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Local democracy could use improvement

Posted on September 28, 2017 by Vauxhall Advance

By Trevor Busch
Taber Times

Municipal elections in small town Alberta are not usually the stuff of democratic legend, history in the making right up until that nail-biting ballot count finish. In fact, municipal elections have developed the unsavory reputation of being boring, dry and without much to inspire the prospective voter’s imagination.

While a fair degree of this kind of criticism about the entire process is perhaps not without some credibility, this perception is mostly unfounded. The attitude perhaps speaks more about many individuals being uninformed about the issues and the problems being faced by a community, rather than a true lack of excitement actually surrounding the race.

Unfortunately, voter apathy seems to run deeper in municipal elections than at any other level of government, when technically the reverse should be the case. Local voters have more opportunity to influence the decisions that are made at a municipal level — decisions which arguably will have more of an effect on their daily lives than any other — than the provincial or federal level. No one expects to instantly have the ear of their prime minister or premier just by phoning them up at the office. But in the case of your mayor and council, that very well could be the case. The irony involved with this situation appears lost on voters who are more intrigued by federal and provincial politics, when in fact the decisions made at these levels of government in most cases could have less of an impact on their day-to-day lives.

Without saying much about voter turnout rates — which have posted less-than-encouraging numbers in Alberta over past municipal elections, mostly in a downwardly-declining direction — Taber now has a full on election race for October 2017, with 11 councillors vying for six councillor seats and a two-man battle for mayor. In the M.D. of Taber, three divisions will see election races with incumbents taking on new faces from their division areas.

But for other areas and representative roles in the region, there won’t be anyone casting a ballot come Oct. 16. In the Village of Barnwell, for instance, not one incumbent is returning to their five-member council, but it is a totally new field of candidates that has taken those five jobs by acclamation.

Similarly in Horizon School Division, the board of trustees have all been returned by acclamation, including one trustee, Derek Baron, who had allegations of sexual harassment made against him by individuals associated with Warner Hockey School during the course of the most recent board term. Baron will now be back in the same job, and for all intents and purposes will be that same school organization’s elected representative. Whatever else one might think about that, it is safe to say it should make for some awkward conversations between representative and those he now still represents.

In Holy Spirit Catholic School Division, the incumbent representing the Taber/Bow Island area has also been returned by acclamation, despite that candidate expressing her hope that she would have a challenger to compete against on Oct. 16.

In the M.D. of Taber, four of seven divisions were returned by acclamation, while in the Town of Vauxhall — still a electoral question mark as of press deadline — only five candidates have so far stepped forward to serve on a seven member council, extending nomination deadlines and prompting the consideration of some contingencies under the Local Authorities Election Act and Municipal Government Act. This could potentially include a ministerial decision to reduce the council’s size from seven to five should no further candidates step forward.

All of which should not be taken as a sign of the health of local democracy.

While Taber may have an election race on its hands, the sheer number of acclamations throughout the area — a term that always seems to elicit a room full of beaming, applauding individuals profusely back-slapping said candidate as they make their way to an imaginary podium for an imaginary victory speech — is a bad sign that political apathy is alive and well.

Take the M.D. of Taber council, for one. With four acclamations in as many divisions, for four individuals the election was a relative cake walk. Simply waving one’s hat in the air without challenge isn’t the optics most municipalities would prefer, and not only that, in the M.D. these aren’t positions where pay is entirely inconsequential. Most recently, councillor positions in the M.D. ranged anywhere from $40,000 to over $50,000. That’s not a bad annual paycheque for simply securing a few signatures at the local coffee shop in an afternoon. Even an individual submitting themselves for a job interview in the fast-food industry is subject to more scrutiny than that.

In Barnwell, while seeing some new blood at the top is never a bad thing, acclamations across the board might be. Time will tell, and not suggesting this was the case in this situation — but full-on acclamations sometimes tend to elicit the suspicion that a group of citizens got together and worked out their preferred candidates on a napkin before strolling down to the village office to “elect” a new council on nomination day. That idea, of course, is predicated on the risk that no more than five candidates would be running in an election, otherwise, you’d have an actual election, not an acclamation.

Which brings us to the unfortunate case of Vauxhall. This isn’t the first time the municipality hasn’t had enough candidates to fill seven council seats — it happened in 2010 — and to be fair, they’ve had a good degree of egg on their face during past elections when that fact reached provincial media, which jumped on it as a sign of political apathy. While Vauxhall really isn’t all that much larger than Barnwell anymore, the fact that a municipality constantly has issues finding seven people to serve from a population of over 1,000 doesn’t have positive things to say about the health of their electorate or their interest in municipal issues. Or, frankly, interest in what used to be regarded as a civic duty for any citizen.

So much for the problems of other municipalities. Let’s take a look at the prospects for our own 2017 municipal election.

Considering the reputation of our present council for stances on socially-conservative issues, more than its fair share of controversial decisions, and a fondness for sticking its nose into issues that many would perhaps suggest might be better left alone, the handful of incumbents seeking re-election in 2017 could be facing stiff opposition in the eyes of the electorate.

It may come to pass that voters actually prefer their elected representatives get on with the work-a-day business of local government rather than waving a red flag loudly and proudly while dictating from on high about their opposition to cannabis, pride flags, social media gaffs, and just about everything about the M.D. of Taber in general. And who could of course forget spitting, swearing, yelling and gathering in groups of more than three people? No forward-thinking progressive community could possibly get by without adding more asinine restrictions to a citizen’s daily life, gross violations of one’s fundamental rights be damned.

Perhaps discovering that the 1950’s ended almost seven decades ago has come as a troubling revelation. Perhaps people would actually like their roads fixed rather than being spoon-fed more anti-cannabis rhetoric as though they were all uneducated children.

Perhaps improving infrastructure is more important than a new fire hall to reduce costs for a handful of developers. Perhaps — just perhaps — there’s more important things to worry about than taking an oppositional approach to every issue you don’t personally agree with at the federal or provincial level. There’s a reason we have three tiers of government in Canada, and it isn’t so that municipalities can lead the charge on issues that are more effectively and properly dealt with by provincial and federal governments.

So it could be the coming of a clean sweep at the top. For the challengers — some of which include long-time former councillors defeated in the last election — it could be a good race, but one suspects the burden of proof will be less pronounced for these civic-minded Taberites than their council opponents when voters step up to the ballot box.

But whatever your stripes or horse in the race, make sure to actually get out and vote on Oct. 16 and help shape the direction of your municipality.

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