Six questions for every candidate running for local office
Many people think municipal elections don’t matter. Why else would we be seeing so many acclamations for councillors, reeves, and even mayors across Ontario? When candidates go uncontested, and when incumbents (who have an extraordinary chance of being re-elected based on name recognition alone) are not called upon to defend their record or present their vision for the future, we miss out. Candidates miss out on articulating their vision, ideas, and plans. The public misses out on the opportunity to test them. We all miss out on asking some big questions.
Here’s the question we would start with:
1. Why are you running for public office?
Local office does matter. Council members are not “bums in seats” – they should be activists working to make progress on big issues facing their community broadly, and in their wards specifically. Each candidate should be able to articulate a vision for their community, and how they intend to use their role to contribute to that vision. That vision should be based in principle, and followed up with workable plans that would help us progress towards that goal.
Cities and towns across Ontario are facing a complex range of issues – many of which are united by the ways they impact our human rights and human dignity. Here are five more questions we would ask all candidates running during this year’s municipal elections about how they would use their powers to build communities that include every person and protect human dignity:
2. How will you use the full range of your municipality’s tools and resources to increase access to affordable housing and eliminate homelessness?
Housing is on the tips of the tongues and pens of nearly everyone who has discussed elections in the past few years. But so far, the focus has been on provincial and federal governments. Municipalities have tools that they can use to bolster affordable housing and reduce or eliminate homelessness – from regulating rooming houses and amending zoning bylaws, to using municipal land for affordable housing, to talking with and listening to people living in encampments to come up with mutually agreed-upon emergency and long-term housing options, to instituting robust accountability mechanisms. Each council member has a role to play. For example, to build new affordable housing, a councillor will talk with people who need housing to understand what types of housing would be appropriate, determine the number of units to build, identify a site, select a developer, and secure financing. So to each candidate, we ask, what is your plan to use the full range of municipal tools to ensure every person has a suitable home?
3. How will you institutionalize transparency and accountability into municipal work on poverty?
Local officials must ensure that work to reduce or eliminate poverty is resulting in progress. In Toronto, city council unanimously approved a poverty reduction strategy in 2015. But most of us – even those of us working on solutions to poverty – would be hard pressed to tell you what has been accomplished and where the City’s work on the strategy stands right now. Transparency and accountability are key to ensure that we are making progress towards our goal. Beyond reports, mechanisms should be institutionalized, integrated into all aspects of a municipality’s work on poverty, and structured so that they are performed regularly and compel further action. What is your plan to ensure that your municipality carries out the commitments it has made to reduce poverty in your community?
4. How will you transform the culture of policing in your area?
Calls to de-task the police, employ de-escalation and crisis response practices used successfully in some cities, and recognize and address policing practices that target racialized people and people living in poverty, are all parts of a larger call to change the culture of policing. That culture of policing – the stated and unstated beliefs about individuals and groups, what constitutes criminality, and how to deal with it – are the basis of police actions. The current culture of policing results in disproportionate harm to people who are racialized and people who are living in poverty, and lacks effective mechanisms to hold police accountable for these harms. Councillors can work with police forces on community policing and similar initiatives, and demand increased accountability from police service boards. What is your plan to transform policing, through governance, leadership, and accountability?
5. How will you ensure that public transit serves low-income residents equitably and effectively?
People with low incomes rely on public transit. When transit systems are weak, people with low incomes are affected the most – they cannot reliably get to work or school, they spend too many hours commuting and too much of their income on transit fares. Transit is a public service that should serve all residents equitably. What is your plan to ensure that your local transit system improves its service and makes fares affordable to people with low incomes, and in the neighbourhoods that must rely on transit the most?
We do not ask these questions lightly. Taken together, they point to the types of work we need to do to build a city that respects, protects and fulfills the human rights of every person. They also point to some of the human rights principles and practices that should provide the foundation of our solutions.
We ask because this is the work of local government, and this is why municipal elections matter. Each member of council, each reeve and mayor, has a role to play.
Municipal elections are a time to separate out those who are running because they want to be somebody from those who are running because they want to do something.
With that in mind, we ask a final question to all candidates for local councils across Ontario:
6. If you are elected, what will you do to ensure that every person can realize their human rights and live with dignity?