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Opinion

New candidates for new times: Questions for candidates

Published on 29/01/2014

The New Year of 2014 kicks off the municipal election period in Ontario which culminates in elections across the province on October 27 for mayors, councillors, and school board trustees. Serious candidates will have already begun to organize their campaigns: lining up supporters, getting their name known in the ward or city, assembling a campaign team, and generating financial commitments. Once they register, they can begin active campaigning and fund raising.

For people who love politics, it is a wonderful bazaar of personalities, issues, tactics, and jousting. For others, the average voter, it can be simply confusing. What to make of these competing personalities and claims? What are the facts on any particular issue? Who knows if this person will perform well in office?

Incumbents have a big advantage in politics, including municipally, because they enjoy good name recognition from the start. Even a mediocre incumbent has a head start, as some people think “better the devil we know than the one we don’t.” This makes it hard for other candidates to break through, and therefore for city councils or school boards to refresh themselves.

At Maytree, we don’t take partisan positions on candidates, or on political parties in provincial and federal elections. But we do favour fresh faces in elections, people who want to serve the public through the political process. We admire them for taking personal risk: the risk of an interruption in their career, the risk of losing, and the risk of attack by opponents and the press.

And we favour increasing the diversity of candidates so we might end up with city councils and school boards which reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

So what do we look for in candidates? What are the questions we ask in order to sort out who is who, and who we might vote for.

First of all, we ask if the candidate has a positive vision for the city that includes prosperity, shared opportunity, and dignity for all. A positive vision contemplates how we build the city for success going forward, how we bolster innovation, support vulnerable people, or avoid forcing precarious employment on workers.

Second, we ask if the candidate can bring people together behind that positive vision. Do they have a track record of working well with people on community issues and projects? Canadian municipalities have what is called a “weak mayor” system, where mayors lack significant executive powers. To succeed they have to build strong coalitions on city council to move their agenda forward. They have to negotiate, give and take, and listen to the ideas of others. Mayors can’t simply issue directives. It is the most cooperative form of government in Canada, and without those skills to broker and compromise, mayors will have trouble succeeding. And councillors will have trouble being effective participants. So we must ask if candidates have demonstrated the ability to play well with others, and if they can persuade others to follow their lead.

Third, we ask if they have a working understanding of municipal finance. When they are faced with decisions, do they understand what they will cost and where the money will come from? Do they understand taxation, including the dynamics of tax-resistance by residents, as well as other revenue sources like fees? Do they understand the use of debt, and what kinds of things can be debt financed, and what can’t? We only need to look at some of the fanciful positions taken on transit recently to see what happens when politicians fail to take the trouble to understand municipal finance, which after all isn’t some innate quality like brown eyes, but something that can be achieved through a little hard work.

There are other questions that matter too when we are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Has the candidate succeeded at something before? Have they led a business or a community agency, have they been an active participant in a project that has made their city substantially better, do they behave with civility in public and do they treat other people with respect? And have they demonstrated an ability to work in a governance capacity, following the rules of procedure of boards or councils, and behaving respectfully towards those holding opposing views or positions?

The next ten months on the municipal scene in Ontario, and in some other jurisdictions across the country, will be full of sound and fury. We’ll hear slogans and catch phrases, accusations and heroic claims, “facts” of various quality, and we’ll endure the media coverage. We’ll also have trouble hearing some candidates who the media will ignore, who are first-timers or whose funding doesn’t allow them to stand out. Many of this quiet cohort may be worth voting for, and we should ask the questions above of them too. We might like the answers we hear.

Summary

These are the questions we ask in order to sort out who is who, and who we might vote for.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities, Civic engagement