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

Monday, May 24, 2010

The System is Broke and Needs to be Fixed

“Eye on City Hall”
A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
May 24, 2010

Voices are being raised widely that the municipal election system being used in the Province of Ontario is broken and needs fixing. Factors such as career politicians, limited political turnover, election funding, voter turnout, ethnic diversity, giant advantages of incumbency, public cynicism, etc. have all been cited as contributing to low voter turnout. Provincial Legislation which sets the rules for these elections have been reviewed for revision but only minor tinkering has occurred.

None of the big issues that need fixing have been approached by the Provincial officials and their political bosses, probably due to the fact that a great number of provincial lawmakers have arisen from the municipal scene. These guys would hardly want to upset their municipal political brethren and friends, or indeed upset the apple cart that led to their own lengthy political careers, would they?

A group called “Better Ballots,” led by Toronto activist Dave Meslin, has been organized to bring “grass roots” awareness and interest to municipal elections and he was in town last week to address a Durham Chapter of Better Ballots organized by Bruce Wood, President of Oshawa Ratepayer’s Association.

Better Ballots Toronto has compiled a survey of 14 election ballot and voting possibilities and have been surveying citizens to establish what would make a difference to voter participation and turnout, and one of the local papers had an online poll of the survey .

A number of items on the “Better Ballots” survey have to do with making voting more convenient (weekend, online, and telephone voting), lowering the voting age, and extending the vote to permanent residents. These are “apple pie” changes and should be implemented without question.

Internet and telephone voting would undoubtedly increase voter turnout. Despite politicians publicly citing low voter turnout as a problem, privately they like low voter turnouts because that favours incumbents.

Online voting was voted on and defeated by Oshawa City Council as incumbents probably thought the general vote “incumbent advantage” would be reduced if voters could research their vote and then vote from their list. We certainly will be publishing lists to help voters with this task of choosing.

Council rationale for defeating internet voting revolved around security concerns, yet they collect taxes and allow for paying of parks and rec course fees, etc. on the net. And, of course, there are many jurisdictions in Ontario that already have internet voting…so those security concerns are council fantasy---or stretching at straws to support stuff they wanted to avoid! Forget the voting convenience, Oshawa!

Lowering the voting age is another “Better Ballots” good idea. Civics classes in high schools would certainly improve student’s knowledge of the candidates and habits started early often persist into the future. Start-em-young, I say!

Pre-election contribution disclosure is another “Better Ballots” good suggestion. While this may not increase voter turnout, it may affect voter selections. Mayor John Gray, for example, gets close to 80% of his campaign financing from the development industry. This may pre-dispose him to support zoning changes and subdivision approvals needed by developers and city infrastructure expenditures like water and sewage expansions helpful to the development industry but at great cost to the taxpayer.

Knowledge of campaign funding sources would be useful information prior to elections as it is certainly believed by many, that, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

While many of the Better Ballots ideas may improve the election voting process, I feel that there are major systemic problems with the entire election process that have to be addressed to effect real change in improved voter interest and turnout and a real change to the improvement of municipal governance.

I do believe that the "Better Ballots" proposal for term limits is crucial, and I was a guest panelist on the Dec. 8/09 TV Program, Goldhawk Live, arguing just that.

There is so little municipal turnover in the Province that, it has been reported, that only two incumbents out of Ontario’s largest cities were defeated in the last municipal election. So little turnover allows for inadequate room for council renewal and also sends the message to voters that the act of voting does not matter.

Election to council has become lifetime employment for many municipal politicians and prohibits new blood with new ideas and real world work experience from coming into the political fold.

This is certainly true of Oshawa City Council which has a number of members who have been on council for over 20 years and some with very limited or no other work experience.

Rather than legislating this change, the past Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing indicated term limits was a decision for individual councils to make. Of course the Minister that uttered this ludicrous suggestion had a vested interest as he resigned his MPP position shortly thereafter to attempt to return to his former job as Mayor of Ottawa. I would support petitioning the Minister to make term limits the Provincial Law as sitting council members are unlikely to vote to limit their lucrative council seats.

Many of the problems with municipal voting are systemic problems that have not been addressed by the “Fair Ballots” ideas although I applaud their efforts at suggesting reform.

I have SIX KEY SUGGESTIONS that I believe would lead to real reform leading to much better municipal governance and a growth in participation and voting:

ONE---For increased government accountability, municipal political parties (distinct from Provincial and Federal Parties) should be allowed. They are already legal in British Columbia and Quebec and should be here.

Oshawa’s general vote, for example, is impossible for voters without the use of local municipal parties that would simplify the huge ballot into various “teams” with the platform they promise to deliver.

Each political party would then go to the people with a platform.
The platform itself would provide the key choice for voters rather than the individuals involved.

The members of the party would be expected to implement the platform or run the risk of losing support in the next election.

At present, municipal politicians run as individuals and cannot make promises or be held accountable for council decisions as they have only one vote independent of all others on council.

Municipal parties would provide some obligation on the part of their associated politicians to support the group platform or risk losing group endorsement in the next election.

It is a more accountable process if you know what you are going to get before the vote and hold politicians to account to deliver on their promises.

Voting for a party with a platform would provide voters with a real sense of having a “say” in their governance and a crucial role in setting the direction for their municipality on all the key issues. It would also provide politicians with voter support for implementing the initiatives, especially big ticket initiatives, they had promised.

TWO---Campaign costs are “out of line” and eliminate many worthy candidates from participating. Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, for example, spent $100 million on his campaign. Costs are escalating in Oshawa, as well, where the upper limits for a Mayoral Campaign are $110,000, for a Regional Campaign about $90,000, and for a City Councillor Campaign about $80,000. These costs are outrageous and eliminate most citizens from considering political office.

I believe all political campaigns should be publicly funded. This would eliminate the risk of donor control of council members and their votes, and also, in recognition that different constituent groups bring different interests, skills and backgrounds to the council table, allow for inclusion of a broader spectrum of citizens to the political process.

Campaign variables such as print advertising, signs, political forums etc. would be highly regulated and publicly and minimally funded and supplied by the municipality using its tendering and bulk purchasing powers.

Many candidate forums would be organized and funded by the municipality, as would flyer production and delivery as responsibility to insure an informed electorate would rest with the city.

Every candidate would have identical opportunity to present themselves to the voting public thus presenting a level playing field to all.

Candidates would be required to post bonds of approximately $2000-$3000 to insure serious campaigns, and this would be refunded if they secured 25% of the winner’s vote tally.

This process would allow all serious candidates to run and would not put rich candidates at an advantage because of money or incumbents at an advantage because of their ability to raise donor funds from the development industry.

All city election costs would be recouped by the city through a reduction in the present excessive political salaries and expense budgets.

THREE---Voting is not only a right, but a responsibility that many people of the world would give their right arm for.

Therefore I would introduce incentives to vote. I would assess a minor voting incentive “tax” as part of the property tax bill for every homeowner in the city. This would provide a monetary “reward” of perhaps $20 for every citizen casting a municipal vote.

The total payout would be totaled and recouped by way of tax assessments over the following four year council term.

A heightened obligation to vote would also encourage responsible citizens to get to know the candidates and hopefully select a stronger council.

FOUR---Council salaries and expenses are getting out of hand. Sitting as a municipal councilor is not a job but a privilege.

Therefore I would support fixing council salaries at those of the average worker in Ontario as assessed by Revenue Canada data and not the executive salaries and perks city politicians are commanding today. The Ontario Provincial Legislature put a ceiling on the salaries of School Trustees a few years ago and they should extend salary limiting legislation to city politicians.

FIVE---Over the long haul, I would favour working with Durham Regional Councillors and the Ontario Provincial Legislature to eliminate Oshawa City Administration and Council as well as those of all of the local city municipalities within Durham Region.

This was done by the Mike Harris Gov’t in Toronto and the City of Toronto now has the lowest taxes in the GTA. A $350,000 Oshawa house, for example, is taxed at the same rate as an $880,000 Toronto house.

Oshawa City Council costs about a third of your property tax bill and yet has very few important responsibilities as all of the major responsibilities were given to Durham Regional Government when it was formed in 1973.

Region wide planning of our Fire Protection Services and our Parks and Rec Services would result in far more strategic placement of these facilities.

Eliminating Oshawa City Council and Administration would cut out significant overlaps and duplications of service to result in huge tax savings.

At the same time, you would still live in Oshawa, just as residents of North York, Scarborough, or Etobicoke still live in those places, despite the fact that their local governments were eliminated many years ago.

SIX---I would support petitioning the Provincial Government to mandate the publication of detailed itemized expense reports on city web pages. Citizens have a right to know where every one of their tax dollars are being spent and publication of this information would insure careful consideration by politicians of all of their expense spending. This is a current issue at all government levels but disclosure has been denied by Oshawa City Council.

At the Federal Level, the $503,500,000 spent annually by our 308 MP’s, an average of $1.634 million per member, is coming under closer scrutiny and MP's feel mounting pressures to allow for an audit by Sheila Fraser, the Federal Auditor General, but this has so far been denied by parliament

If all these changes were implemented, I guarantee Municipal Governments across the Province would be more vibrant and voter interest and participation would increase exponentially.

Editor's Addendum
Every political system is broken and needs to be fixed. Movements such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement and a recent grassroots movement to amend the USA Presidential Election System are proof positive of the need to bring fairness and the ordinary citizen's participation into the process.

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

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