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Three Municipal Misconceptions: City Council does not work the way you think it does

This morning the London Free Press ran an article outlining Ward 7 candidate Josh Morgan's position that municipal candidates ought to be residents of the municipality that they are running in.  I have spoken to several people over the years who are of the understanding that municipal candidates and politicians are required to live in their electoral ward.  They have been surprised (and perhaps you will be too) to find out that this is not the case.  In fact, there are a number of misconceptions about municipal elections that you might be surprised to learn - such as the fact that elected politicians are not elected as representatives of their wards.  A quick look at some of these misconceptions might change the way you look at municipal elections and certainly lends some credence to the argument that the current electoral rules do not reflect the understanding and expectations of voters.

We'll start with the most obvious misconception: that you need to live in the ward you are running for.  This seems like a no-brainer to the average voter.  Politicians should live in the area for which they are making decisions affecting social, economic and safety issues.  However, as it stands, you can run anywhere you want so long as you own or rent property there.  Under the existing laws, if someone living in Toronto rents a bedroom in a shared apartment in London it would qualify them to run for London City Council.  This loophole exists at other levels of government and it is common for outside candidates to be derisively referred to as 'parachute candidates' (think Green Party Leader Elizabeth May who ran consecutively in the Central Nova, London North-Centre, and Saanich-Gulf Islands federal ridings).  The difference is the scope of decision-making powers.  Provincial and federal politicians are more likely to effect regional, provincial or national issues than local ones.  Every decision that a City Councillor makes has a direct impact on the residents of the municipality and allowing non-residents on Council means that when 'parachute councillors' go home at the end of the day, they do not have to live with the outcomes of their decisions.

Admittedly, parachute candidates being elected in municipal elections is not particularly common.  These candidates are frequently ignored at the ballot box for exactly the reasons described above.  Voters expect that when they elect a candidate, he or she will work tirelessly to represent their electoral ward and Councillors who are active members of their community are more likely to win an election.  What many people (some Council candidates included) fail to realize is that municipal councillors are not intended to represent their ward.  Although Councillors are elected by ward residents, they are expected to represent the entire city in all decisions.  This misconception often results in voters and councillors attempting to pit ward against ward during debates rather than approaching issues from a city-wide perspective.  The reason that Ontario laws intend for councillors to represent their municipalities as a whole is to avoid exactly this sort of conflict.  Personally I favour a dual-representative system wherein each ward elects two canadidates: one to represent the interests of the ward and one to serve as a member-at-large and approach issues from a city-wide perspective.  In any case, it is clear that what voters expect from their councillors is at odds with the actual realities of the municipal laws.

We now come to the final misconception I want to touch on - this is perhaps one of the most problematic misconceptions that voters and candidates have about municipal politics.  There is an incredibly common belief that an elected Mayor has the most power in a municipality; that a Mayor can initiate new programs, initiatives and spending projects, control the budget, and there are even some people who believe that the Mayor holds veto powers over Council.  Many of us remember a Mayor-elect who on a local radio station flippantly directed staff to "pick up the damn leaves".  I don't know where politicians and voters got the idea that the Mayor holds some sort of special powers above and beyond everyone else in the City but this is not the case.  In reality, the Mayor is under Ontario law simply just another member of Council who happens to have additional responsibilities such as acting as the Chair of City Council, representing the City in outside dealings, and serving as the public face of the City.  A Mayor represents only one vote on City Council and is bound to follow any decision made by a majority vote of Council.  Of course as the head of Council the Mayor has the ability to steer discussion and encourage cooperation during debate just as any other Chairman would have.  However, contrary to typical voter expectations, a Mayor's power comes from persuasion, tact and diplomacy rather than any type of formal power.

Has anything covered in this column come as a surprise to you?  It is certainly not a stretch to say that the existing rules outlining municipal representatives are not what most voters expect.  As I see it, the question is whether the rules ought to be changed in order to better reflect current expectations of local democracy or whether governments need to do a better job of educating citizens on the current local political frameworks.  Certainly seeing municipal candidates draw attention to disjoints between public expectations and legal realities is a positive sign that we are moving in the right direction.