Big price to pay when it comes to municipal elections

First published: June 22, 2006

As municipal councils across Northumberland County wind down for the summer, it is a good time to reflect on the upcoming elections for councillors and trustees because we are about to witness some of the most significant changes in a very long time, which could mean we will pay a big price if we are not careful.

While the list of candidates remains fairly short, the summer represents a crucial time for candidates to test the waters and make the final decisions around whether or not they will run and for what position. All the jockeying will make for great sport for political junkies. Get ready for a spate of appearances and some pretty tough competition for stories in the local news media. Anything, anywhere and any excuse to mug for the camera.

But all this is to be expected. What is not expected, and deeply concerning, is a major shift in the political landscape around the length of terms for councillors and school board trustees. The provincial government approved extending the term of office to four years from the current three back at the beginning of May. The move came fairly quickly and was heartily supported by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, a lobby group for municipalities across the province.

Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen defended the extension, saying there are a number of benefits to longer terms. It gives these politicians a chance to put together an agenda, implement it and then go back to citizens to seek people’s judgment. It also brings parity to municipal politics, offering the same length of term as federal and provincial politics.

Sadly, this weak rhetoric is a lot of doublespeak. And, with no opportunity for citizens to provide input, the province acted in the most undemocratic manner on an issue that should have been handled with every ounce diplomacy the government could muster. The irony is too much to bear.

Instead of making the system more democratic, it has done the opposite. Premier Dalton McGuinty is creating a political class where one did not exist previously and with very little rationale.

When councillors and trustees served for three years, it was almost ideal. Two years is too short. For a new councillor, it takes about a year to learn the ropes. There is a lot more to municipal politics than one might imagine. Besides the fairly sophisticated bureaucracies, responsibilities and just getting the process clear, there is also a wide range of issues facing local governments, from waste management to road repair.

The second year is when most councillors are their most effective. The awkwardness is gone and now the ideas come pouring forth and the level of debate often rises as the initial nervousness and self-consciousness evaporates.

The third term is a chance to wrap up the work underway and measure public sentiment.

Four years is too long.

First, there is the economics of it. When municipal terms were two years, about 20 years ago, it was not a big deal to step away from a business or a career or family to devote time to public service. When, the terms of office was extended to three years in 1982, we watched it become harder for people to get involved. Many current councillors have alternate sources of income and few time commitments these days.

With a four-year term, it expects a lot from individuals wishing to seek office. Don’t be surprised if there is an increase in salaries, as those holding office try to compensate for lost income. And, will the best and the brightest want to remove themselves from careers or successful enterprises to serve? We may seek even more retirees and fewer young men and women around the council chambers.

Next, citizens should also be wary of the stagnating effect of longer terms of office. Rather than face the wrath of the electorate (one of the few powers citizens get to motivate politicians), councillors and trustees will likely be less responsive.

We see this in the reaction of councillors already, particularly those who have served multiple terms on council. One merely has to look at the efforts over this past term of office to see how politicians have made efforts to silence the dissidents in the community through changes to public meetings and presentations to council.

In one typical example of the type of contempt, which develops, Alnwick/Haldimand Mayor Bill Finley recently bemoaned the fact that citizens continue to fight for the preservation of rare grasslands at the Russ’ Creek cemetery. He spewed vitriol at the authors of the critical letters, saying it was crap and the township has already spent $70,000 in court battles and other measures to find a solution. Citizens don’t deserve to be on the receiving end of this kind of criticism. Maybe if there were newer faces and fresh approaches, the issues would be resolved sooner.

Retired Queen’s University Professor Stewart Fyfe said in a newspaper article the extended time in office favour incumbents when election time comes around. Far too many politicians spend too long in office. It is understandable for those with political ambition to run for a second term or a third term, if they seek a higher office, say deputy mayor or mayor each time. Otherwise, there should be a two-term limit for councillors with a one-term hiatus. Then, if the individual did a bang up job, they can run again for another two terms.

We don’t deserve another level of professional politicians, people who make a career out being on municipal council or the local school board. Let’s leave this to their provincial and federal counterparts. Municipal politics should be about public service and open to anyone who is motivated to come forward.

As the political season gears up for the fall race, voters will need to be particularly vigilant. The cards are not in our favour and we will be living with the consequences for much longer this time around.

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