Acclamations damage democracy


If the municipal election was held today and you live in Ward 2 or Ward 3 in Kitchener, why would you bother to vote? Your incumbent City Councillor would be acclaimed, there is no real race for Mayor and the Chair of the Region of Waterloo would be acclaimed. You won’t even need to vote for school trustees since there are only four candidates for four spots in the public board and three candidates for four spots on the Catholic board. Look for a record low turnout in those two wards and probably Ward 1 that only has one candidate so far.

I hope that more viable candidates come forward before nominations close on September 9 (and expect they will for the four school boards). The current situation of so many acclamations or races with weak opponents damages democracy. No contests mean no debate disengages voters and encourages apathy. The “winners” lack a strong mandate to implement their platforms and citizens lose the right to complain about the government that they get. Voter turnout is already embarrassingly low. Kitchener deserves better.

Municipal government is the level of government that most directly touches our day to day life. There are important issues such as roads, parking, zoning, public transit and many more that require debate. Voters need candidates who present compelling different visions to drive them to the polls. By voting, citizens become better connected to their government which in turn becomes more accountable for its decisions. Democracy flourishes as a result.

Even if viable candidates emerge to challenge the incumbents in Ward 2 and Ward 3, the prospect of a lack of serious races for the high profile positions of Mayor and Regional Chair risks putting voter interest into a deep freeze across the city. I hope that we will see at least one strong, viable candidate challenge for both of those positions. Kitchener and Waterloo Region would benefit from having a strong race such as those occurring in the City of Waterloo, Cambridge and Woolwich and North Dumfries townships.

I define a viable candidate as someone that has a combination of profile, ideas and experiences to be considered a serious candidate. Perennial also-rans whose track record features gathering a handful of votes do not cut it as true challengers.

Nomination deadline is September 9

I am hoping that by kicking off my election coverage with this post that I will encourage some races that otherwise may not have occurred. The deadline for nominations is September 9 so if you are considering running make up your mind quickly and get active engaging voters with your vision and ideas. Information for candidates can be found here.

Let’s take a closer look at the position that lack strong races

Mayor of Kitchener

When I attended Culture Camp held on February 13 at Kitchener City Hall, I participated in a discussion that desired a culture-friendly council. At that time, I suggested it best to put time and energy into the wards since if Carl Zehr ran again he would definitely win again. I also felt he had a good track record on arts and culture. I was also happy with the successes he has enjoyed in his downtown strategy as seen by the new university campuses which led to other nearby developments. I was quite comfortable with the prospect of another four years of Zehr’s leadership.

I have always supported Zehr and have trouble seeing myself voting for someone else but at the same time his positions on a couple issues since that day in February have given me cause for concern:

  • the lost opportunity to ensure that the Tannery became a true district for people in a way that would have been consistent with the City’s official plan
  • not once but twice trying to make last minute changes to the Region of Waterloo’s new official plan that would have kept southwest Kitchener open to possible development

These two examples indicate to me that Kitchener would benefit from a debate on urban planning issues such as the approach to downtown revitalization and encouraging street life, how and where Kitchener should grow and how we work together to build a better community. Since the Mayor automatically is a part of regional council, citizens should know the candidate’s positions on significant regional issues as well. With the new four year terms, we deserve a vigorous contest that ensures our Mayor is engaged in a dialogue with citizens and has the moral authority to lead.

But even without these concerns, I have concluded that democracy and our city is best served if there is a contest for the position of Mayor.

Ward 1 & Ward 2

Ward 1 could see an acclamation since it only one has one declared candidate. But since Moni Lagonia is not an incumbent, I anticipate that she will have at least one challenger.

But Lagonia lives in Ward 2 so I wish that she was challenging Berry Vrbanovic. I have known Berry since high school and overall I think he has made a positive contribution on Council but if he is to serve another term he should be challenged to defend his record and present a vision for Kitchener over the next four years and into the future. In short, he should have to break a sweat and earn his seat at the Council table.

For Lagonia, challenging an incumbent would be an uphill battle but if she has the ideas and expertise to be a good councillor (and it appears she does), it is not an impossible dream. Worse case scenario is that after running a strong campaign, she is seen as the obvious choice when Vrbanovic seeks a new challenge.

If not Lagonia, the must be someone else who lives in Chicopee who thinks that it is time for someone new to represent them on Council

For Ward 1, I would think that there is at least one person living in Bridgeport who would want to represent its interests on city issues. I would think there is at least one person living in the section bounded by Victoria, the Expressway, Ottawa Street and the Grand River who believes they have something to offer to help build a better Kitchener. No first time candidate, no matter how good they might be, deserves a cake walk into such an important role in our community.

Ward 3

Incumbent John Gazzola has become a favourite of the disenchanted but engaged voter. His positions are often different than the rest of council and he is not afraid to speak them. His popularity is strongest among those concerned about spending by the city since he takes a cautionary approach and scrutinizes spending carefully.

His following would make him a tough competitor but his position and approach also provide opponents with an opportunity to exploit. Does Gazzola’s Kitchener reflect the majority of his constituents? It is hard to know unless they are presented with an alternative that provides a stark contrast.

I would think that someone would want to run to establish themselves as the heir apparent since given his age I wasn’t sure he would want to run for re-election even this time. Who knows? A fresh alternative from a new generation of leaders might even have a chance this time around.

Regional Chair

Overall, I am very happy with the Region of Waterloo and the leadership provided by Ken Seiling. At the same time, I am surprised that he has never faced a serious competitor since this position started being directly elected in 1997. Given the size and scope of regional government, I would hope to see a contest that presents differing visions and solutions. You need look no further than Doug Craig to see that there is at least one other significantly different vision for our Region. Surely someone can step up and give us our first real contest for this position.

Even Seiling should welcome a contest. Having managed his ’97 campaign, I know he was happy that being elected directly strengthened his hand by giving him a mandate to implement his platform. While that remains true, I suggest that the Regional Chair would enjoy a stronger mandate if it was earned after a competitive election. For example, like it or not, Light Rapid Transit (LRT) will be an election issue and Seiling would be in a better position to deliver it if he earned his mandate. I would also suggest that we should know regional candidate’s positions on the Living Wage proposal that I support.

School Boards

At this point, trustees for both the public and Catholic school boards would be acclaimed too. I’m not concerned about those races though since I’m sure that will no longer be the case by the time nominations close. Though I’ll admit that I’m not sure why anyone would want to be a trustee given how much of their mandate has been moved to the province and the low compensation.

I am somewhat concerned by the absence of any candidates for the French school boards. These parents (including myself) deserve to have input into the policies determined by these boards by having a contested election.

What about me?

By this point, you might be wondering what position I am seeking. As announced previously on Twitter, I am not seeking election this fall. Nor am I looking for a draft movement as I have indicated that unlike John Tory I shall not reconsider.

Why not?

  • I live in Ward 10 and there are already two viable candidates.
  • I have a young family and a young business both of which need my attention to grow and prosper.
  • I believe that I can contribute to a better Kitchener through this blog and my similarly focussed Twitter account.

Maybe I’ll consider an elected role in local government sometime in the future. Maybe. Maybe not.

In the meantime, please join me here to discuss the municipal elections and their implication for creating a better world starting with a better Kitchener.

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