City council rejects ward system

An electoral ward system where councillors would represent a specific area of Red Deer was turfed in council chambers on Monday.

An electoral ward system where councillors would represent a specific area of Red Deer was turfed in council chambers on Monday.

Red Deer city council voted 6-3 in favour of affirming the existing at-large system where elected leaders represent the city’s needs as a whole. City staff researched whether at-large elections, ward elections or a mixture of the two would be a better fit for the city of 92,000 people. Only a few cities in Canada use the mixed or partial ward systems.

Mayor Morris Flewwelling said a thorough study was done so it wasn’t as though council simply decided on keeping the status quo. The topic can be revisited in six months according to municipal rules, if a councillor asks for it, Flewwelling added.

Council was reluctant to consider a plebiscite, particularly on its own since it would run about $150,000. Plebiscites are normally held on the municipal election ballot, the next one taking place October 2013.

Flewwelling and Councillors Cindy Jefferies, Dianne Wyntjes, Lynne Mulder, Tara Veer and Paul Harris voted in favour of the at-large system. Councillors Buck Buchanan, Frank Wong and Chris Stephan voted against.

Jefferies said this issue typically comes around election time, but then it dies off as other issues come up like pothole problems.

“I think there’s a tremendous impact on our school jurisdictions or it could be,” Jefferies said. “And I think there’s tremendous costs for changing the system — and the staff time it would take to implement that change. And it would take us from other priorities.”

Wyntjes said the review didn’t seem to indicate that a ward system would offer better representation or if it would provide better voter turnout.

“I think ultimately I would like to revisit this down the road,” said Wyntjes. “I would think a plebiscite is (good) but not right now. When people don’t even know what a ward is, I think we have some work to do.”

Veer said she believes a plebiscite would be the way to go when the time comes.

“When I look at our community, we have done a lot in terms of bridging the north and south divide,” she said. “We have a lot of issues on our public agenda that I want us to deal with first.”

A ward system could have the potential to politicize decisions, said Veer.

Harris said an at-large system allows councillors to represent a wide range of issues from the environment to urban sprawl.

Deputy city clerk Frieda McDougall said the research showed that both at-large and ward systems have merit.

Similar-sized cities like Grande Prairie and Lethbridge continue to use at-large systems.

At-large systems tend to allow councillors to concentrate on city-wide issues.

“We’ve got a strategic plan and we’re moving towards that,” said Mulder. “As Coun. Harris said, we need the collective wisdom of council and our community to focus on those high-priority issues.”

McDougall said one of the main arguments against the at-large system is that it leads to city councils which under-represent minority groups.

Wong said he’s spoken with residents who live north of Hwy 11A and they feel they are being under-represented at City Hall.

“They complain about road conditions or the noise of the pipe plant and people shortcutting through county roads to avoid the traffic light at Hwy 11A and Gaetz Avenue,” said Wong. “They want more service up there. And it’s not just them. There’s other people who email us and say they’re not getting proper representation.”

McDougall said that advocates of the ward system argue that it brings politics closer to the people.

Stephan said that he believes most people would favour a ward system. He said a public survey should have been done before making this decision.

Buchanan said he was torn on the issue because he thinks the at-large system is working fine. He wondered about a plebiscite.

“When it affects the public of this magnitude, I think they should have some input into it,” he said.