The race is on to determine who will represent Cambridge residents for the next term at City Hall.
Although the municipal election will be held Oct. 24, advanced voting begins Oct. 6 providing many of those seeking a seat on City Council a limited amount of time to garner support in their quest to make a difference in how our community remains a great place to live and do business.
“I think every level of government is important to business,” says Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Greg Durocher. “There are federal, provincial, and municipal regulations that mitigate the growth of business and business owners need to pay very close attention to every level of government and participate by voting or campaigning, or supporting, or whatever they need to do to stabilize their business within the confines of Canadian democracy.”
In Cambridge, three new councillors will be seated at the table with the potential for several others if the incumbents fail to retain their positions. But whether the prospect of massive change around the council table is enough to sway more residents to vote remains uncertain since traditionally, municipal elections garner a lower voter turnout than provincial or federal races. In the last municipal race in 2018, voter turnout in Cambridge was 32.4% compared to the provincial average of 38.30%. Compare this to the recent provincial election which experienced a voter turnout of about 43.5%, one of the lowest in decades.
“Media tend to focus on national or provincial elections, and of course those are organized by political parties who are able to mobilize an enormous amount of activity and intention because they can spend a great deal of money and voters can easily identify who the political operatives are,” explains Dr. Dennis Pilon, Associate Professor, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies – Department of Political Science at York University. “When you look at it from the point of view from the voters, the challenge they face is that it’s very difficult to get informed about what’s really at stake. For voters to work out what each individual (municipal) candidate represents without a party label is somewhat challenging.”
As well, Dr. Pilon is candid when he talks about the legislative controls at the municipal level, noting even their ability to determine land uses can be circumvented by developers through the Ontario Municipal Board process.
“When we look at how the founders of our country and current federal and provincial politicians look at local government, they deliberately made it the weakest level of government,” he says. “It has very little independent power and has almost no fundraising capacity and is completely controlled by the provincial governments.”
Despite that, Greg notes the fact municipal governments are responsible for many elements –waste collection, police, fire service, roads, water and sewer, snow removal – that provide business owners with the ability to operate their businesses.
“They make the community safe and habitable, so the people you need to run your business want to live in your community,” he says. “I think businesses should encourage their employees to get out and vote because local government is the one level of government that truly affects their everyday lives.”
But inspiring people to vote in a municipal election can be difficult.
“It’s not that people don’t care and are not passionate,” says Dr. Pilon. “But often it takes a huge issue to catalyze the public and give them a focus for their concerns.”
For example, he says the proposed construction of the controversial Spadina Expressway in Toronto in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and more recently the amalgamation plans outlined in former Ontario premier Mike Harris’ ‘Common Sense Revolution’ in 1995 mobilized an enormous amount of people.
“You have to have a big issue that’s going to affect the majority of people, and thankfully, we don’t have those big issues,” says Greg, adding even the approval of the LRT didn’t garner as much concern as expected. “When there are those neighbourhood issues, they generally don’t drive people to the polls.”
Dr. Pilon agrees and notes that even the current housing and homelessness issues facing most communities is likely not enough to inspire more people to vote.
“Historically, when we look over the 20th century, the market has had an uneven ability to respond to housing needs again and again. It’s not a new problem and not one that municipalities have the finances to deal with so there you’ve got this mismatch,” he says, adding it’s a difficult issue for local candidates to succeed with at the ballot box. “There will be no accountability on the issue because there’s very little that municipalities can do.”
Dr. Pilon says ‘dramatic events’ that rise above the ‘noise’ are needed to mobilize voters at the local level, which is difficult due in part to media cutbacks.
“A lot of local newspapers have taken a hit over the past decade, so people aren’t receiving as much local council coverage and that makes it difficult for them to find out what’s going on,” he says.
To encourage more voter participation, Dr. Pilon recommends several potential changes including allowing the formation of ‘slate’ parties in Ontario, similar in nature to what is allowed Vancouver, B.C., as well as reforming campaign finance laws to prevent developers from having too much ‘pull’.
“Another reform that would make a big difference is stop reducing the size of councils,” he says, referring to Premier Doug Ford’s reduction of wards in Toronto. “What kind of impact is that going to have on representation?”
In terms of representation, Greg says a party system is not the answer at the municipal level.
“People are there representing their neighbourhoods and community, their friends and family and the businesses they shop in,” he says, adding a party system doesn’t lend itself to this type of scenario and that leaving their own political ‘baggage at the door’ is key for a successful council candidate.
“You’re not looking for someone with a platform of ideas as much as someone who has leadership and communication skills and can deliver on the interest of the neighbourhood. You want an individual who is compassionate and understanding and can also communicate well to upper levels of government to make sure that the community’s broader needs that may relate to provincial or federal issues are understood and addressed as best they possibly can.”
To learn more about the 2022 Municipal Election, visit the City of Cambridge.
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