Do your bit to help democracy - Keith Roulston editorial
It’s strange, but perhaps not surprising, that the choice of municipal councilors who make some of the decisions that have the biggest effect on our lives, has among the lowest participation of any election.
It’s not unusual that fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters in a municipality turn out to vote. Of course most of the people who are eligible to vote haven’t a clue who is running for council, what sort of decisions they make or even how their municipality works. Heck, even some of the people running for councils don’t know what powers they will have if they are elected.
Before I get all frustrated with the ignorance of the voters I need to remember how little I knew about the realm of municipal councils before I began covering councils as a young summer-replacement reporter for the late A.Y. McLean at the Huron Expositor in Seaforth. He sent me to cover the Tuckersmith Township Council meeting and I had no clue what I was getting into. Even though I had grown up in a rural township north of Lucknow, I didn’t really know what local municipalities did. We knew to blame township council if the road remained blocked after a winter storm or expect a tax increase if a new township grader went by, but other than that, we (or at least I) lived in ignorance.
Those first few township council meetings I covered began a long education where, as a local newspaper reporter and (later) editor, I began to see firsthand what municipal councillors did. I saw that job change as the number of municipalities shrunk through municipal amalgamation and grow as the province shifted more responsibilities to municipalities and citizens asked their local councillors to take on new tasks. Arenas, for instance, went from being almost afterthoughts in the early 1970s to major expenses in the 1980s.
But at the same time as municipal councillors control more and more of the important things of our lives, like roads, arenas and municipally-owned buildings, there are fewer elected people involved in the decision-making process, and often we may not even know them. Also, unfortunately, people in many areas know less about what they’re doing since younger people often stopped subscribing to, and reading, local newspapers. Faced with that situation, newspapers often reduced staff and stopped covering municipal councils and school boards. People became more ignorant about what their municipality can do and how decisions are made.
An editorial in last week’s Citizen pointed out that nearly 140 mayors or reeves in Ontario have been acclaimed to their posts for the next term, up from 118 in the 2018 election and 104 in 2014. If this keeps up, the province, which controls municipalities, will probably declare a new “solution” by reducing the number of municipalities. If you want to see if that works, I dare you to name your local school board trustee, now that over my lifetime we’ve gone from a board for every one-room country school to one board per county and now one for every two counties.
Meanwhile, we have more municipal staff than ever before in rural municipalities, whether it be at the local or county (or regional) level. I remember, for instance, when land-use planning was just beginning in Huron and the entire planning staff consisted of two people. It’s part of the modern reality of life now and there’s a larger staff – as there are in all local government offices.
There are good things about that, but it often means that people ignore their local government until something happens they don’t like – such as the proposal for a large apartment building at the site of a former trailer park in Wingham.
Generally, we’ve become lackadaisical about our responsibilities under democracy. As long as the bureaucrats don’t disturb our comfortable lives, we ignore politics. But we’re seeing the cost of taking politics for granted around the world, from a former U.S. president who wants to ignore the verdict of the people to the perversion of a brief moment of democracy in Russia into a dictatorship under Vladimir Putin who leads his people into a costly, increasingly unpopular war.
The great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said that: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” Modern democracy requires very little of the voter except to stay informed and vote periodically. At the municipal level, now is the time for us to step up and play our part.
But your vote doesn’t matter, you say? I think I have voted in every municipal election except one. Wouldn’t you know it, that election ended in a tie vote with the winner being chosen by lot.
Your vote matters. Making an informed choice matters. So, do your homework and vote for your municipal leaders.