Municipal candidates leave lousy gut feeling

First published:
Nov. 5, 2003

Who to vote for in this municipal election.

There are moments when it just seems like the democratic system we have locally just doesn’t work at all. Not that it is anybody’s fault. It is a disparaging feeling one gets in the gut.

With a municipal election only five days away, it is difficult to encapsulate what is going on. Running for council is a lot different than it used to be in many ways. And yet, in other ways it is not.

Municipal leaders were once responsible for a very small number of services. Most of it was related to infrastructure, such as roads, sewers, water treatment and the like. Over the decades the list expanded to include soft services like recreation and tourism. And then things like waste management, recycling and social services became vastly more complex.

But in the past eight years, under the former Tory government, downloading buried councillors with a host of services like never before. It is hard to imagine the level of expertise it now takes to sit at any council table.

This means, as voters, we need to make sure politicians are well versed in these subjects when they run for office. However, it is getting tougher to do.

Candidates used to campaign on a simple premise. Knock on every door, speak to most voters and it usually meant success at the ballot box. There was a strong relationship between the members of the community and the candidates.

Maybe it’s just me, but it does not seem that way. Not any more. Municipal campaigns are much more sophisticated. Several campaigns actually have teams of people with job descriptions and specific responsibilities. In speaking with people in the neighbourhood nobody has spoken directly with a candidate at the front door. Certainly there is lots of literature being handed out, but often by volunteers. And yes, I guess we could all call the candidates to find our further information, but how many people are that conscientious anymore?

Then there are the all-candidate debates. Now, let’s be clear, this is not a criticism of the organizers or the candidates themselves. We are very fortunate in our communities to have great organizations like the Chambers of Commerce and ratepayer groups who sponsor these events. And for those seeking office, these meetings are very daunting.

But, the format just doesn’t work anymore.

The other night at the Port Hope debate at the high school 19 people were on stage. Each candidate had two minutes to speak on any issue or grunt yes or no. Often, by the time the moderator got down the list of candidates, it was hard to recall the original question. At one point, council candidate Gene Kinsman admitted everyone else had pretty well death with the issue. He said the only thing possible was to agree.

Hamilton Township voters faced a similar circumstance. A three-hour meeting was reduced to only an hour of questions and answers after speeches, breaks and the rest.

But what can one do? These are the traditional forms of our democracy. Door-to-door campaigns, signs, debates and so on are all the hallmarks of a local municipal election.

It just seem like we need new forms, new ways and new approaches. We need more than sound bites when we are trying to determine who will best manage our finances, our economic development, future growth, policing and other contentious issues.

Proponents of e-democracy believe the Internet offers some of those opportunities. Web sites can provide on-demand information. For those with access or who are willing to go to a public access point like the local library, there is another source.

Greet the candidate days like the one at Northumberland Mall also offer a great opportunity to meet in a less formalized setting with fewer time constrictions to allow questions and answers.

Yet, the crux may be we are focusing our attention on candidates, issues and solutions only at election time. Maybe it needs to be a constant effort.

It is not just candidates or the traditional forms of electoral democracy that are lacking. As voters, we must become more engaged in the process. Once elected, there needs to be a continuous conversation going on within the community that empowers citizens rather than alienates them. Politicians need to be accountable every week at the council meetings, not just every three years. Citizens also need to be confronting politicians regularly.

When that happens maybe we will all have a truer understanding of the issues and solutions. And when candidates come forward at election time, we will be merely carrying along with a conversation that began long ago rather than in the fall.

It will take far more effort on everyone’s behalf, and there is no better opportunity for this to take place than at the municipal level since it is the closest form of government for all of us.

It is true this municipal election is disturbing. But maybe the gut feeling is just indigestion and nothing more.

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