Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Death of local democracy by neglect

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With Manitoba's municipal and school board elections just 48 days away, cities, towns and rural municipalities throughout the province are experiencing a troubling shortage of candidates for mayor, reeve, councillor and school trustee.

If the municipal election were held today in Brandon, six of the 10 city council seats would be won by acclamation. Of the four contested wards in the city, only one has more than two candidates.

Similar scenarios are playing out in many other Westman communities. In Virden, there is just one candidate for mayor and only three candidates for the six council seats. Killarney is in slightly better shape, with four candidates for its six council seats, but just one mayoral candidate.

In the RM of Whitehead, three candidates are running for reeve, while two candidates are running in one of the RM's six wards. Two of the other five wards have one candidate each, but the remaining three wards have no candidates at all. In the RM of Elton, located north of Brandon, there is no candidate for reeve, and there is just one candidate for the RM's six council seats.

The numbers are even worse in the case of a number of school board elections. Many currently do not have enough candidates to fill the available seats.

This isn't a problem caused by a shortage of citizens who would be good candidates, nor are there obvious barriers preventing women from running. Roughly one-half of the declared candidates are female and a number of local elections officials (all of them female) told me that a "glass ceiling" no longer exists for women wishing to run at the local level.

Many Manitobans would make excellent candidates and would be effective in whatever position they were elected to. The problem is their unwillingness to put their names on election ballots, combined with their lack of desire to serve their communities in an elected capacity.

Their reasons vary, but many I have spoken to recently cite the low pay (some RMs pay just a few hundred dollars each year), the long hours, media scrutiny, the pressure of citizens' expectations, the lengthy four-year commitment, as well as the effect of electoral success on their private lives, careers and business viability.

The possibility that opponents could be sifting through family members' years-old social media postings, and that those postings could be leaked to the media, as in the Steeves' case, is reason alone for many to not seek election.

Some argue the current candidate shortage is part of a long-term trend that parallels the decline in volunteerism and community service organizations.

Others claim the growing shortage of candidates corresponds to the decline in voter turnout in elections.

Both arguments are valid. A decline in community engagement and cohesiveness almost certainly results in fewer candidates who care enough to run, and that shortage of quality candidates causes fewer citizens to vote.

The danger in arguing over cause and effect is that it ignores the greater problem that has been building in Manitoba and many other jurisdictions for the past several years -- the death of local democracy by neglect.

The democratic concept is premised on citizens having the ability to choose from a number of good candidates. When skilled, qualified residents refuse to stand for election however, citizens are denied a credible choice and thorough discussion of issues affecting them.

It opens the door for single-issue and fringe candidates, whose priorities seldom align with those of the broader community. It makes our local governments vulnerable to hijacking by slates of candidates with non-mainstream, even extremist, objectives.

It could happen this year in a number of municipalities and on a number of school boards. That danger will only worsen until we come to grips with the fact that living in a democracy comes with certain obligations, most notably the willingness to be leaders in our communities.

Too many Manitobans capable of shouldering leadership roles at the local level expect others to do democracy's heavy lifting. They are content to sit on the sidelines, yet are shocked and angered when decisions are made with which they disagree. They are oblivious to the harm their inaction is causing to their communities.

That has to stop. Leaders don't have the luxury of choosing the time to lead. Events pick them and now is one of those times.

Nominations for municipal and school board elections close soon. If those with the ability to lead do not answer the call, we won't get government we want. We will be getting the government we deserve.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon. Twitter @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 A11


Updated on Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 10:21 AM CDT: Fixes typo

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About Deveryn Ross

Deveryn Ross joined the Free Press as a political columnist in 2011. His columns also appear in the Westman Journal and other community newspapers throughout Western Canada. He has also served as a columnist for the Brandon Sun, Brandon Today and several rural Manitoba newspapers.

Born and raised in Brandon, where he still resides, Deveryn has been active in politics at all levels for more than four decades. He has worked in various roles on dozens of election campaigns in several provinces and has provided strategic advice to elected officials and candidates from all major parties.

Deveryn holds a Juris Doctor degree from Dalhousie University and Bachelor of Arts from Brandon University, where he was awarded the medal in political science.


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