Friday, October 31, 2014

Electoral Reform & Lobbyist Registry: Sleeper Issues Arising from the Greater Sudbury Municipal Election

Now that the results of the municipal election have been made official, I’d like to take some time to explore a few of the “sleeper” issues which arose during the latter part of the campaign period, and discuss how I think some of those issues might have legs, moving forward over the next four year term of Council.

Most of my Sudbury-based readers will be familiar with the election issues largely covered in the mainstream media, but for the sake of those readers from other areas, let me provide a quick re-cap of what went on in “Greater Sudbury” over the past couple of months.

A Short History Lesson

“Greater Sudbury”, as many know, was created via amalgamation under former Premier Mike Harris. The former City of Sudbury (often now referred to as the “inner city” or just “Sudbury”), with a population of around 90,000 people, was combined with 6 other municipalities (with population around 70,000) in the Region of Sudbury to create the City of Greater Sudbury. The regional level of government, made redundant by the amalgamation, ceased its operation.

Today, the City of Greater Sudbury remains a divided municipal entity, with tensions continuing to be apparent between the “inner city” and the “outlying areas” – those parts of the 6 former municipalities of Rayside-Balfour, Onaping Falls, Nickel Centre, Valley East, Capreol and Walden (along with areas previously unorganized, which were incorporated into the City in 2001). These divisions have manifested themselves on Council throughout the history of the Greater City since 2001. Specifically, concerns have been raised from the outlying areas over the perception that residents living in those area are now paying higher taxes for the same level (or a reduced level) of services, and that they are being ignored by the inner City. Often, these clashes occur over the attention which the former City of Sudbury’s downtown seems to enjoy from the City, seemingly at the expense of other outlying downtowns.

Ward Boundaries

In an attempt to address some of these tensions, the ward boundaries which ultimately came into being for the City of Greater Sudbury were drawn in such a way as to (in some cases) combine areas of the new City which had little or no historical association with another, creating “combination wards” between former inner city and outlying area communities. For example, Ward 4 consists of the Donovan neighbourhood in the former City of Sudbury, along with Azilda, a community in the former Township of Rayside-Balfour. These two communities are about 10 km apart, separated by Vale (formerly INCO) mining lands. They have very little in common geographically, socially or culturally.

And Azilda has about twice the population as the Donovan. And that's a very critical element present in all of the combination wards: the population in the outlying areas exceeds that in the former City usually by about a 2:1 ratio.

A map of the City's wards shows that wards 1, 8, 10, 11 & 12 are entirely within the former City of Sudbury, while wards 3, 6 & 7 are exclusive to the outlying areas. Wards 2, 4, 5 & 9 are combination wards, all of which have populations higher in the outlying areas than in the former City. A quick review of electoral history since 2006 reveals that on only one occasion has an inner-city councillor been elected in a combination ward (and arguably this has been off-set by the one time that an outlying area councillor was elected in an exclusive inner-city ward).

The Mayor is elected at large. Since the inception of the City of Greater Sudbury, only one Mayor out of 5 has been elected from the outlying areas. When this is all put together, it means that the relative power structure on Council has resided with the smaller-based population of the outlying areas. The former City of Sudbury has been, and continues to be, under-represented on a Council which elects its members based on geographic jurisdictions, with 7 positions favouring the outlying areas (with a smaller population) to 6 positions favouring inner-city representation, where a majority of the population resides.

Electoral Reform - Ranked Ballots and Redrawing the Ward Map

Some in the City are calling for a change in the way that we elect our Councils, including looking at moving to an at-large election process. Others want the ward boundaries re-drawn, but many of these are making this call under the false impression that the outlying areas are the ones which are suffering from under-representation. In the recent election, electoral reform became a bit of an issue which some candidates, especially outlying area candidates, started talking about.

A session was hosted in the City during the municipal election about the Province's indication that it may allow municipalities to move to a ranked ballot system for electing municipal Councils. Given that just about every municipal councillor and the Mayor were elected with less than 50% of the vote, I don't think that there's any question that a ranked ballot will prove to be an effective electoral tool for the City.

I'm less convinced that moving to an “at large” electoral system will prove a sensible choice, given the existing tensions between the inner and outer City, and given that higher spending limits for at-large candidates will likely mean that those with modest incomes are even further discouraged from seeking a seat on Council.

Nevertheless, the reform of electoral system, including ward boundaries, is likely to prove to be a sleeper issue going forward over the next few years of Council. There will be calls for Greater Sudbury to adopt a ranked ballot, and those calls will be made as part of a larger call for electoral reform. I only hope that should electoral reform happens, that ward boundaries are adjusted so as to bring better representation on our municipal council based on population within existing communities of interest. Combination wards are inherently anti-democratic, no matter how they are drawn. It's time for Greater Sudbury to do what the federal government is doing in Saskatchewan – eliminate combination jurisdictions in favour of those which have at their heart the concept of “community of interest”.

Transparency & Accountability

One of the other big election issues in Greater Sudbury was “accountability and transparency” - a platform plank which almost every single municipal candidate ran on. Local perceptions have been that the past Council was too secretive, and not being accountable for their decisions. These perceptions were fuelled by the fireing of the Ontario Ombudsman, Andre Marin, the City's open meetings investigator, shortly after Marin delivered a scathing report which singled out a number of councillors for the lack of co-operation during one of his investigations. The motion to fire the Ombudsman was brought forward without notice, but received the consent of a majority of Councillors, so it was quickly debated at the end of an hours long Council meeting, and passed. Many thought that the real debate had taken place before the meeting, either in a back room or via email exchanges, and a number of complaints about a secretive closed door meeting to fire the Ombudsman were ultimately made to the City's new closed meeting investigator.

Vowing to bring transparency to City Hall, former Auditor General Brian Bigger (who at one point took the City – his employer - to court to obtain the information he needed to do his job) ran for the office of Mayor, and received 46% of the popular vote. Bigger wants to implement something akin to the “Vaughan Charter”, which he believes will provide a greater moral direction to Council. Another prominent mayoral candidate, second-place finisher Dan Melanson (former head of the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association) campaigned on the idea of the City establishing the position of Integrity Commissioner, something echoed by some of the other council candidates.

All mayoral candidates vowed to bring back the Ombudsman as open meetings investigator, including Ron Dupuis, who was the Councilor for Ward 5 at the time of the vote to fire him – something Dupuis voted in favour of at the time. Brian Bigger went further, praising the provincial government for its stated desire to give the Ombudsman much more significant investigative authority over municipal matters, as part of Bill 8. It was unclear to me if Bigger ever stated his support for the appointment of an Integrity Commissioner.

A Lobbyist Registry

Arising out of the discussion around oversight and transparency tools was the interesting idea of instituting a lobbyist registry. This issue first came to my attention in the municipal election from Ward 1 candidate Matt Alexander – a candidate who despite having more good ideas than the other 69 election candidates combined – finished a distant third in his ward. Soon after raising the issue publicly at a Ward 1 debate, other municipal election candidates picked up the torch – although to my knowledge, none of those running for Mayor did.

Indeed, John Rodriguez, Greater Sudbury's former Mayor (2006-2010), took an opposite track, vowing to organize private meetings with developers, Council and municipal staff, in order to better address the needs of the development community. This kind of backroom meeting is exactly the sort of access which a lobbyist registry would provide residents with information about. A registry itself wouldn't permit these sorts of interactions, but it would provide the public with an idea of who met with whom, when, and what they talked about. Right now, these meetings can go on behind closed doors and the public is none the wiser.

And this is a big deal, given the limited access to municipal Council which the rest of us enjoy. And it's also a big deal given the financial contributions to candidates campaigns made by developers and others who lobby City Hall. While I hope that the Province will end the anti-democratic practice of allowing non-people (like corporations and unions) to influence electoral outcomes by allowing them to give money to election campaigns, we here in our own municipality could be doing more to shine some light on the secret dealings which these “non people” have with our elected officials and staff. The establishment of a lobbyist registry only makes sense.

For those interested, here is the City of Toronto's website for their Office of the Lobbyist Registrar. The website explains what a Registry is, who should register, want the responsibilities of lobbyists and those being lobbied are. It would be a great model for Greater Sudbury. I understand that both Ottawa and Hamilton have also created lobbyist registries.

Moving from the Back Burner to the Front

Other issues, like the store hours by-law, dealing with Healthy Community Initiative funds, handi-transit, the new casino, a new Arena for the Sudbury Wolves, and finding money for Maley Drive are sure to be on the front burner at Council sooner rather than later (as is the 2015 budget for that matter). But I believe that electoral reform and a lobbyist registry are two issues which are going to gain traction moving forward – issues that citizens are going to demand that our Council deal with over the course of its next four years.

(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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