Monday, September 29, 2014

Time for NDP's Claude Gravelle to Turn Off the Lights

Since relocating to the Val Caron over a year ago, I’ve been bothered by a sight that I see almost every evening when I travel up MR 80 either on foot, bike or in the car. Up the road from where I live, our NDP Member of Parliament, Claude Gravelle, has a constituency office. In front of this office is a large orange sign, advertising the office location. Throughout the evening and well into the night on every single occasion that I’ve passed it by, this sign is lit – despite the office not being open to the public during these evening / early morning hours.

This past weekend, the federal NDP held its Northern Ontario Council Meeting. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was in town, and both Sudbury NDP MP Glenn Thibeault and Nickel Belt NDP MP Claude Gravelle were nominated by members to carry their party’s banner in the 2015 election. The centre of focus of this sizable NDP gathering was a downtown Sudbury hotel – quite far from Val Caron – maybe a 20 minute drive away.

Yet the sign in front of Claude Gravelle’s constituency office was brightly lit, as seen in this photograph taken around 9 PM.

Why is it that I’m getting upset over a sign? Well, here’s a copy of a letter that I wrote to Mr. Gravelle almost three months ago about his sign. It pretty well sums up my concerns about the sign – and also alludes to broader concerns that I have about the NDP’s ability to take the issue of climate change seriously (more on that below).

In short, although the NDP wants to be seen as the only party capable of wearing a progressive mantle in the upcoming election, the NDP as a Party has far to go in earning the progressive moniker.

At this time, I’ve not received a response from Mr. Gravelle or his staff. Here’s my letter:

Claude Gravelle, MP
2945 Highway 69 North, Suite 203
Val Caron ON
P3N 1N3

July 9, 2014

Re: Leadership on Climate Change, Energy Efficiency – Your Val Caron Constituency Office’s Sign

Dear Mr. Gravelle,

I am a resident of Val Caron, and I have noticed that the sign in front of your constituency office is often lit up throughout the night, during times when your office is not open to the public. I have observed your sign alight on weekends and holidays. As a citizen of Canada, and as one of your constituents, I ask that you consider the need to have an energy-consuming sign turned on during times when your office is not open.

I note that, according to documents you’ve published on your website, your combined office expenses for leases, insurance and utilities for the year 2011-12 (the only year posted there) totalled over $29,000. Likely these expenditures on offices are similar to that of other years for which you’ve been serving the public. Funding is provided to you by the Government of Canada to maintain constituency offices for the necessary work that you do.

Given that public funds are being used to maintain your offices, I believe that it is incumbent upon you and your staff to ensure that value is being achieved at all times, and that opportunities to reduce and eliminate waste are explored comprehensively, and reviewed over time. To that end, I sincerely hope that you will put an end to your practice of using electricity to light your office sign during times when your office is not open to the public.

While I understand that the costs of electricity use for your sign may not be a significant percentage of funds spent in terms of your overall annual office budget, the fact is that every little bit of savings helps, especially when it comes to using tax dollars wisely. As there can be no need for a lit sign when your office is closed, it seems appropriate to save money and switch the sign off.

Further, our elected officials ought to be doing what they can to be real leaders in promoting energy efficiency, particularly now that the perils of the climate crisis have become so very apparent. A sign lit by electricity belonging to a publicly elected official’s office, turned on even at times when the office is closed, could be interpreted as a profligate use of energy.

To that end, I urge you to please consider conserving public dollars and energy. Could you please turn off your constituency office’s sign when your office is not in use?

Thank you for considering this request.

Steve May
Val Caron ON

Look, turning out the lights is a pretty small issue in the grand scheme of things. But to me, it’s the little actions (or lack thereof) which starts to speak volumes about how the NDP remains disengaged on climate change. If they were serious at all about wanting to do what’s right for the planet, each and every MP would make sure that the lights are turned off when they’ve left the building.

If the NDP gets the little things wrong, what about some of the bigger things? In Sudbury, the NDP’s critic for Consumer Affairs, has been pushing a campaign to make driving more attractive, under the guise of ending gasoline price gouging. On his website, Thibeault remarks that “Over the past six years, the price of gas in Sudbury has shot up from an average of just over $1.00/litre to now over $1.40/litre. And there appears to be no end in sight.” (as per this website)

Well, no kidding, Glenn. What’s been driving the hikes to gasoline prices sure isn’t collusion or gouging on the part of the oil industry – it’s the fact that we are running into resource limits for inexpensive energy, and that we are increasingly deriving more of our fossil energy from non-traditional sources, including deep water sources, fracking and the tar sands. These non-traditional sources of energy are more expensive to access – and with a growing demand in places like China and India (nations to which we’ve outsourced much of our industrial plant), we here in Canada can only expect prices to continue to climb.

But the NDP doesn’t seem to get this. Thibeault would rather point to the simplistic argument of price gouging than to the realistic fact of resource limitations. And the NDP’s response to this situation has typically been to try to keep gasoline prices as low as possible (sometimes by outright capping gasoline prices) – a policy which would give a significant benefit to the rich in our nation (who drive a heck of a lot more than the poor do), while continuing to raise greenhouse gas emission levels. In short, the NDP just doesn’t have a clue about what needs to be done to help in the fight against climate change.

To wit, the NDP has taken a position on the East-West dilbit pipeline known as “Energy East” – a pipeline which will create significant capacity to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to a tidewater port for export (see, “Mulcair sticks with pipeline policy as report challenges Energy East”, the Globe & Mail, February 6, 2014). The NDP also has reversed itself on opposition to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which would see an existing pipeline twinned to carry diluents in one direction and dilbit in the other (see, “The Economic Case Against the Tar Sands, Part 2: Tom Mulcair’s Disastrous Kinder Morgan Reversal Opens the Door for the Green Party”, Sudbury Steve May, December 26, 2013). Both of these pipeline projects will facilitate the expansion of the tar sands enterprise – they will lock in future emissions of greenhouse gases, and continue to wed Canada to an unsustainable and economically dangerous fossil fuel resource future.

All of this is happening at a time when the world is finally waking up to the calamity of the climate crisis which is staring us in the face. But rather than embrace proven policies which will lead to real emissions reduction (such as a carbon tax), the NDP wants to leverage tar sands investment to power the renewable energy revolution in Canada. Friends – that’s just not going to work. As long as the tar sands are pumping out more and more oil, Canada’s renewable sector is going to be at risk – even with a price on pollution as envisioned by the NDP in the form of a cap and trade system.

Oh, and about that cap and trade system that the NDP wants to use to price carbon? Why on earth the NDP remains married to this policy I just don’t know. Cap and trade has been a proven failure throughout the world, with carbon markets collapsing, and offset trading negatively impacting indigenous peoples who lose access to lands which have become “carbon sinks”. If you set out to create a policy for reducing emissions which enriches bankers and big business at the expense of common people in the most opaque manner possible, you would arrive at Cap and Trade before too long. Yet that’s where the NDP wants to go.

I realize that we’ve moved a ways from flipping the switch to turn out the lights on a sign to critiquing cap and trade and pipeline policies – but the fact of the matter is all of these signs point to the NDP’s limited grasp of climate change, and what we need to do if we are going to have any hope at all of holding warming at 2 degrees Celsius.

In 2015, a much better option for Sudbury and Nickel Belt would be to say goodbye to Glenn Thibeault and Claude Gravelle and his ever-lit sign. Only the Green Party has a serious plan to shift Canada back into a leadership role on the climate crisis, both domestically and on the international stage. The NDP continues to prove that it is not a progressive party, and that it is little better than the Liberals or the Conservatives with is pro-tar sands growth policies.

If Claude Gravelle won’t turn out his lights by himself, perhaps Nickel Belt voters will do the job for him in 2015.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Diverting Organic Waste – There’s Money on Your Plate

The following post is dedicated to my wife Sarah, who has been an inspiration to me over the years. The idea for this topic is hers. Thank you, Sarah!


It’s time to give that uneaten food on our plates some consideration before chucking it in the trash can. That unwanted broccoli and those picked-over chicken bones shouldn’t be thought of as garbage any longer. It’s better to view our organic waste as money - something that none of us are likely to scrape into the trash!

On the flip side of that coin, our organic waste can also be thought of us as climate changing greenhouse gases just waiting to be released into the atmosphere, should they wind up in the wrong waste disposal receptacle.

In the past decade, many of Ontario’s municipalities have implemented organic waste diversion programs, where food waste and other organics are collected separately from garbage and recyclables. In Greater Sudbury, through the Green Cart program, organics are collected curbside, turned into valuable compost, and made available to City residents. By diverting organics, the City is able to extend the lifespan of our landfill sites, saving taxpayers’ money.

Organics make up about 30% of Canadian household waste. According to a report from the World Bank (“What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management”, Daniel Hoornweg & Prinaz Bhada-Tata, the World Bank, March 2012), urban residents on average produce about 2.6 pounds of organic waste per day, with volumes projected to rise by 70% over the next decade. Clearly, there are significant opportunities for converting organics into compost, a commodity which is only going to increase in value.

In North America, top soil is being lost about ten times faster than it’s being replaced. With food prices already rising due to resource depletion and climate change, backyard and community gardening is gaining in popularity as a food source. Compost from organics can help return nutrients to depleted soils.

However, unlike popular programs for recycling paper and plastics, participation rates for organic waste diversion remain fairly low. In a report from July, 2014, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner estimated the provincial diversion rate of residential organics to be between just 26-27% (see:
Looking for Leadership: the Costs of Climate Inaction”, Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, July 2014).

In Greater Sudbury, the City’s Auditor General recently noted that only about 20% of households were participating in the Green Cart program. The Auditor-General’s report identified that savings of a little over $2 million annually could be achieved by moving to bi-weekly garbage collection, while maintaining the weekly pick-up of recyclables and organics (see: “Audit Report – Environmental Services Waste Collection Contracts”, Brian Bigger, Auditor General, City of Greater Sudbury, June 27, 2014). Along with fewer pick-ups, reducing the City’s curbside bag limit would likely lead to a higher utilization rate of Green Carts, saving taxpayers money.

Diverting organics from landfills doesn’t just make sense economically, it’s also a very practical way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas about 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is a by-product of decaying organic waste. Ontario’s waste sector is responsible for about 7.5 megatonnes of emissions annually, which is about 14% of total provincial emissions. With a growing population, these numbers are expected to rise unless sincere efforts are made at diverting organic waste.

Diverting organic wastes from ending up in our landfills should become just as commonplace for households as the now routine sorting of paper and plastics into blue boxes has become. Making this relatively simple lifestyle change will help save our communities money through reducing the need for curbside pick-ups and by extending the useable life of our landfill sites. Pitching organics into Green Carts ultimately contributes to the creation of valuable compost for community-based agricultural initiatives. Diverting methane-producing organics from landfills helps in the fight against climate change.

The next time you’re scraping unwanted food from your plates, give a thought to how you might better be able to save money for yourself and for your neighbours. If you don’t already have a Green Cart, call the City at 3-1-1 to see if you can get one.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, September 20, 2014 as "May: Diverting organic waste: There's money on your plate"

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 8: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The Good – Connecting Candidates and Voters

70 candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for 13 seats around the Council table (12 ward councillors and 1 mayor).  Many of these candidates are developing platforms or key messaging with regards to what they feel the priorities are for the City and/or their respective wards.  Many of the candidates have websites which they are using to post this information, along with information about themselves – so that voters have a bit of an opportunity to get to know the candidates.  Some of the candidates are using Facebook to broadcast messages, while others are actively engaging on Facebook with voters.  A number of the candidates are even on Twitter.

For voters looking for information about candidates, the internet has rapidly become the “go to” place. Traditional media can only accomplish so much, and while we’re hearing that a municipal elections website is in the works at Northern Life, and CBC has been profiling some of the candidates responses to surveys, the fact is that social media provides unique opportunities for voters and candidates to interact with one another.

To that end, a number of innovative offerings have sprung up.  One of the first that I noted was Mike Bleskie’s “Sudelec Candidates” list on Twitter.  Here, Mike has been maintaining a list of candidates who are on Twitter.  The “Sudelec” name was chosen as a result of the City of Greater Sudbury tweeting their election updates using the #sudelec hashtag – a hashtag which certainly has not caught on with candidates and Sudbury voters.  Indeed, both the #sbypoli and #Sudbury hashtags appear to contain just as many election-related tweets as #sudelec, which means that those tweets are that much harder to find (note to readers: I am only tweeting election-related tweets using the #sudelec hashtag).

Not many Sudburians are taking advantage of this fantastic resource – as of today, the List has only 9 subscribers (I’m two of them, along with a stuffed turtle).  Mike has added 39 accounts to the list, of which as many as 34 may actually be candidates in the Greater Sudbury election (Mike needs to do a little house-cleaning to remove the accounts of those who have left the race, or those, like “SudburysNextMayor”, who never joined).  Unfortunately, although Mike Bleskie is himself a candidate, Twitter doesn’t allow the account of a list-maker to be included in the List.

Over on Facebook, there’s a really great group called “Meet the Votes of Wards 5, 6 & 7”, where Facebook users can (and do) interact with some of the candidates running in these words.  Since success breeds success, a new “Greater Sudbury’s 24/7 Online Candidates and Voters Debate” group has sprung up, ostensibly for all Council races in the City, although it’s not yet developed the popularity of the “Meet the Voters” group, which was advertised considerably in the very popular Valley East Facebook group (2,500 + members).

The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury has developed its “Sudbury Candidates” website, where candidate information and platform/messaging about issues critical to the City can be found.  This website also provides an updated calendar of election-related events which are taking place around the City.

Offline, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association has announced that it will be hosting all-candidates debates in each of the City’s 12 wards (which will be taped and uploaded to YouTube), while 3 mayoral forums are planned.  The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, ReThink Green and Citizens Climate Lobby have partnered with a number of other community-based groups to develop a citizen-driven “Good Green Questions” survey for candidates, which is being followed up with their Good Green Town Hall for mayoral candidates on Wednesday, October 1st at 6 PM at St. Andrews Place (ward candidates have also been invited to table in the foyer prior to the mayoral candidates forum).  Friendly to Seniors is hosting a form on Thursday, October 9th at 1:30 PM at the Parkside Centre.  And, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce is holding its debate on Wednesday, October 15th, 7:30 PM at the College Boreal Concert Hall).

Connecting candidates to voters, who are very busy with their own lives, can be extremely challenging, especially in this day and age when the mainstream media lacks the resources to focus on municipal election issues.  That being said, opportunities like the ones I’ve listed above abound – but let’s face it: not everyone is an active user of social media, including many of the candidates who have stepped forward.  Indeed, some of the candidates have provided very little contact information at all, and voters must be left scratching their heads about how to get in touch with them to ask questions.  Interestingly, there are seven incumbents running to be returned to their seats at the Council table (in Wards 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11 & 12) – of these 7, only 4 have provided phone numbers, 3 have identified email addresses, and only 1, newly-minted Ward 8 Councillor Al Sizer, has bothered to put up a website.

If candidates aren’t serious about connecting with voters through the many ways that we now all connect with one another in this day and age, I think that’s a pretty good sign to voters to give those candidates a pass at the ballot box.

The Bad – Transit

This past Sunday, Friends of Sudbury Transit challenged all municipal election candidates to join them downtown at 1:30 to discuss transit issues.  To get downtown, the Friends suggested that candidates ride the bus, in order to better experience issues related to transit, especially those issues unique to Sunday’s reduced level of service.

What a great idea!  While I ride the bus almost every day, I don’t often ride it on Sundays.  I thought that maybe I’d use the Friends of Sudbury Transit’s opportunity to try things out for myself – and to experience Greater Sudbury Transit’s stroller policy.  In advance, I chose a stop close to the downtown – on Riverside Drive – to catch the bus with my three kids.  I started planning this outing on Thursday, last week – finding information at the bus depot about the route along Riverside Drive.  Turns out there are two routes: the 501 Regent/University and 819 Copper/Four Corners.  The 501 heads west along Riverside from Broadway, while the 819 goes east from Broadway.  They alternate every 15 minutes during the day.  So there’s pretty good coverage along that corridor, especially close to Broadway.  And that’s one of the reasons why I chose that stop – that and my wife could drop me and the kids off there on her way to work – and if for some reason we missed the buses, we could still probably walk to the depot before the candidates dispersed.

After looking into matters a little further, it quickly became apparent that neither of these buses actually runs on Sunday.  I would need to rely on the 502 Regent/University/Four Corners hybrid route to get downtown.  According to the bus schedule, the 502 would be arriving at the “SRH Memorial Site” at 1:00, and then at the downtown bus depot at 1:15 – 15 minutes early for us to wait for the event (which is just on the edge of acceptable when travelling anywhere with 3 kids four and under).

First off, I had to figure out what the heck “SRH Memorial Site” is, as listed in the Transit Schedule.  Turns out that’s an old reference to the Sudbury Regional Hospital Memorial Site – something that the building at York and Regent hasn’t been for a number of years (it’s now the Health Sciences North Sudbury Outpatient Centre).  Why the 2014 transit schedule continues to refer to the name of a building that it no longer has is beyond me.  Certainly, it created some unnecessary confusion with this frequent transit user (although probably no more than those riders of the 703 & 704 Valley buses who may be perplexed about the “Grill Marks Bistro” stop just north of Valleyview, but I digress).

OK, so if the 502 bus is going to be at Regent and York at 1:00, and downtown at 1:15, it should be arriving at Riverside and Broadway sometime between those two times.  Factor 5 minutes for an early arrival, and chances are the bus would show up around 1:05.  I figured if we were at the bus stop at 1:00 PM, we should be fine.

Wrong.  We showed up at a little before 1.  With my oldest daughter at my side, and the two youngest kids were in the double-length (not double-wide) stroller – which should be acceptable to Transit – we waited for 20 minutes for the bus to arrive.  It didn’t.  And it began to rain.

Dashing as fast as four-year-old legs could go, we raced for the underpass to get out of the rain.  Eventually, we made our way to the bus depot, where after checking that I hadn’t misread the schedule, I noticed that the candidates were gathered across the road (I guess out of concerns about campaigning on municipal property – but that’s another blogpost), so I ventured across Cedar Street with three damp and cranky kids.  We didn’t stay long.

(Note: that picture isn't from a grade 9 science project. It's the one and only transit schedule available to transit riders at our bus depot. Yes, there are 160,000 + people in Greater Sudbury, and this is the best that we can do for transit riders. Admittedly, the online Schedule is much better, although still convoluted. There used to be a publication available for riders, but it's since been replaced with individual photo-copied pamphlets, many of which aren't available for certain routes at any given time - including for me the 501 and 502 route).

Back to my story. Now, I realize that I could have whipped out my cellphone and called to find out when the bus would actually be arriving, by giving the number of the stop plastered on the transit sign beneath which we waited.  I guess I could have done that – and maybe I would have taken that action if I had the faintest idea what the phone number for Greater Sudbury Transit was.  I guess I could have looked up the phone number while standing in the rain with three kids – but I had checked the schedule just a few days before, in preparation for going to this event.  Could I have messed it up that badly?

Or was I in fact experiencing one of those Sunday transit headaches so often experienced and recounted by members of the public who rely on our transit system for their mobility?  I mean, I’ve been a regular user of the bus for a number of years, most recently the 703.  I have come to expect that the bus is often delayed – and that, every now and then, it arrives early (when I was taking the 006 West End bus, I can remember running down one street and up the next to catch the bus which I had just witness blow through my bus stop, as it made its circuitous way through my neighbourhood).

Truthfully, I have no clue whether the bus was early or if it just didn’t come at all.  Either way, I was one irritated transit rider (well, irritated pedestrian, as it turned out).  But I wasn’t relying on transit to get me to my job or to an important meeting, the way that so many others do on Sundays.

Being a frequent transit rider, it’s my observation that we’ve got a pretty good transit system, which I’ve typically experienced to be reliable in getting me from home to work.  That being said, I have often protested that I am at the whims of a transit service which has remarkably little flexibility – and that if I have missed my bus (which I have on more than one occasion), I may have to wait as long as two hours for the next one to arrive.

That's not to suggest that there isn't a lot of room for improvement. Ridership has been steady, if declining somewhat, over the past few years. And although an adult fare is now a costly $2.85 per ride, each ride taken by transit user is subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of $1.96 – projected to increase over time due to rising operating costs. Rising costs, increasing fares and declining ridership are hardly the place that we want to be in if the goal is to create a truly sustainable public transportation system for the City. Check out this pic for some details about recent transit trends in the Greater City.

Transit is certainly making its presence felt as an issue in this election. I've seen a lot of talk from candidates about the need to improve the system, expand routes, provide more service – but I've yet to see anyone address how they intend to do all of these things. The fact of the matter is that our City has been designed in a way which frankly does not facilitate public transportation in any significant way, and with only modest growth projected over the next 20 years, it's going to be very difficult to provide better service to low-density and sprawling areas, particularly in our outlying communities.

If candidates who are serious about transit want to steal these ideas, I encourage them to. Promoting densification of our built form through intensification and redevelopment and through the promotion of additional rental units in existing houses would be a good start for supporting transit. Providing a better alternative to driving means prioritizing transit in our public spaces, such as on our roads. This can be accomplished through creating high occupancy vehicle lanes on major corridors for car pooling and buses. Charging more for parking than for a transit pass in our downtown core would be another way to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Encouraging commercial users to pass along the real costs of parking to the public through user fees would be another way to make transit more attractive and single-occupancy vehicles less attractive. Reducing fares for transit would also be a great idea, complimenting these other initiatives.

In the City of London, they've looked at creating a sustainable public transit system as an investment in the City's future(see: "City transit an investment, not an expense", London Free Press, September 12, 2014). London's system has a different set of issues than does Greater Sudbury's: it's not keeping up with demand. They've hit upon the notion of rapid transit corridors to assist with the job of moving people quickly from various high-volume hubs. In fact, London has made rapid transit a "cornerstone" of its Transportation Plan, which will inform the creation of land use planning policies in its municipal Official Plan. Here in Greater Sudbury, we've completely missed that boat, with yet another 5 year review of our Official Plan underway, reliant on a Transportation Plan which inexplicably doesn't even look at public transit. And that's just incomprehensible.

Of course, realistically, no one is going to promise to make driving more difficult by encouraging users to pay their fair share. And that's the reason why, realistically, our transit system is not going to meet our future needs. With fuel prices only increasing, and fewer Sudburians choosing to drive (already, one third of Greater Sudburians don't have full-time access to a vehicle), it seems apparent that other hard decisions are going to have to be made. That may mean cutting and discontinuing routes which aren't viable in favour of those where ridership levels find themselves on the rise. Of course, this is likely to pit inner-city residents against those in the outlying areas, and therefore they won't be easy ones to make politically. Having an actual stragey focusing on sustainability might be a starting point, but it seems that we're far from even thinking along those lines.


Anyway, kudos to Friends of Sudbury Transit for organizing this event (which they’ll be repeating on Sunday, September 28th, for the benefit of candidates that were unable to attend).  A lot of candidates took the Friends up on their challenge – and it was nice to meet a few candidates in person after only having interacted with them online.

The Ugly – The Gender Gap

What on earth has happened here in Greater Sudbury?  With one of the busiest fields of candidates ever stepping forward in the City – 70 candidates for 12 Wards and the Mayor’s chair in total – why on earth is it that only 7 out of 70 candidates are women?  What is going on?

I’m actually completely baffled by this.  I realize that men typically outnumber women in Canadian elections.  At federal and provincial levels, all of the mainstream political parties have implemented strategies of one form or another to better achieve parity between men and women standing for office.  Without political parties at the municipal level, it’s basically every man for himself – and in this Greater Sudbury election, that’s almost literally the case with only 10% of the candidates being women.

It may be easy to suggest that the poisoned political environment has turned many women off of seeking a place on Council – but that would also be true of many male candidates.  I can’t chalk this up to a poisoned environment, however.  I just don’t know what has happened that’s led to this circumstance.  I’m completely baffled – and upset.

I guess if there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that many of the women who have stepped forward as candidates are quite likely to end up on Council, giving the gravity that they are bringing to the campaign.  Ward 4’s Evelyn Dutrisac and Ward 12’s Joscelyne Landry-Altmann, both Council veterans, stand a good chance of being returned to Council on October 27th.  Further, Ward 10’s Mila Wong and Ward 11’s Lynne Reynolds, are also experienced members of Council who will challenge the other candidates in those wards to step up their games.  And in Ward 9, two strong first-time competitors are facing off against each other: Deb McIntosh and Lin Gibson.

This means that there could be as many as 5 women occupying council seats after the October election (I don’t have any confidence that Jeanne Brohart is going to end up in the Mayor’s chair), which still isn’t quite representative of the gender composition of our community, but it’s a lot better than 10%.  That being said, it’s certainly not a given that there will be any women at the Council table over the next four years – a circumstance which I would find quite unbelievable in this day and age.  In fact, I would find it a truly embarrassing and ugly situation for our City to find itself in.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 7: Candidates & Voters, Making Connections

With a record number of candidates seeking positions on our municipal Council, it’s going to be very difficult for voters to find out information regarding whom to cast their ballots for. In the past, our mainstream media used to play the role as the primary source of voter information, but over the last decade, the mainstream media has found itself backing out of covering local issues, due to the changing nature of media with the rise of online and social media, and the scaling back of traditional media use. Simply put, fewer people are reading newspapers, watching television and listening to the radio. If you’re reading my blog, there’s a good chance that your own “go to” media source is probably found online – which has become problematic for a mainstream media without a good financial model for capitalizing on this trend.

Younger voters in particular are increasingly turning away from mainstream media. With fewer people watching TV, listening to radio, or buying newspapers, our local media really has begun to scale back. With limited resources, local coverage is often the first to go, creating a vicious cycle.

So, what’s a voting public, hungry for information, to do?

Name Recognition

Studies have shown that name recognition is one of the biggest factors which voters use in determining whom to vote for. At the federal and provincial levels, party affiliation often takes the place of name recognition – people cast their ballots for a particular party, or maybe based on the leader of a party. The pull of local candidates often isn’t significant for voters, unless the local candidates themselves are recognizable in their communities.

At the local level, however, in absence of political parties publicly lending their names and logos to affiliated candidates, getting one’s name out to the public can be challenging. Candidates who are already recognizable to a segment of the public therefore start with huge advantages – and that’s why at the municipal level, the best predictor of winning is incumbency. People are familiar with a candidate who is already on Council, and therefore under most circumstances, there is an increased likelihood that they’ll cast their ballot for incumbents.

That scenario might not be at play in Greater Sudbury’s municipal election this time around. Certainly, if I were an incumbent, I wouldn’t be relying on my name recognition alone to have the voters return me to office – although even I believe that our incumbents are starting with an advantage in terms of name recognition (and I’m predicting that a good number of them will, in fact, be returned to office).

Spending Money

Non-incumbent candidates, then, have to rely on other means to “get the word out” to voters that they’re even in the race. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the best means available for them to do so appears to be advertising. And that costs money. With campaign spending capped at a certain level (dependent upon the number of electors eligible to vote), what we end up with are relatively low spending limits for those running for Council at the ward level (maybe around $10,000 – which can be spread out over as much as 10 months, if a candidate registered on January 2nd), and much higher limits for those running for Mayor (Marianne Matichuk, Greater Sudbury’s current Mayor, spent about $150,000 on her campaign in 2010, about twice as much as the next highest spender).

In short, money buys exposure. If you’ve got money in your campaign pockets, you’re ahead of the game. Money clearly had an impact on our City’s mayoral race in 2010 – it may end up having the same impact this time around, too.

What ends up happening, of course, is that the focus on municipal elections comes down to the mainstream media looking at only those candidates capable of buying recognition. Those in the media believe that if a candidate is serious, they’ll be able to raise money to run. Non-serious candidates will raise much less money. Serious candidates get the coverage – non-serious candidates don’t. Therefore, seriousness is equated with spending money – and the vicious cycle of consumer-driven politics continues.

And at the ward level, unless a candidate can somehow demonstrate that seriousness in another way (hampered as they are by spending limits), they’re going to garner little coverage from a mainstream media already stretched to the limits of its own dwindling resources, and who may also have concerns about providing equitable coverage for all ward races. In short, if you’re running to be a Ward Councillor, the mainstream media isn’t going to give you a lot of exposure – and therefore voters really can’t rely on the mainstream media to be of great assistance.

Social Media

So how does a ward candidate gain exposure? Some believe that the rise of social media is starting to change things. Maybe it is – but I’m certainly not going to bet on it. The really innovative tools of social media are only being embraced significantly by younger people – the very same people least likely to vote, especially in municipal elections. Social media sites from the previous decade, like Facebook, which have a higher number of middle-aged users, are really only marginal vehicles for candidates to get the message out. Ditto for websites, to which traffic must be somehow driven. That being said, having your own website, Facebook page or group has become a standard hallmark of how serious an election candidate is. Frankly, if you’re not on Facebook, or if you don’t have a website, you’re not serious about communicating with the public – even if you do manage to get yourself elected.

Note to those candidates who don’t use email: I’m just appalled. Email is a 20th century communications technology. It’s basic. Are you relying on the telegraph or fax machine to get your message out?

Wesbsites and social media clearly aren’t the right vehicle at this time for low-profile candidates to get their messages out, even if they do need to form a basic part of one’s campaign. So, what is the best way for a candidate to grow their name recognition?

The best way is also the hardest way. Earn it.

Door Knocking

Knocking on doors and making real, personal connections with voters is the best way to earn recognition. Having conversations with voters, maybe several at a time, over coffee or whatever, also helps. When you make a positive personal connection with a voter, chances are that voter is going to pass along that impression to other voters. Knocking on doors is essential – and those candidates who registered to run back in January AND who started knocking on doors at the same time will be the ones who are already demonstrating their advantage over other candidates.

Of course, we all know that most candidates have only recently started door-knocking, even those who did register much earlier in the year. Why they’ve surrendered this opportunity for advantage is beyond me. Well, no, it’s not actually beyond me – I know very well why. Knocking on doors is hard. And it can be downright depressing – especially when voters give you feedback that they’re not interested in hearing about yet another election campaign – one which is many months away, too.

Persistence in the face of opposition, though, has a big return. It’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to win when nobody knows who you are.


The second best way of getting your name out there is to advertise. With limited budgets, there’s really only one way for ward candidates to do that – and that’s through election signs. As much as these signs are annoying and create a form of visual pollution which irritates citizens to no end, they are also largely tolerated by a voting public which recognizes the limited opportunities which candidates have to get recognized.

Signs create the perception of campaign momentum. As they are seen by members of the travelling public, they begin to imprint themselves in the minds of voters. When voters see a lot of signs belonging to a particular candidate, even when voters aren’t consciously thinking about it, those signs begin to register. Candidates who have fewer signs risk voters subconsciously dismissing them as serious candidates (because the visual cues are largely missing) and consciously as well (“Where are John Dough’s signs? I don’t see any so he can’t be serious).

Sometimes candidates opt not to use signs, for whatever reason (often, environmental reasons are given). While it may be that incumbents can get away with this approach (did Hazel McCallion use signs at all in her last half dozen or so elections?), good luck to those relatively unknown candidates who don’t want to use signs out of fear that they generate waste. My advice is that while I share your noble ideals, they would be easier to implement with you on the inside of the corridors of power, rather than on the outside, where you’re far more likely to find yourself after election day. Take note, Greens – signs are a necessary evil. Just please try to recycle them.

Signs – Placement

In short, signs are a pretty good proxy for doing some of the hard work needed to get elected. Why only some? Well, coming by some sign locations can be fairly easy. Is that a sign from one of your competitors on a commercial property? Call up the property owner, who might not even be able to vote in your ward, and ask their permission to put up one of your signs too, out of the interests of equity. Or maybe some candidates just put up a sign anyway, knowing that they’re running the risk of the property owner’s wrath – if they bother to check whether they might have given you permission to put one up or not when there are signs for Mayor, a half dozen councillors and a hand full of school trustees littering a narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and a parking lot.

Those commercial properties often have good visibility to the travelling public – and they’re easy wins. But for keen observers, it’s the signs on lawns which often tell a more important story. Those lawns are owned by voters who are actually liable to vote – they’ve gone through effort of deciding to publicly support a particular candidate. Those signs represent real votes – and often are the result of the up-front investment of time a candidate has made knocking on doors.

Oh Yeah – Issues!

Oh – what about the issues? Don’t voters want to hear about the issues? Isn’t your stance on the ombudsman or healthy community funds important? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s good to have stances on issues of local importance, and it’s even good to have a few more fully fleshed out ideas about what you’d like to do should you become Councillor (a good plan is to take a position on a matter important in your ward and add some structure to how you would make it work – or, more easily, oppose something that’s not wanted – as an aside, here’s an example of that from Ward 10 candidate Hannu Piironen, opposing a downtown casino for Ward 10: “Ward 10 candidate comes out against casino”, the Sudbury Star, September 12, 2014).

Some candidates believe that they’ve got to take positions on everything. I’d suggest that while it’s a good idea to have some ideas to campaign on, candidates are wise to do a lot of listening to voters when they’re knocking on their doors, rather than telling voters what they would do about every little issue. When you listen, you connect with people. Telling voters your plan often sounds a little dictatorial – and if voters take issue with even a small part of your comprehensive program, they may very well opt to be dismissive of it in its entirety.

As a member of the Green Party, I happen to know a thing or two about this. How often have I heard, “I love your policies on the environment and health care and trade – but that marijuana policy just turns me off. I can never support you.”

Pulling a Hudak – Playing Fast & Loose with Facts & Figures

But if you are going to talk policy, make sure that you’ve got it straight. It’s fine to tell someone that you want to do such and such a thing, but if you don’t know how you’re going to do it, or how you’re going to pay for doing it, you’re going to run into trouble quickly. Or, if you tell voters that you’ll do something that you actually can’t do, it really shakes your credibility. By way of example of the latter, Mayoral candidate Dan Melanson has already run afoul by claiming he’d use municipal bonds to fund needed watershed studies – something which legislation says quite clearly he can’t do. When you make this kind of mistake, voters can’t help but wonder if you’re deliberately trying to mislead them, or just incompetent – not a choice that you want voters to have to make about you.

Playing fast and loose with numbers and statistics is also very problematic and should be avoided. Look at what happened to Tim Hudak with his made-up job creation numbers. If you want to cost your platform, go ahead – but use the best available data, cite your sources, list your assumptions, and be ready to be challenged – because you will be! Don’t pull a Hudak.

Listening to Voters and Sticking to Messages

As much as it pains me to write this, your policy and platform aren’t going to get you elected, no matter how well-thought out it is, or how much work you’ve put into it. A much better use of your time is, well, knocking on doors and making those personal connections with voters – and inviting them to put up one of your signs. Even people like me who live and breathe that policy stuff often find themselves swayed by personal connections made at the doorstep or at a coffee shop or in a friend’s kitchen.

In 2008, Stephen Harper famously ran a federal election campaign on just 5 points – 4 of which nobody can remember, and the 5th being to cut the GST by 2%. In 2010, Marianne Matichuk ran for Mayor on just three points: more flexible shopping hours, a line-by-line budget review and, “I’m not John Rodriguez”.

For Candidates

To candidates I say, stick to your core messages, deliver them well, and listen. Get your signs up wherever you can. And keep knocking on doors. With all of the candidates in the race in your ward, you could win this thing with only 25% of votes cast – so something like 13-15% of eligible voters in your ward, thanks to our archaic first-past-the-post voting system.

For Responsible Voters

To voters looking for information, I suggest that you scope your investigations to those candidates who seem to be taking the election seriously – and while this might still be the majority of candidates, it’s certainly not everybody. Don’t rely on the mainstream media for your information (and don’t bemoan the lack of information they’re providing – they’ve got a lot of issues of their own) . Signs can tell you where campaign momentum might be coming from, but they tell you nothing more than the theoretical popularity of a candidate.

There are good sources of information out there online which might help you decide how to vote. Visit the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury’s “Sudbury Candidates” website – they’ve distilled candidate responses on a range of issues there. Also, check out conversations on Facebook Groups such as the innovate “Meet the Voters of Wards 5, 6 and 7” – a group where voters can throw questions out there, and candidates who are active on Facebook can respond.

Visit the websites of candidates in your ward - most probably have them. If there’s something that you want to explore further, send them an email and see what they say in response. If you like what you hear, consider taking a sign – while your vote on election day is going to be a big help, I hope that after reading this post you would agree that signs are very important to ward candidates.

Yes, all of this takes time – and it would be so much easier if we could just read about candidates in the media. The media, though, will always have its own bias, which favours what they perceive to be the front runners. Keep in mind that voting is a responsibility and as such, probably should involve a little bit of personal investment on your part. I know that since you’ve read this blogpost up to this point, that you’re very capable and able to put some of your time into finding out more about the candidates running in your ward – or at least about those candidates who have made an effort.

And if a candidate knocks on your door – please take the time to talk to him (spoiler alert: for me, that’s the real story of our municipal election here in Greater Sudbury – the fact that 9 out of 10 candidates who are likely to knock on your door are men – more on this appalling development later). That personal connection might ultimately be what informs how you vote – and it also may very well inform how a candidate who listens to voters ultimately represents their views and opinions.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 6: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly & the Simply Magical!

Welcome to Part 6 of an on-going series devoted to my latest hobby: municipal election watching! Note that the "Ugly" section of the original post (September 5, 2014) has been updated based on feedback I've received (updated: September 9, 2014)

The Good: Dan Melanson’s Campaign

The municipal election campaign kicked off on January 2nd, although it took some time for the current compliment of Council-seekers to collectively enter the race. A 10 month electoral period is a long time, and brings with it both advantages and disadvantages. Campaigns have to figure out how best to harness their energies. Do you go big early and risk losing momentum to other candidates later on? Or do you keep your cards close at hand and play them only when you believe the public’s attention is focused on the election?

There’s really no conventional wisdom on this issue, but there are some rules of thumb which are often followed. First, if you’re relatively unknown to the general public, it’s often best to get yourself out there as early and as often as possible. Those candidates who registered to run in early January had an advantage over the ones who have just registered last week. Have they used it well? Have they been out knocking on doors, meeting with their neighbours and neighbourhood associations? Have they been identifying their supporters, taking sign requests, recruiting volunteers and campaign contributions?

Of course, sometimes unknown candidates can do quite well without doing any of these things until the last minute. Look at Marianne Matichuk, who registered to run for Mayor on the day that nominations closed. Of course, she had two advantages which worked in her favour, even though she was relatively unknown by the general public: first, she faced a pretty lacklustre field of competitors – an incumbent who carried significant baggage, and a council member who just didn’t inspire voters. Two, she had money – lots of it. When it was all tallied up, her campaign spent close to $150,000 – more than twice that of John Rodriguez, who finished second.

Dan Melanson doesn’t have the same profile as many of his competitors for the Mayor’s chair. Clearly, though, Melanson has been doing the things that a candidate for Mayor should be doing if they are serious about winning. Melanson has inherited the machine which put Matichuk into the Mayor’s chair in 2010 – there can be no doubt that he will be running a well-funded campaign. Money matters – and although it may be the most important part of a campaign, it’s not the only important part. Knowing how best to spend the money helps, too. And having some policy proposals to hang one’s hat on are probably a good idea, too, but as with Marianne Matichuk’s 2010 campaign, these proposals don’t need to be more than a few bullet points in length (and it pains me to write that).

Melanson, though, has been initiating conversations in our community about ideas – not just policy proposals either (although he has had a few of them, such as eliminating tipping fees at our municipal waste facilities). His announcement in August regarding bringing an aerospace industry to Greater Sudbury really falls more in the “idea” category than policy. And recently, Melanson has been musing about eliminating development charges in our City, although he’s not yet committed to championing the idea (at least not that I’m aware of).

As a candidate, sticking to ideas is probably a better way to go than putting out very specific policy planks. Policy can be easily dismissed, even by those who are generally in favour of the outcome, when people get hung up on the details. Ideas aren’t nearly as easily written off, because they lack specificity, and lend themselves more towards conversations and engagement. You may not like a particular idea (for example, I’m not at all a fan of reducing/removing development charges), but the fact of the matter is, here I am writing about the idea and attaching Melanson’s name to it. Based on Oscar Wilde’s imminently relevant assessment for Society, which has considerable application for political candidates (“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”), Melanson wins.

Melanson’s ideas have gained more media exposure than his competitors have. They are also resonating more with the public, because some of the ideas/policy proposals, such as ending tipping fees, will directly impact people in a way that lobbying provincial and federal governments won’t.

Melanson has also run a fairly positive campaign so far, emphasizing both big ideas (aerospace) and little ideas (such as videotaping all in-camera meetings of Council for record-keeping purposes – an activity long championed by Provincial Ombudsman Andre Marin), as well as his leadership qualities (leadership being something which no Mayoral candidate can afford to ignore). There may be some negativity coming up, but the election dynamic has taken an interesting turn now that Auditor-General Brian Bigger has entered the race.

So far, Bigger’s strategy seems to be focused on his opposition to the day-to-day workings of City Hall, and the accountability (or lack thereof) of Council. Clearly, this strategy puts mayoral candidates John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis in the firing range, given their current and past involvement with Council. If Bigger remains focused on this strategy (and I don’t think he will), it may allow Melanson to take the high road. While Bigger fights history, Melanson will be able to point to himself and say “I’ll rise above all of that – here’s what I’ll do as your Mayor going forward.” And that’s a compelling narrative for voters.

Although I continue to believe that Dan Melanson as Mayor would be an unfortunate choice for our City, I can’t fault him for doing what he needs to do to become that person. Melanson is running a winning campaign – he’s been running it since the day he entered the election, probably even since before that. If I’ve one quibble to make, it’s with regards to the rather sinister-looking election signs which have popped up en masse throughout the City over the past week. Black election signs should be avoided by all candidates, period. But that’s a pretty minor point, I think.

The Bad: John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis Staying in the Mayor’s Race

So, if Dan Melanson’s campaign is the “good”, then the “bad” has to be the campaigns of mayoral candidates John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis. Dupuis registered to run for Mayor in March, while Rodriguez threw his hat back in the ring this past May. Aside from a few statements from Rodriguez, both he and Dupuis have been largely invisible since entering the race. Yes, Greater Sudburians are a lot more familiar with both Rodriguez and Dupuis than we are with all of the other mayoral candidates – but in this election, that’s not necessarily an advantage.

Rodriguez, the incumbent Mayor, ran and lost the Chair’s seat in 2010 by a healthy margin to a political newcomer who, despite being well-financed, had a number of challenges to overcome (and again, I can’t help but suggest that somebody in the know really should write a book about how Marianne Matichuk became our Mayor in 2010, because the campaign which led to her election was brilliant). In short, what I’m getting at is voters rejected Rodriguez in 2010 – what’s the compelling reason for voters not to do the same now?

Rodriguez was openly musing that he was going to run for Mayor as long ago as the fall of 2013. Say what you want about Rodriguez, given his past electoral successes as Mayor and, before that, as federal MP, Rodriguez commands respect in a way that few Greater Sudburians do – and with that respect comes access: access to the media, access to organizations (and their infrastructure), access to information. Yet, since joining the race in May, Rodriguez has done very little to provide voters with anything resembling a compelling reason to vote for him this time around. Essentially, he’s squandered 4 months and will now have to play catch-up to Melanson, and face an unknown in Brian Bigger.

And if John Rodriguez has done little since entering the race, Ron Dupuis has been all but invisible. It may very well be that both Rodriguez and Dupuis have been quietly working away on their campaigns, behind the scenes, building up their war chests and getting ready to unleash some sort of shock and awe campaign with which to overwhelm the media and the voting public.

But probably not.

Dupuis signs are starting to crop up throughout the City in a way that Dan Melanson’s signs aren’t – which is to say, they are few and far between, and hardly indicative of electoral shock and awe at play. Yet, they are signs of life nonetheless, although maybe more accurately they are signs of a campaign on life support.

If Dupuis and Rodriguez were in classic frontrunner campaigns, their silence on issues might be expected (the Justin Trudeau campaign model). However, if Dupuis and/or Rodriguez think that they’re the frontrunners in this election by virtue of both having been on Council (experience lacking in all of their competitors), well, let me just say politely that’s not the case.

The Dupuis and Rodriguez campaigns aren’t the “bad” per se. What the “bad” is has more to do with the fact that both candidates appear to have made the decision to stick around in this election, after Brian Bigger announced that he would be seeking the Mayor’s chair. Given where Bigger has been going with his election strategy so far, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both Rodriguez and Dupuis will find themselves playing defense far more often than they’ll get a chance to play offence. If one were an incumbent Mayor, it might not be so bad to run on one’s record, even a controversial one. But Dupuis, although on Council, isn’t the Mayor – and Rodriguez already took a drubbing in 2010 when he ran on his record then.

Dupuis and Rodriguez each need to present a compelling case to voters regarding why, now, we should vote for them. With Bigger in the race, their media oxygen is at risk of being used up defending their records, rather than on enunciating their ideas and platforms. Essentially, they risk becoming Bigger’s whipping boys.

The “bad” is that both have decided to stay in this race.

The Ugly: Lynne Reynolds' Accusation

I’m not sure what the “ugly” is here, so let me tell the story. The other day, I came across a tweet from Ward 10 candidate Lynne Reynolds, which accused current Ward 10 Councillor and election candidate Terry Kett of using taxpayer’s money to fund his election campaign. Reynolds tweet included a link to her blog, where she expanded her accusation, and accused Kett of violating the Municipal Elections Act. And those are pretty serious accusations to make.

So, what’s her evidence? In her blogpost, Reynolds accuses Kett of distributing a newsletter in which Kett asks voters to re-elect him. Since my original post, Reynolds has updated her blog to now include an image of the "newsletter". The question is whether this "newsletter" is really campaign material, given that it's emblazoned with "Re-elect Terry Kett" across the Councilor's picture. Kett's contact information includes an email address which appears to be in keeping with the format of the City of Greater Sudbury's email addresses for employees and Councilors - which, if the newsletter were campaign material, might be problematic. All of this begs the question: what's really going on here? It remains unclear who has paid for the distribution of this newsletter - something Terry Kett really needs to address - properly, this time.

The Magical: Ward 8 Candidate Stefano Presenza

Municipal election candidates come from a wide range of backgrounds. In this election, we’ve got a number of real estate agents, administrators and even a hard rock miner running for positions on Council. None of that is particularly unusual, and may even be considered typical for an election in Greater Sudbury, or elsewhere throughout Ontario.

However, in Ward 8 candidate Stefano Presenza, I think it’s fair to say that Greater Sudbury can boast the only magician who is seeking municipal office in Ontario! I mean, think of the opportunities created by having a real, live magician on Council. Need to increase taxes to maintain service levels? Abracadabra – look, no tax increases and the books balance!

In all seriousness, though, Presenza has just announced that he’ll be hosting an interactive website where responses to voter questions will appear in videos within 24 hours - “almost as if by magic”! (see this link in the September 5th edition of the Sudbury Star; or, go here to submit a question to Presenza to get your very own video reply). It’s a great, innovative idea for candidates (and later, for Councillors) to use when communicating with the public – an idea that I’m certain other candidates will try pulling out of their own hats. And that’s good for Greater Sudbury.

Bravo, Stefano!

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)