Ward and at-large systems debated at panel discussion

Information on how Red Deerians could choose their future elected councils drew about 60 residents to a panel discussion in Red Deer on Monday.

Information on how Red Deerians could choose their future elected councils drew about 60 residents to a panel discussion in Red Deer on Monday.

Political scientist Duane Bratt, blogger Dave Cournoyer and former Red Deer city councillor Larry Pimm outlined the pros and cons of at-large and ward systems of representation.

In Red Deer, councillors are currently elected in an at-large system where the politicians represent the entire city.

But on the Oct. 21 civic ballot, electors will answer the non-binding plebiscite, Do you want the City of Red Deer divided into wards?

In a ward system, councillors would only represent a certain area of the city.

Alberta’s two largest cities –– Calgary and Edmonton –– elect officials using ward systems.

“It’s really about representation,” argued Bratt. “When a city gets to a certain size is it ungovernable without a ward system?”

Bratt said a city with a population of 100,000 could go one way or another. He said there are strong arguments either way.

“You’re right at the cusp, but one thing I did predict and one thing I maintain, if it is voted down now and the population continues to increase, this will continue to come back,” said Bratt. “Whether it is four years, eight years, 12 years, there will be a ward system in Red Deer. The question is at what point. What is the threshold? Is it 100,00 people? Is it 130,000 people?”

Cournoyer, an Edmonton-based political blogger, agreed the question for Red Deer is whether a ward system is merited for 100,000 residents or 200,000. He noted Edmonton moved to a ward system when its population reached around 300,000.

Some of the arguments for moving to a ward system include having strong advocates for an area; closer relationships with the councillors and more citizen participation in the community.

On the flip side, the needs of the entire city may be ignored, said Pimm, a councillor for 24 years. He said some day Red Deer will reach the size where a ward or hybrid system would be worth exploring but not today.

“For me, I want to be able to vote for the eight best candidates,” said Pimm. “And in a ward system I could only vote for two. I don’t want that right taken away.”

Pimm said the councillors in an at-large system would make whole city decisions with a whole city approach. He said there would be less conflict on council and a better field of councillors.

Bratt noted council spending tends to be higher in a city with a ward system. Bratt said one system or the other would not bring in stronger candidates.

Drawing the boundaries is one of the challenges for moving to a ward system, added Cournoyer.

“There are some communities with common interests,” said Cournoyer. “People with the same demographics. Where do you draw the boundaries? Do you use the geographic boundaries like rivers or freeways or highways or simple neighbourhood streets. There’s no easy answers. There are people who are going to be unhappy because they are in a certain ward. When you draw a map you have to put the lines somewhere.”

See Saturday’s Advocate for more on the ward and at-large systems of representation.