voice for democracy

The next best degree of democracy – Brockville Recorder and Times

I was sharply criticized, a decade ago, for an opinion about how best to replace a departing city councillor.
And now I am back for it again, with the same opinion, and ready for the same attacks.
In September of 2011, Coun. Larry Journal announced he was stepping down, as he was moving north to take a government job in Nunavut. I argued at the time that, since council was not inclined to spend money on a byelection, the most democratic option would be to appoint the next runner-up for what were then nine councillor positions, in the 2010 election.
I took some flak at the time for calling this a democratic solution, from folks who missed the part that read “since council says it won’t hold an election.”
And others objected less on the basis of the democratic principle, or weakness thereof, than on the basis of who actually was the next runner-up: Henry Noble, a somewhat non-traditional politician about whom it was impossible to be neutral.
Now here we are in the tenth autumn since that long-forgotten autumnal debate, and history repeats itself with some strange variations: Journal is back, but now we have two council vacancies to fill, one left by Mike Kalivas, who was promoted to mayor after the resignation of Jason Baker , and another left by the departure of Coun. Leigh Bursey .
Now, as then, council has two options under the rules governing municipalities: Hold a byelection, or appoint someone.
If councillors 10 years ago were not inclined to spend money on a byelection, the case for another vote is even thinner now. Back then, at least, they were only one year into a four-year term, whereas now the next election is in October of next year. Not only would a byelection be costly and likely result in a tepid turnout, the time required to hold one would give the eventual winners less than a year to serve.
Council has already indicated it will go the appointment route. And here I restate my argument: Appointing the next available runners-up, or, should they decline, the next ones down the list from the last election who are willing to serve, is a more democratic option than picking two other people.
I may be courting danger to suggest that democracy comes in degrees, but if you’ll indulge me in the concept: The highest degree of democracy is to hold an actual vote; but when that option has been taken off the table, a lesser degree of democracy is looking at what voters decided the last time around.
It’s not as democratic as holding a byelection, not by a long shot, but it remains a form of public consultation nonetheless.
Since I’m already begging your indulgence, let me plagiarize myself from 2011: Under the rules set by the province, councillors could decide that yours truly has enough knowledge and skill to be a councillor and put me in one of those two seats. If that sounds  funny , it’s because it is. But it’s also downright  scary – and that’s the point.
One can sympathize with Coun. Jeff Earle’s suggestion that, since the province allows it, council should pick someone entirely different, someone who has the right skillset, for instance financial acumen. Council ended up doing just that when Journal left in 2011, and chose Tom Blanchard, who did the job well enough to get the people’s vote in the 2014 election.
While that solution remains practical, it is a lesser degree of democracy: In this case, while the choice is made by elected representatives, the person chosen has no electoral sanction, past or present.
The last time around, opting for the next-down-the-list approach would have brought back a former councillor who elicited strong objections from some quarters, including at the council table. This time, because there are two spots, we’d actually get a relative political balance.
Out of sheer serendipity, the highest of the runners-up in the 2018 election, Joy Sterritt, cannot be considered because she moved out of the community. After her, in descending order of popular support, are Jessica Barabash and Phil Deery.
The former served on the economic development, recreation and tourism committee as a citizen appointee, while the latter served one term as a city councillor. Should they both be inclined to hop back in, the former, from my observations, could be classified as centre-left, while the latter is centre-right. (It would not exactly replicate the Bursey-Kalivas left-right balance, but it would approximate it.)
Should either or both of these folks decline, the balance of skills and political orientations would differ, of course, but the principle would remain: A candidate with a ranking in the 2018 council election would come at a higher degree of democracy than someone who never even ran.
Then, in less than a year, we get to do it all over again, the right way.
City hall reporter Ronald Zajac can be reached at [email protected] com.
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