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Municipal Elections: When ambition and experience are discouraged

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Opinion piece by Happy City board member Stephanie Bowring.


Photo: © The Muse

By September 20th I still hadn’t received my voter’s kit despite registering several months earlier (yes, I was very eager for my first municipal election in Newfoundland!). That probably is proof that the whole municipal election is too early after summer. If city staff cannot pull off sending to all electors the voting kit, how can we expect candidates, especially first-timers, to fully reach them?

Of course, you can imagine I’m not overly fond of voters being allowed to send in their ballot as early as the 8th (for those who got their kit…), because it also favors incumbents (in theory). Voting before the end of the campaign and risking regretting your vote in light of new elements before the 26th? Doesn’t seem very democratic to a half-Frenchwoman like myself, who is used to very different rules. I won’t even bother you with the two-round system used in close to 100 countries, which allows the electorate to vote with their heart (or anger) the first time round, to then vote strategically, based on actual results, a week or two later. Mind you, the one-shot vote would explain the not so environmentally-friendly use of lawn signs, to influence voters of one’s popularity in the absence of polls and reliable results from a first round.

I could go on, but the one thing that frustrates me the most is that, despite several aspects of St. John’s’ municipal organization and way of voting being really quite good, it is wasted because it wasn’t clearly thought through all the way.

I love the fact that we have ward and at-large councillors, that we can vote for individually. I truly believe it brings great balance, with ward councillors having proximity to address the issues of their immediate constituents, while at-large councillors are expected to have a global vision. This of course does not preclude at-large councillors from taking an interest in wards or ward councillors of having a vision, but it is a good set up, which doesn’t exist in all major canadian cities. The other reason I like this system is that you get to choose most councillors. For comparisons, I’ll give you the example of my French hometown Saint-Pierre, where you have to choose a list of people, in which you don’t have your say. What’s worse, that list is of 29 candidates! That’s right, 29 councillors for a town of 5,600 souls!! You can imagine how the number of challenging lists can only be limited, since each team has to find 29 people to be allowed to run. Not really in check with France’s constitutional requirement of democratic pluralism… So I really like the coexistence of at-large and ward councillors who are individually elected (and who can still run as a team with a shared platform for more intelligibility, just saying…).

What saddens me about St. John’s is the fact that the Mayor and Deputy Mayor are separate from the at-large group, making it quite risky for anyone to aspire to those positions, especially if they’re already in council. It’s very binary, black or white, all or nothing. And Sheilagh O’Leary suffered the consequences when she ran for Mayor in 2013. She didn’t manage to beat Dennis O’Keefe, and was simply ousted from City Council, despite her valuable four years’ experience at-large. And because of that, this time around, she downgraded her ambition and declared her candidacy for Deputy Mayor. And being responsible and professional as she is, she started running early on. And when Dennis O’Keefe announced only mid-August, i.e. one week before nominations, that he was not seeking re-election, it was too late for her to change her strategy without confusing electors only two weeks before the opening of voting.

Knowing that the Mayor and Deputy Mayor are also global councillors, couldn’t there just be 6 at-large positions, with the top two candidates being respectively offered the positions of Mayor and Deputy Mayor? They could of course decline, and let the following two in line be offered the positions. It could even be validated by all the councillors, at least for the job of Mayor, so to confirm that the top at-large and willing candidate has sufficient legitimacy to lead the team of 11 for 4 years. It’s tricky, because a popular at-large candidate doesn’t automatically mean we want that person to be Mayor. Maybe preferential ranking could come in handy?

I’m not saying that the recent candidates for Mayor weren’t good enough. I’m just saying that I really would have liked Sheilagh O’Leary, and any worthy candidate, to have a fair chance. She probably wouldn’t have been Mayor in 2013, but she maybe would have been Deputy Mayor. We’ll never know. Maybe Ron Ellsworth’s popularity was greater than Sheilagh’s anyway, and he still would have been Deputy Mayor. Who knows, maybe Ron Ellsworth would have been Mayor? But one thing I’m pretty sure of is that Sheilagh O’Leary wouldn’t have been kicked out of Council simply for wanting to step up for St. John’s and its people. She would have remained an at-large councillor. No one who with the ambition of taking on the most important political job in the city should be punished for or discouraged from doing so. It’s not right for these candidates, and it’s not right for us inhabitants of this city which has so much potential and could really thrive inclusively with the right leadership. We must be willing to explore various possibilities to find a system that encourages the right people to run and end up in the right positions.

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