re going to have to move away from that practice.

The system depends on society – governments and citizens – to bear the cost of the infrastructure, both hard and soft, without which corporations couldn’t operate. Forced to take that into consideration when making business decisions, companies would likely take a different tack, one more local, decentralized and human in scale.

While the problem is systemic, the issues of growth and quality of life should be at play in the municipal elections later this year. Voting for those espousing something other than the status quo is a start.

Perhaps it’s time for some policy-driven agendas, for something that will inject interest into municipal politics. Maybe then we’ll get some politicians prepared to define the real priorities and to make the adjustments needed to bring spending in line while delivering on those basic quality of life issues most of us are concerned with.

That would help restore legitimacy of government in general. There’s been a gradual erosion of the overall respect for democratic and active government because our politicians have lobbed up too many easy targets. Every time they fall down on the job – and there are many ‘every times’ – they provide ammunition to those who would see the entire system pulled down.

That’s why a back-to-basics approach appeals to so many of us: intrinsically, we know government is getting too big, too wasteful and too unaccountable. Leaders who actually get us back on track – as opposed to talking the talk simply to get elected – will be doing us a much larger favour than leaving us stuck on the same dead-end track.

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Steve Kannon

A community newspaper journalist for three decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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