Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Term Limits

“Eye on City Hall”
A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
November 23, 2009

This week I am going to focus on two ideas proposed by Councillor John Henry at a Committee Meeting this past week….Term Limits for City Politicians and his proposal to rectify the loss of local community representation due to City Council’s decision to adopt the City-wide general vote.

Henry is suggesting that council appoint councilors as ward representatives in something he called "special interest" wards.

While the first proposal is outstanding, it will not get the support of council, and the second is ludicrous, but will probably be adopted by the next council elected in November, 2010.

The real question is why Councillor John Henry proposed these ideas knowing full well that neither has a hope in hell of succeeding. He is either naïve or just spouting wind proposing ideas that even he probably disagrees with.

Funny how things work in politics. So why would Henry do this?

The only criteria for election under the general vote is “high name recognition” and does not at all depend upon quality of input to city business or a high level of service to ward voters responsible for political success under the ward elections that are used in every large city in the country except for Vancouver which has Municipal Political Parties. These are illegal under Ontario Municipal Law.

Funny that Oshawa City Council has abolished the system used virtually everywhere else and has adopted a system not used in any large city in the country. If Oshawa City Council’s system was best, wouldn’t it be widely used?

In requiring only high name recognition for political success and making every councillor a competitor for the same city wide vote, the general vote promotes a non-productive and dysfunctional city council. All councilors will backstab, bitch, bicker and grandstand to grab the press to enhance their name recognition. No councillor will support a good idea coming from a fellow councilor since they wouldn’t want to give any competitor a “leg-up” for the next election.

So let’s use these ideas of the dynamics of a general vote council to see why Councillor John Henry would make his suggestions and why council would never support them leading up to an election.

Henry’s first idea is limiting councilors to 3 consecutive terms (12 years) for any single position on council. This idea is outstanding since we have 3 council members who have sat on city council in excess of 20 years and 9 of 11 councillors have sat for over 12 years. Wouldn’t it be useful to insure some turnover to bring vitality and fresh ideas to council? Term limits are not a new idea and are used with some frequency in Democracies around the world. Term limits guarantee that councils do not become dominated by senile“flat-earthers.”

When the question came up for committee discussion, it was if the city council “truck” was stuck on the top of a manure pile…and you were asked to help push it off as city council drivers spun the wheels and shot it right back in your face. It’s time for city voters to reverse the spin!

All of the political “spin” was negative….but what would you expect. With the lucrative part time job on council, why would councilors vote themselves out of this windfall? It doesn’t matter what is best in producing vibrant leadership for the city. Opponents said, 1) in a democracy, no candidate should be denied the right to run for office, and, 2) turfing office holders out after 12 years would result in too many inexperienced members. They didn’t mention that shooting the idea full of holes would guarantee the positions of the council dinosaurs.

Holy Cow…the most powerful politician in the world, the USA president is limited to 2 terms or 8 years and thus an inexperienced president is elected every 4 or 8 years….but inexperienced office holders are incapable in running Oshawa’s business? Get real!

In terms of democracy, I don’t know why politicians are so keenly jumping on this track when they failed to insure the most basic and fundamental democratic right in regards to the general vote plebiscite question, the right to be informed which Canada’s Supreme Court has indicated is a citizen’s basic right and a most basic requirement for democracy to function in Canada. They said it was not their responsibility to inform voters about the question. Ludicrous! What would be your reaction if your child failed a test because the teacher refused to teach the content of the test?

Politicians cannot tackle this question of term limits because of conflict of interest problems. The Ontario Municipal Act prohibits them from voting on issues in which they have a pecuniary interest. Now that the issue has arisen, I suggest that council must now hold a plebiscite on this question to let the people decide. The result would then be forwarded to the Provincial Government to encourage them to introduce legislation allowing term limits.

The idea of term limits was discussed, but unfortunately not adopted, in government proceedings leading up to recently introduced revisions to the Municipal Elections Act.

The second idea introduced by Councillor John Henry would have politicians themselves divvying up the city and appointing themselves to their favoured wards. This goes against everything we believe in our representative democracy and also the chief rationale given by council for adopting the general vote. They said that ward voting led to councillor’s parochial views in only being interest and engaged in their own communities without taking a city-wide view, a red herring flouted by ward system opponents prior to 1985 when I brought ward politics to the city.

I don’t know how new arenas downtown and in the north end, new firehalls in the developing parts of the north end, rebuilding and renovating city hall downtown, etc. squares with the idea of parochialism since these expenditures required majority council votes.

Council then is unlikely to undermine the chief rationale they gave for changing the election system….they can’t very well appoint ward representatives now that they have just thrown them out.

And why would Councillor John Henry vote continually and on every question to throw out ward representation and want to return it now? With no ward responsibilities, Henry must realize that his workload will be substantially reduced as he won’t have to deal with any constituency problems and thus will be able to devote more time to his other endeavors.

The idea, though, is philosophically ludicrous. In a democracy, don’t voters directly elect their chosen politicians to represent their specific interests? It’s only in autocratic totalitarian police states that despots, dictators, fascists are appointed to look after the “people’s interest.”

While city bylaw officers with police and locksmiths in tow raided UOIT student bedrooms rifling panty drawers for leasing documents might be close to these kinds of regimes, we’re not quite there yet!

So why would Councillor John Henry introduce these ideas to committee? He knew they wouldn’t fly. He also knew that none of his fellow general vote competitors on city council would support his or any other councillor’s good ideas.

Now the real question. Was John Henry really sincere about these ideas that he probably doesn’t support….or did he simply want to grab the press?
Good Ideas John…but no kudos from me!

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”, every Monday, 6-9 pm commencing November 30, 2009 on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Introductory Column...Nov. 15, 2009

“Eye on City Hall”
A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
November 15, 2009

Mr. Longworth is a retired school principal with a Master’s Degree from the University of Toronto and an Undergraduate Degree from Queen’s University. He was Oshawa’s Federal Conservative Candidate in the 1990 Federal By-election and a past president of Oshawa (Parkwood) Rotary Club. Since retirement, he has worked in China, England, and Egypt. He has been an Oshawa resident since 1972. He writes the blog www.oshawaspeaks.com which comments on Oshawa City Hall.

I am pleased to have been asked to write this weekly column, “Eye on City Hall” and host a weekly radio show commencing in early December on the same topic.

In both of these endeavours, I will cut through the spin at city hall to bring you the “truthful” message that politicians do not want you to hear.

I have been a long-time city hall watcher. I’m also a strong believer in the key democratic ideals and principles of an open, accountable, responsive, inclusive, and honest government whose key role is to serve the people-- important principles which I’m confident you also believe in…but which are being eroded in Oshawa

Because of my strong belief in these principles, I worked for a number of years to bring ward voting to Oshawa and was personally responsible for bringing ward elections to Oshawa in 1985. I personally designed and presented the winning case to the 21 day OMB hearing, the longest of its kind in Provincial history, and at the time was widely acknowledged as a premier expert on the question of ward voting vs. the general vote for the election of municipal councils in Canada. A study of our case and our strategy was published at the time by a Trent University Professor in “Municipal World” Magazine.

Also, because of my strong belief in these democratic principles, I will give you the respect and honest and straight-forward analysis you deserve…something that is drastically lacking from the bunch at city hall. City politicians often treat you like the typical mushroom…they feed you sh-- and keep you in the dark. I believe you deserve more.

A case in point---City Hall placed a plebiscite question on the last municipal ballot in respect of ward elections vs. the general vote. They worded the question in the most complicated way possible and voted to not provide you any information about the question…what it meant…what difference it would make to you…why the question was asked since the existing system had never been subject to any public concern…or why a change was needed...or why the system we used which was also used in virtually every community in the country was insufficient for Oshawa. If City Hall wanted an accurate measure of voter opinion, don’t you think they would have provided you this background information?

Realizing a large number of voters will vote “YES” to a question they don’t understand, council worded the convoluted plebiscite question which required voters to vote “NO” to keep their existing ward system while “YES” supported the change the councilors wanted. The mayor in a deceitful manner states the question had to be worded in the “affirmative”…a “spin” that may convince many people but one that my Master’s Degree does not help me see this as supporting the way the question was asked. The fact is Provincial Law governing plebiscites makes no such condition---only that plebiscite questions must have “YES” or “NO” answers.

In another deceitful comment, the mayor said that it was not the city’s responsibility to inform voters about the meaning and ramifications of the plebiscite question stating this was a responsibility of the concerned public to fundraise and inform the public. He knew such third party campaigns are contrary to Ontario Election Law and that the same law provides unlimited spending ability to the city to inform the public about such matters. He would have been truthful if he respected you!

Councillor Nester Pidwerbecki was quoted at the time as saying Oshawa was just getting too large for ward voting. Ludicrous! Exactly the opposite is true. Large jurisdictions absolutely require ward voting.

Don’t we deserve an honest mayor and honest councillors that level with the people?

We shall examine many specific examples of deceit and foolishness in future articles in this column.

Democracy absolutely requires an informed public and City Council refused to give you information you required to make an informed and knowledgeable choice. Because Council refused to provide the information, they didn’t care about the accuracy of the result. They just knew the result they wanted and manipulated the system to get it. This is not the democracy our soldiers fought and died for. Because of Council’s failure to insure an informed public, the plebiscite result is completely invalid and does not justify a change in election system.

To City Council, the end justifies the means. Lying and deceit are a common practice in putting forward support for their decisions. We shall examine many such examples over the coming weeks.

In terms of the plebiscite, City Council knew the result they wanted and manipulated the question and the process to get their desired result. They wanted a result that would protect their council seats and their rear ends from any serious electoral challenge. With salary and perks like holiday travel expenses to any place they can find an excuse to visit, car allowances of $100 per week, pension and health benefits, food and entertainment expenses, advertising expenses like their Remembrance Day messages purchased with your tax dollars, and now their university tuition expenses etc., etc., etc., all approaching $500,000 for part-time work over their four year terms, they wanted a system that would protect this windfall. That is the real reason why we will have the general vote. City politicians wanted a system that would serve them---a system that let them hide in the weeds and still be elected--be damned accountable, responsible, inclusive, representative local government, all of which have taken a back seat to politician’s own interests.

Your city politicians have given Oshawa an election system not used in any large city in the country. If it was a better system, don’t you think it would be widely used?

Oshawa will be the largest city in the country and probably the world to use this system of voting. The only way this system could work is when combined with the use of municipal political parties which are outlawed by Ontario Municipal Election Law having to do with fund raising, expenditure reporting, party approval of candidates, and lack of party identification on the ballot. If the general vote was better, wouldn’t it be used widely in the country?

The general vote makes all politicians responsible for all parts of the city. Try that organization in your workplace and let everyone be responsible for everything. When everyone is responsible for everything, no one becomes responsible for anything! City politicians have stolen your guaranteed community represention on council.

The general vote also makes every city politician responsible to twice as many voters as our Federal and Provincial Government members. That is ludicrous for a local government that is supposed to be closest to the people. Mark my words. It won’t be long before politicians are asking for wage parity with these senior government members as they’ll be claiming equal responsibility.

The general vote will produce an impossible and unworkable ballot with the names of up to 100 candidates for the various offices with the names of incumbent politicians standing out because of their efforts to get their names known. Politicians will do whatever is required to get elected. If name recognition is important, that will dominate politician’s efforts and time. This leads to a dysfunctional council as all politicians are competitors for the same vote and thus they will backbite, bitch, bicker and grandstand to grab the press.

We have seen ample evidence of this dysfunction. Mayor John Gray has called certain members of his council “Stooges” and Councillor Louise Parkes has recently sent an email to ratepayer groups in which she refers to municipal staff as "unelected bureaucrats with big dreams," and councillors as "blindfolded overseers with rubber stamps that treat their council job as a hobby." While controversial to air dirty laundry in public, the quote about her fellow councilors is probably quite accurate. The gist of her email though was to prohibit city bureaucrats from answering press inquiries since in a general vote, it is important for politicians to grab all the press ink to enhance their “name recognition.”

Under ward voting, politicians have to serve the public and respond to their concerns because every single vote is important. Not so in the general vote where 25,000 votes or so will be required for election. Instead the gods to the general vote politicians will be large groups like churches, trade unions, the golf club, etc. in the hopes that these groups will encourage their city-wide membership to support “friendly” politicians, and of course, the development industry which will provide the huge city-wide election funds to “friendly” politicians. Which system would serve you and your neighbours best?

Under Oshawa’s last period of general vote elections, the 7 councils leading up to the change to ward elections in 1985, not one politician out of 107 elected over that time lost their seat by the vote. All change took place through the death or resignation of members and not one politician lived south of King Street. Half of council members lived the old ward 6 in the city’s North End’s and a third of council members lived in one polling subdivision of about 100 houses at the east end of Regent Drive. Only the richer areas of Oshawa were represented on Council. Not one politician lived south of King Street which in those days was about half of Oshawa. By adopting the general vote, politicians have stolen your and “real” vote.

Political accountability is a direct function of voter’s ability to defeat underperforming councillors. Since councilors couldn’t be defeated, they were not accountable. They could (and did) do anything to you without the fear of electoral defeat. With sky high taxes and the exploding Oshawa debt, and many other foolish decisions, present politicians certainly have fear of the ward system that increases the need for careful and prudent management of the city’s affairs.

With the general vote, politicians know that they will get away with such fiascoes as the Cullen Gardens Miniatures purchases, the discriminatory student housing practices, having the highest taxes in the GTA, the indiscriminate use of expensive consultants, their “search and destroy” missions to demolish city assets like city hall and our arenas and replace them with north end facilities thus depriving south end children of arenas…and the list goes on and on.

Wake up Oshawa. Don’t let the politicians get away with all this! We need ward elections to have some control over their reckless ways!