Warding off talk of wards

Red Deer city council has rarely looked as self-serving and insular as it does today, after refusing to revisit the issue of creating an electoral ward system. On Monday, council rejected a proposal by three councillors — Chris Stephan, Frank Wong and Buck Buchanan — to conduct a plebiscite about shifting to a ward-based council. The plebiscite would have been held in conjunction with the Oct. 21 municipal election.

Red Deer city council has rarely looked as self-serving and insular as it does today, after refusing to revisit the issue of creating an electoral ward system.

On Monday, council rejected a proposal by three councillors — Chris Stephan, Frank Wong and Buck Buchanan — to conduct a plebiscite about shifting to a ward-based council. The plebiscite would have been held in conjunction with the Oct. 21 municipal election.

Calling a plebiscite, with a clearly defined question on creating a ward system, would have spawned a healthy, robust — and long overdue — public conversation about the proposal.

Instead, council moved to kill the idea — again.

It was the second time in less than a year that council has turned away from the issue. Last April, council voted 6-3 to maintain the status quo, rejecting a discussion about a ward system. On the recommendation of city staff, the majority of councillors decided that the current at-large system creates a council that is more plugged into broader issues, resulting in decision making driven by the greater good.

Why regional interests can’t be considered when examining the greater good remains a mystery, as is why council is convinced that future ward-elected members would be unable or unwilling to broaden their perspectives when necessary.

But just because council doesn’t want to talk further about the issue, nor consider a plebiscite on the matter, does that mean citizens should abandon the notion of electing councillors by region?

Absolutely not.

Alberta’s Municipal Government Act clearly outlines how citizens can force a plebiscite on an issue: through a petition signed by at least 10 per cent of adult citizens of a municipality.

The petition signatures must be gathered with scrupulous care. The accuracy required to avoid having a petition refused by council is stringent.

But a properly rendered petition puts the power to dictate discussion on an issue in the hands of the people. A clearly worded petition can force council to have citizens vote on either a proposed bylaw or on an explicit question. And then there can be no quibbling later about intent.

Although council still makes the ultimate decision on whether to enact a bylaw, forcing the matter forward, particularly if it carries majority weight from the electorate, can leave little wiggle room for council.

There is no guarantee that Red Deerians would be best served by introducing a ward system to elect councillors.

But the advantages and disadvantages of moving away from an at-large system certainly deserve widespread discourse.

By refusing to endorse a plebiscite on the issue, city council on Monday clearly demonstrated that they don’t believe there is any place for a public discussion on the issue, at least not now.

Too many other issues are of greater importance, they say. They don’t want to be distracted by a discussion about wards.

But exactly how distracting do they think a public conversation about a ward system would be?

Surely council could encourage growth and examine the potential for change without becoming overwhelmed by the debate.

And surely councillors understand that the meat of this discussion would take place in the weeks before Oct. 21, not now while they are addressing those more pressing issues.

There’s something fundamentally undemocratic about elected officials deciding in a vacuum how they will be elected.

And there’s something more than a little odd about not being willing to at least ask the public a question about wards during a planned spring survey.

This week, the provincial government announced that it was reviewing the Conflicts of Interest Act, as it relates to members of the legislature. The goal, to ensure that “elected representatives . . . act ethically and perform their duties with the highest level of integrity,” according to Mike Allen, chair of the Select Special Conflicts of Interest Act Review Committee, is worth noting for all elected officials, not just MLAs.

“Often it is not an action but rather the public perception of that action that can raise questions about a member’s conduct,” Allen said.

The same holds true for city councillors. And right now, plenty of Red Deer citizens have a tainted perception of the actions of city council.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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