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)

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