Speaking about the Upcoming Municipal Elections

Ron Bolin, Jan. 19, 2011

Nanaimo faces two important municipal elections in 2011, the first in March and the second in November.  The first is a bye election to replace long time Councillor McNabb and the second will be a general election which will see all nine Council positions in play, i.e. eight Councillors as well as the office of Mayor.  Many might agree that these elections are particularly important given the record of the current Council which has been perceived as divisive and impotent. I believe that it can be said that this view has been repeatedly fed by the actions of Council itself as presented in Council meetings, FPCOW meetings, and in the media.  The Berry affair which remains under tight wraps; the disappointment with the conference centre and the absence of any imagination in dealing with it; disjointed Council discussions which seem to lead nowhere; and most recently the clumsily handled matter of conflict of interest have all contributed to disillusion with our Council.

How is this situation to be overcome?  The upcoming elections by themselves will do nothing to alleviate our current situation: nine loose cannons are nine loose cannons no matter the names on them. Rather we had best examine why these cannons are loose and what can be done about it.  We have nine perfectly reasonable people on Council, though each has their own point of view. How do we get these, or any other group of people, to work together to a common purpose, particularly if that purpose is societal rather than simple self-indulgence?

Currently Councils vision appears to be limited to the issues which are brought before them by staff and a few grandiose projects such as the Conference Centre, a Theatre or two, sports facilities, a Multiplex, etc.  While some or all of these projects may be desirable, they do not fulfill the role of a vision which can be shared by the majority of our Council, let alone our citizens. Council needs to distill a broadly based vision for Nanaimo, fit projects into it and then measure their performance relative to it. It would be very useful if candidates expressed a vision for the whole city on which citizens could use in allocating their votes in both elections, but most certainly in November.

On a second, but perhaps more concrete point, it is important that citizens, candidates, Council and city administration understand the nature of the activity in which they are all bound together and their relative responsibilities and limitations in the activity of governing. While citizens, candidates and Councils in our system are not made up of professionals, they do need to understand their relation to each other and to the professional staff that carries out the routine administration of our city.

While I, as have we all, have had my own intuitions of this process, I was recently made aware of some published material that I rate very highly in examining the problems of municipal governance.  These works clarify the reasons for some of the difficulties which our community has been undergoing and, as I learned, Nanaimo is not alone in these problems among Canadian cities.  The two volumes to which I refer are written by George B. Cuff and entitled: 1) Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders: A Survival Guide for Elected Officials; and 2) Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders: The Case for Effective Governance.  Each is a booklet of only about 100 pages and is easy to read. In discussion and case studies the problems associated with municipal governance are examined.  It is remarkable how easily it is possible to identify what one reads in the booklets with what one sees in our local papers or views on local tv about Nanaimo’s government.  I am given to understand that these books were presented to those elected in the last election.  I would suggest that they read –or reread- them.

The books are available through our Vancouver Island Public Library (VIRL) and can also be ordered online through   www.municipalworld.com

While we may all be amateurs at local governance, we do not have to be ignorant amateurs, nor should we.  Neither do we have to be mice.  (an encouraging example)

We would like to hear your ideas about what we could do to improve our local government.