By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on September 2, 2020.
Back in November city council’s Open and Effective Government Committee brought forth a proposal that a ward system should be examined in the city.
A ward system is common in larger cities where city councils want to ensure local communities and neighbourhoods are having their specific concerns heard by the decision makers. The idea is if you elect your own local representative from your neighbourhood or area to city council, they will likely mirror the views and economic makeup of the majority of your residents.
In November councillors narrowly rejected paying for an $80,000 study on the issue by a vote of 5-4, but held out the possibility of including a question about moving to a ward system for voters to consider as they vote in the next municipal election in 2021.
One of the potential benefits of a ward system, on top of enhancing local neighbourhood representation, is it prevents special-interest groups from having undue sway, in theory, because the elected representative is more beholden to his neighbourhood rather than any one political perspective or economic status group in the city. It does not always work out that way in practice.
According to some, a ward system may also allow for a greater diversity of candidates to be elected in the city from different walks of life and from different backgrounds.
Currently city council is elected on a “first past the post” model with the top eight councillors garnering votes from the entire electorate going on to sit in local government. (The mayoral vote is a separate animal entirely). The current system does not take into account where a councillor lives in the city, which means a majority could be elected from one side of Lethbridge or another depending on the qualities of the candidate and the composition of the electorate on that day.
Now this is not necessarily a problem, and many communities continue to use this type of system. Some argue a council elected this way represents, in theory, the entire city and the entire electorate, even if it does not often work that way in practice as different political perspectives and interest groups in the city each find their champions among councillors.
But that is why we hold council votes on policies, and the majority, in the end, takes the day.
With the province proposing to change the Local Authorities Election Act to loosen election spending rules in municipal elections there is a concern, already expressed by the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, it will unbalance the checks and balances in the current system, and candidates with more money sponsored by special-interest donors (which would not have to be revealed until after an election if these changes are enacted) would gain a strategic advantage over others.
In light of these proposed provincial changes, finding the right balance and mix in municipal representation is important and will require some deep reflection and strategic thought by all citizens as we approach the next local election in 2021.
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