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

Monday, December 6, 2010

You broke the election system….now fix it right!

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
December 6, 2010

On Monday, December 6, at the first council meeting of the new term, city council will be considering John Henry’s idea to introduce a concept he calls “community of interest” to assign councillors to look after constituency concerns of the various city neighbourhoods.

This is an attempt to distribute the constituency workload among the various councillors and to make sure that every neighborhood has a voice at the council table.

In other words, Henry’s idea is to institute a plan to re-introduce the ward representation that he voted to eliminate.

This is a rather asinine suggestion not at all keeping with democratic principles of representative government whose basic principle is that voters determine their own representatives.

The idea of assigned representatives suggests a movement away from democracy and a move toward a system where the autocratic elite divide the spoils among themselves…they divvy up the political landscape in backroom deals and decide who is going to represent the people. This is wrong and the complete antithesis of everything we know about democracy. It is more like the warlords divvying up the spoils in Afghanistan, much of Asia and the Middle East, and many parts of Africa and South America.

We have not seen this kind of feudal governing in the free world since the bishops, on behalf of the people, wrested absolute power from the British Kings close to one thousand years ago with the signing of the Magna Carta.

The real question if John Henry wants to re-introduce the semblance of ward representation is why he voted to eliminate it in the first place? Does he only now realize that he made an error? Or was his vote, as a “still wet behind the ears” “green political pup” highly influenced by the Council power brokers like Gray, Pidwerbecki, and Kolodzie that he wanted to please? Did he not understand the issue? If he did, did he not have the honesty and integrity to vote for what he knew to be right?

He should have been paying more attention to my presentations to council where I identified all of the short comings that have since materialized. He was so disinterested in what I had to say, or indeed under pressure from the power brokers on council, that he voted every time to deny me opportunity to provide him and council additional information.

John Henry and his council bosses didn’t want to expose my damaging information to the public any more than they had to for fear of it upsetting the self-serving plans they had to introduce the system not used in any large city in the country.

And what is more, the city newspapers, probably also under the influence of city politicians, in fear of jeopardizing their handsome city hall advertising contracts, were irresponsible in not taking up the communication and information mantle abolished by city hall. The Oshawa Times, in contrast, a Thompson Newspaper Chain Daily, unfortunately shuttered due to a labour dispute in 1994, featured my battles for ward elections on their front page almost every day for four years.

In supporting the move to the general vote, Pidwerbecki suggested that ward voting meant that politicians were only interested in their own wards to the exclusion of all others. His other assertion was that Oshawa was “just too large for ward voting,” an abject insult to the intelligence of Oshawa voters.

The idea of parochial politicians is a red herring that has been floated about by the opponents of ward voting, mostly the CAW and CAW retirees, even prior to 1985 when I brought ward politics to the city with the work of my “Ward System Now” political action group. At that time, Cliff Pilkey, former city councillor, MPP, city resident, and president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, took out giant ads in the newspapers denouncing ward voting.

As former manager of NDP Leader, Ed Broadbent’s Oshawa Constituency Office, Pidwerbecki is now the chief city council spokesman for the Labour Movement and thus took a leading role, in strategizing Oshawa’s return to the General Vote.

The auto workers union and the union movement has traditionally been against ward voting since it divides their city wide union membership reducing CAW and CAW retirees influence in the running of this city.

If Pidwerbecki was right about parochialism of councillors, the general vote didn’t improve the problem. Rather, it gave the city a more unequal concentration of political power.

The recent elections produced 3 reps in each of wards 3 and 4, 2 reps in ward 6 (both in the same political polling subdivision), one rep each in wards 1, 5, and 7, and none in ward 2…too bad ward 2 and the other underserviced wards, you don’t have many votes representing your interests at the council table…but congratulations 3 and 4, according to Pidwerbecki, with your combined majority vote, you’ll have parochial politicians looking after your every whim, and each of you has as much power now as the combined power of more than half the city (4 out of 7 city wards).

For Henry to assign ward responsibility to councillors, because of the unequal representation elected, he will have to assign responsibility to some that is outside their residential communities. Of course, no matter how wards are assigned, you can never dismiss the fact that all politicians will be more in tune with the needs of their home communities and more interested in delivering service there.

A major problem with the assignment of wards is that politicians will not be accountable to the residents of the wards assigned. Politicians are only held accountable by the vote and are not held accountable to voters of any single community in a city wide vote. Even when ward responsibilities are assigned, politicians will still demonstrate more interest and expertise in their home communities, perhaps giving second class lip service to the assigned communities they are less interested in.

The bottom line is that, because of low voter turnout, the plebiscite result was not binding on council.

Nevertheless, council members argued that the vote had to be honoured as the “will of the people.”

Council failed to consider its very flawed plebiscite process that denied voters the opportunity to understand and debate the issue. They did not provide any documentation to households explaining the meaning of the question, what it would mean to voting and council representation in the city, or why the question was asked.

Worst of all, they schemed to catch voters “cold” in the voting booth with a question they didn’t understand, had never heard or considered, and worded in a difficult and convoluted way compelling voters to vote “NO” to retain a system they were happy with since no public concern had ever been publicly raised about ward voting.

In short, politicians asked an unnecessary question, and then rigged the question and the process to trick the people into voting for the system preferred by the politicians.

The question of an accurate measure of the “will of the people” is highly suspect. It is clear though, that if council wanted an accurate measure of that “will,” they would have insured an informed electorate. Because they failed to inform the people, they showed they didn’t care!

With council’s arguments to implement general elections as the expressed “will of the people,” it would now be extremely unethical for them to introduce John Henry’s assigned ward responsibilities as that is inconsistent with the reasons they forwarded for implementing the general vote.

Are they now going to reject what they adamantly called the “will of the people?”

Council must complete the present term under the election system they signed up for and they must honor any increased workload that results in representing the entire city. They argued before that citizens wanted to vote for all and be represented by all at council. It is too late to change the rules of the game.

John Henry’s ludicrous "community of interest" idea should be abandoned and council should mount a giant communication program to fully inform the people during this term. Following the information campaign, they should conduct an online poll, supplemented by mail in ballots for those who prefer, to get a true measure of the voting system the people want with a promise to introduce that system for the 2014 election.

The election system has to be fixed this term…and any attempts by John Henry or Council to postpone fixing the system with Henry’s plan which is rife with faulty logic and an affront to democracy will not serve this city well.

Henry’s system will only perpetuate the problems we’ve seen with Oshawa’s system of voting not used in any large city in the country.

Any attempt to assign political responsibility to communities misses the vital democratic components of choice of representation and political accountability to the represented group.

Don’t put off the problem…fix it now…and fix it right!

POSTSCRIPT---Thank goodness. Common sense prevailed and city council voted, on a motion from former Mayor Nancy Diamond, to receive and file the staff report seeking direction on Mayor John Henry's "Communities of Interest" Idea. This effectively puts an end to the idea. It is significant that Council did not support Henry's first leadership initiative as Mayor. Wonder what this forebodes in the future for Henry's leadership.

Hopefully a condensed form of this column sent to all council members on the morning of the vote and the full version of the column available to them by the time of the vote had some influence in their decision.

Now we just have to get council on board to organizing an information campaign and an online vote to get citizen approval for returning to ward voting for 2014.

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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