Every four years, we have a municipal election, and every four years voter turnout remains a little over 50%. Those with the longest future ahead of them in the city vote the least.
To raise interest and fight cynicism, there was a push for a more diverse slate, with modest results: larger age spread and at least twice as many women running as any previous year since 1997 (though they still make up just over a third of candidates). The total number of candidates this year (37) is about average.
Conventional wisdom says you can’t unseat incumbents; outsiders are doomed. But convention is a coward and not always truthful. Looking back at St. John’s election data, incumbents do get unseated. Most of the men (and the woman) who are on council now have run and failed, some more than once, twice, three times a lady.
Though he is a fixture now, Councillor Hann was not elected until his third run for At- Large. Same for Councillor Hickman. Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth has won three elections but lost two. Councillor Puddister was unseated in 2009, in Ward 1, after two terms, before he came back At-Large in 2013. Debbie Hanlon was defeated after having been a Ward 4 Councillor twice.
Ward 2 serves as an interesting example of simple myth vs. the true vagaries of politics, where both individual doggedness, skill, and also old school connections and name recognition all play some part. In 2009, Andrew Harvey ran as an outsider candidate against the ultimate incumbent, Frank Galgay. There were four other candidates in that race, Bill Maddigan, Todd Perrin, and Scott Fitzgerald (now running in Ward 4). Frank Galgay crushed them all with ~56%. Fitzgerald came in with a respectable ~23%, and Harvey led the third tier with just ~8%. Four years later there was no incumbent in the race. But there was a relative of the very popular incumbent with the same last name. Jonathan Galgay won with ~45%. Fitzgerald maintained at ~ 24%. Harvey came in second with ~31%.
The moral is: Politics is an iterative process. Remember this if you are either a new candidate or a voter who “wants change.” Politicians must be tough for a reason. If Harvey had pulled a Hann or Hickman and kept at it for a third go, perhaps he too would now be a fixture. Hating the idea of “the same old bunch of candidates” is as blind as voting solely on familiarity. With few exceptions, you must be at it over and over again to get elected. I am sorry Harvey never stuck around long enough to be “another old white dude” at the table. He was fantastic in the webcast Ward debate in 2013. He had been writing about council for years and knew its processes, triumphs and foibles inside and out.
If you haven’t been paying attention to anything the city does except at scandal time, don’t assume they have been doing nothing good. Just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Everyone this season has taken turns shaking fists and yelling “Transparency! Ethics!” You know who else has been doing that, every week, and doggedly reminding everyone about it and working towards it (admittedly with slow results)? Councillor Hann. Quick quiz: who’s the most vocal champion on council for immigrant communities and new Newfoundlanders? Councillor Hann! You can find things like this for all the current councillors. You can find the bad too. For all of them. New candidates are not a new breed of
human. Why do they seem so much better?
Employers can’t set employees to a task and then leave for 4 years. Guess who is the employer here? We are. And we suck at it. We listen to random gossip and then scream at them over comment threads after not reading any of their published progress reports. Which is almost fair enough, division of labour and all. And my god they do a shit job for real sometimes. I am barely keeping up with a fraction of what goes on and it is exhausting. But that is our job. Our shitty old slog of a democracy job. We can wish for a different job (libertarian, anarchic, socialist) but they all require our work too.
Sure it would be an awesome paradigm shift to see innovative thinking, streamlined processes,complete transparency (no more “special meetings” where councillors can spend our money and throw tantrums at each other in secret), gender parity and a range of class and income levels that truly represent us. But it would be a larger paradigm shift to raise the voter turnout way past the halfway mark. And to see voter involvement sustained through the year. That may even be the path towards all those other paradigm shifts. Who knows, it has never been tried. Go mad with your moderate amount of power!
What is Your Criteria for a Good Candidate?
Municipal politics is also non-ideological. Sort of. Municipal elections aren’t about party affiliation. Platforms are important in that they help us to understand what a candidate prioritizes and how they will vote on say, re-zoning requests and text amendments to regulations, but their political ideology isn’t so relevant. Unless they are using municipal politics to launch a larger political career and you want to foil/support some future party star/hack in their tracks. But that is too long a chess game to tackle here.
Do they listen? Do they work? Do they communicate well? Have they demonstrated basic common sense, a willingness to pitch in and to not, you know, be a total butthead and scream and call people names.
But this isn’t not politics either. Are they savvy? Are they tough? Do they have empathy or can they at least sit through an entire public meeting without rolling their eyes? Do they do their own homework or only punt to staff?
Where is That Voice Coming From?
Is it important for ward councillors to live in the ward they represent? It is not a requirement. Jonathan Galgay, current Ward 2 Councillor, lives in Airport heights.
Peter McDonald, candidate for Ward 3, has worked in Ward 3 but doesn’t live there. Scott Fitzgerald, candidate for Ward 4, doesn’t live in Ward 4 and has run twice before in Ward 2. There is a certain amount of strategy in when/where to run and a vacant seat, no matter the ward, may be a way onto council for someone who would be a great voice for the city but who can’t beat an incumbent in their home ward. But also, Ward Councillor is a special position. They need to be attuned to their district. Again, you decide.
Money and Time. Time and Money
You need at least some money to run a campaign. You need money to print signs, hold events, you need money to be able to take time to canvas.
Asking an individual about money is awkward, but it is an important question in terms of campaign finance transparency. Some of the candidates have already released statements on this (i.e. Hope Jamieson and Ian Froude). Some, like Hope Jamieson, are releasing their donor lists as the campaign progresses. Some only disclose afterwards, as is the legal requirement.
It is even more important to ask questions about campaign financing generally; is it a barrier to getting the best people for the job? Fundraising and budgeting are important skills, but should those abilities make or break a potential council or mayoral campaign? Should businesses donate or just individuals? You get to decide! With your vote. Ask the candidates what they think. Decide what sounds right. Vote for them.
“Full Time” vs. “Part Time” Councillors
Along with whether a candidate should live in their ward, whether or not someone will be a “full-time candidate” is a popular one to yell about.
Having a lot of time to devote to a job that pays ~42,000 annual salary is great. But if you have many dependents and/or a complicated financial situation then you may need to supplement that income. This could be for many reasons: large student debt, loans from an expanding business, massive dental bills, mental health costs, maybe you just really love cashmere and won’t do without; I don’t know you! It could be anything!
A candidate may have a career or a job that they love and do not want to give up. Having entrepreneurs or skilled and dedicated workers from the trades or service industries on our council brings creativity and firsthand experience of how our city economy develops on the front lines. Should we expect them to abandon the thing which gave them the insight and wisdom for which we elected them? If we want a mix of strengths and a broad range of experiences then we should be open to people who have wealth and/or time to spare, and those who do not.
A perfect council would have all these different perspectives and would help each other understand the importance of each. They will disagree, civilly, and they will compromise and they will make each other better.
But What About the Issues?
Totally. There are 37 candidates. I don’t have the word count to go over their platforms here. And many of them entered the race late and don’t have publicly declared platforms yet. But here are some resources to get you started:
The Happy City Election Centre at stjohnsvotes.ca is amazing. Many of the candidates have filled out the extensive survey so you can compare and contrast answers from each.
Candidate web pages and Facebook pages. Google these or find them at (again) the Happy City Election Centre.
Call or email the candidates directly! This one has the added bonus of giving them a taste of what it will be like in our clutches for the next 4 years.
Meh. …No! Very un-meh! Because: Development Regulations
Far beyond just being entertaining (which it very much is) this election is a real factor in our lives.
Have you ever wanted to start a small business? Go out to eat somewhere within walking distance of your home? Have a backyard fire? Be able to walk down the sidewalk in winter? Get to work and do your errands in your wheelchair? Have decent bus service?
Being able to nip out and buy a carton of milk by foot because you’ve got the wine for the marinade half drunk and the buns won’t make themselves is actually a municipal matter. The next council may determine whether your neighbourhood is allowed to have a corner store.
The City’s over-arching ideal is written up in the recently updated Municipal Plan. But, it is basically just a vision board. The regulations that govern it are still in draft form. And they will be approved, or re-vamped or scuttled, by the incoming council.
The Draft Development Regulations are, as of the end of August, available to the public, and (thanks to Linda Bishop and other staff at city hall) they are clearly written and easy to read. They are still missing appendices and do not contain the very important “design policies” that are the rules-within-the-rules from the engineering division. But incomplete is great! It means the public is, for once, not completely shut out of the process. You want greater transparency and access to process, not just finished edicts? THIS IS IT. If you ignore this now, you don’t get to complain… okay, you do, we all get to complain. It is our fundamental right and my god we are only human.
Get to know the Draft Development Regulations (#draftdevregbookclub is my hashtag that will never catch on but I will never give up) or, get to know the candidates and decide which ones you trust to deal with this for you. It is so simple. We have come full circle: vote.
But How Do I Even Vote?
Dude. This is the easy part. You register online to get your voter kit mailed to you. You fill it out. You send it in. A few hundred ballots get discarded each election cycle so fill it out carefully. According to data from the city, the most common reason, by far, for your vote to be discarded is “voter declaration form not included.” So include that.
Also, when voting for Councillor-At-Large, you can vote for up to four candidates. But you don’t have to. The four with the most votes overall win seats. So if you feel strongly about just 1, 2 or 3 candidates you may want to only vote for them.
All us non-citizens (but true townies at heart) who can’t vote are counting on you. I won’t say who I would pick but I do have one combination of candidates that I don’t think I could make myself watch every week. If that exact slate wins, I will retire and walk the East Coast Trail or the Grand Concourse each Monday afternoon communing with the foghorns and making light fun of the birds instead.