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.
One notion that I have been pondering of late is the fact that we are probably placing far too high an expectation on what we feel our Councilors are really capable of doing.
I mean no disrespect whatever with this comment, but honestly, I am not sure that ANY of us really know how things should be run, that of course does not stop us from participating and trying.
However, I do feel that most of us are not qualified for the job.
If you consider higher forms of governance, and look about the world stage, it would appear that we are for the most part, just making this up as we go along.
Jim: I am not sure what you would like to imply: That the job can’t be done? That those elected cannot do better? That only the unqualified run for office? What??
I agree that we all are making this, like life, up as we go along, but aren’t there some rules of thumb that can make the game better for most, if not all? And if so, what are they?
Why so negative?
Ron: I don’t consider my comment to be negative, although I understand that interpretation. I rather, consider it to be a sober dose of reality.
Before we decide if the job can be done, don’t we have to be able to actually articulate what that job is?
Are the elected able to do better, you ask? Why are they not doing better? I am not limiting this comment to local governance.
That only unqualified run for office?? Looking at governance on all levels, I don’t think this is a unfair statement. Those with the actual ‘ideas’ of how things should be done are far too busy with ‘their’ kingdoms to actually run for office, instead they will help elect ‘their’ representative who will do their bidding. Their interests are not necessarily for the overall good first, but rather their own agendas.
I realize, that this does not apply to all good citizens who still think democracy works who give of themselves and run for office. But I do think overall, it is an observation which can not be denied, save and accept for Polly Anna.
I would be surprised if many on local council are not representing a particular ‘block’ with an agenda. And why not, without some overarching definition of just exactly what we want local council to govern, local governance becomes a free for all, with everyone looking for funds for their pet project, which may or may not be to the communities overall good.
Provincially and Federally, thinking the people we elect as MLA or MP actually have much to say about major governance decisions is not dealing with the reality of the times, but rather still believing the fairy tale principle about democracy.
This notion that any one party has the answer, and that they must be elected as a party, continues the folly and ensures the brightest and the best and the truly qualified will never be able to actually participate in governing.
Why are the ‘rules of thumb’ not already in place, and doing their job? I suggest, it is because we do not know what they are, and repeat we are just making this us as we go.
I doubt if even the people in Ottawa are in control but rather are being blown about by the winds of global affairs, and just reacting to that as best they can. (Just making it up as they go).
International powers dictate how many dollars our nation can be in debt and still function, when that limit gets hit, the Feds offload to the Provinces who offload to the local governments. Each level, simply reacting to forces over which neither they, nor us have any control.
If money actually does mean something and it is a true measure of wealth, how can we have a national debt of $500 billion, Provincial debt of $50 billion, personal debts of $1.5 Trillion, and locally not enough money to keep up the water, sewer and roads, and think we have not just been making this up.
I would be interested to hear the ‘positive’ spin which would indicate our leaders are actually qualified at all.
In the meantime, we will just keep on keeping on, going through the motions think our ‘leaders’ will have the answers.
It takes little observation of local council to realize that nothing profound will ever result from that exercise. Previous councils, who had been in control for a long time, culminated their rule with what we now have downtown.
To close, I don’t think this is negative thinking, just a sober look at reality. If you have the ‘answers’ ….. fire away. I would love to stand corrected.
I don’t think we are so very far apart on this matter. Rather, I think it is a fine difference between being on one side of the dividing line between the possible and the impossible. On one side lies hope and only millimeters away on the other despair. We need to take care how we define the world because, for us, it IS that way.
If democracy is the proposition that citizens have a right to take a direct part in government by voting on issues and we then go on to representative democracy where in theory, any voter is qualified to run to represent his fellows, then those who run and are elected are, by definition, qualified.
There are, of course, other considerations. Nothing requires any or all of those elected to be as good at the job as others, but being elected demonstrate that they garnered the most support for their ideas. And the definition of what a “good” representative is, of course, contentious. As you note there are both major and minor factions in town which support one or more Councillors: the business/developer faction, the union faction, the sports faction and the grass roots faction. These factions and the candidates they back can be seen by examining the election contributions made to each candidate. Contention between the factions in Nanaimo is such that none of these factions is large enough by itself to elect a majority, and so municipal progress appears aimless and spotty. There is nothing wrong with any of our Councillors as individuals, but they just aren’t playing from a considered and agreed game plan.
We need to at least try to develop a view of the community among voters, candidates, and Councillors which can, even under these conditions, be consistent and purposeful. This means a relatively shared vision of where we are now and where we want to go. It seems to me that a major difficulty in reaching some consensus of this type lies largely in the almost entirely useless election process which precludes any of the kinds of candidate presentations, discussion and debates which might provide sufficient information to the electorate to make reasoned voting decisions. Instead of the media being wide open to the kinds of ongoing discussion and debate about what it is that we all –or at least most of us- want, and which is required for an informed consensus, candidates get about 90 seconds on local TV, a few words in the local papers, two to three minutes at the Port Theatre forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and then all of the self-serving, self-advertisement that can be bought with money which the candidates and their faction are willing to spend. Can we expect such a process to inspire interest in our governance or our elections? Or to generate representatives with knowledge about the community beyond that of their faction?
Another method which could create a common view for action is by means of political “parties” which would have members, platforms, research capabilities and perhaps most importantly, a life that is longer than an election. It is not that parties are good, but I believe that there are circumstances where they are better than the alternative.
I agree that we are, indeed, making this all up as we go along. But what is the alternative in a world best defined by change? We don’t need a “positive” spin; rather we need some changes to our game plan to get us out of our rut. I have made a couple of suggestions here. I look forward to others from our readers.