A panel zeroed in on both the advantages and disadvantages of ward systems during a panel discussion Monday night at the iHotel.
Mount Royal Political Science Professor Duane Bratt, former Red Deer City Councillor Larry Pimm and Edmonton-based political blogger Dave Cournoyer discussed the issue and there was time for questions as well.
When Red Deerians head to the polls Oct. 21, there will be a question on the ballot regarding the suitability for a ward system in the City. The question on the ballot is: Do you want the City of Red Deer divided into wards?
Electors can select one of the following responses – ‘Yes, I want to be able to vote for the candidates who run in the area I live in (my ward)’ or ‘No, I want to keep voting for candidates for the whole city, not just the area where I live’. From there, discussions will take place with the new City council, but the results of the question are not binding.
Bratt pointed out that one of the key benefits of a ward system is that the councillors are closer to the people because they represent a specific neighbourhood. “A constituent with a problem knows who to go to,” he said. “This is similar to an MLA or an MP.
“Ward councillors are also more sensitive to the small but important problems of their constituents,” he said.
As to weaknesses of ward systems, Bratt said councils elected in this way may experience more infighting “And may be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their own district.”
Councillors may also tend to battle over pet projects in their neighbourhoods, he said. The focus can be on projects for their region but the costs of which are spread city-wide. “For example, it’s a real benefit if you can have a recreation centre in your ward that is paid for by the whole city.”
Bratt said the benefits of an at-large system, currently the case in Red Deer, are that councillors will advocate for the needs of the entire city instead of a subsection of their community. “There tends to be less conflict in an at-large system because councillors aren’t pitting one part of the city against another.”
Pimm, who was a Red Deer City councillor from 1980 to 1995 and 1998 to 2007, said the plus of an at-large system is that all eight councillors are “Your councillors,” he told the audience. “You are able to choose which councillor best relates to you. It’s not done by geography – it’s done by you. That choice would be largely lost in a ward system.
“In my experience, probably 90 per cent or more of decisions made by council are city-wide decisions. I think it’s easier to take a whole city approach when you are responsible to the whole city rather than just one segment of it.”
Pimm noted the expression ‘You dance with the one who brung you’. “If the whole city ‘brung you’ than that’s who you are responsible to,” he said. “But if a little corner of the city ‘brung you’, than that’s who you have to report to.”
For voters, come election day they get to vote for the best candidates because they are all on the ballot. “In a ward system, that wouldn’t be the case,” he said.
“While candidates in an at-large system may not live in your area of the city, in many cases that’s true in the ward system too. There’s not necessarily the necessity for a candidate to live in the ward he or she seeks to represent.”
Cournoyer said that as with the case of an MLA, “You have someone you can hold almost personally responsible for issues in your area. At the same time, it can bring a more diverse group of voices from around the city to council,” he said of a ward system.
“It also simplifies the election process,” he said. “Sometimes you get a lot of candidates running in a ward, but generally it seems there are under 10 candidates in each ward.
“One of the challenges of a ward system is the incumbency factor,” he said, adding that’s also relevant to the at-large system.
“As we all know in municipal politics, name recognition is everything. You have to ask yourself as a candidate and as a voter, at what point is running in an election become inaccessible for the average person?”