No elections required Pandemic, toxic politics blamed for lack of council candidates in Manitoba municipalities

About a dozen municipalities in Manitoba will not hold council elections in October due to an absence of challengers, sparking concerns about public interest and a toxic climate in politics.

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About a dozen municipalities in Manitoba will not hold council elections in October due to an absence of challengers, sparking concerns about public interest and a toxic climate in politics.

In some places, there aren’t enough candidates to fill every seat.

Entire councils have been acclaimed in at least 10 towns or rural municipalities, after Tuesday’s deadline for nominations and Wednesday’s cut-off for withdrawals.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Cindy Kellendonk.

“I don’t recall seeing this frequency of it,” Cindy Kellendonk, who is running for councillor in the Rural Municipality of Lac du Bonnet, said of the acclamations.

The figure could increase. Some municipalities haven’t sent their lists of candidates to the Association of Manitoba Municipalities as of Wednesday afternoon.

Councils were acclaimed in Arborg, Minto-Odanah, Montcalm, the RM of Portage la Prairie, Prairie View, Riverdale, Roland, St-Pierre-Jolys, Swan River and Victoria, according to the AMM’s running tally.

Candidates in Dunnottar and Victoria Beach went unchallenged during municipal elections in July.

The total doesn’t include individual seats, including two Winnipeg city councillor positions, where nobody is running against an incumbent or newcomer.

Of the 109 candidates to be acclaimed ahead of the Oct. 26 elections, all but 23 are incumbents, according to the AMM’s online dashboard.

Candidates and political observers told the Free Press there could be a variety of reasons for the acclamations.

“A lot of (heads of council) didn’t seek re-election because of what the last four years was like.”–Mayor of Morden, Brandon Burley

Brandon Burley, who was acclaimed for a second term as mayor of Morden, said there are “a lot fewer” races for heads of council.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which brought unprecedented challenges and sparked division in some communities, could be partly to blame.

“A lot of (heads of council) didn’t seek re-election because of what the last four years was like,” said Burley.

He is encouraged by crowded races in some municipalities, noting it’s healthy to have competition for all positions because it brings “variation” in opinion and ideas.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Brandon Burley was acclaimed for a second term as mayor of Morden.

For example, the number of candidates for councillor in Morden is at its highest in the last four elections, said Burley.

Smaller communities have fewer potential candidates.

In the Rural Municipality of Montcalm, there aren’t enough candidates to fill all of its council seats. The council will have to appoint someone to a vacant councillor position or call a byelection.

“It’s highly unusual,” said Jolene Bird, the RM’s senior election official.

Winnipeg Beach, which held an election in July, is holding a byelection Oct. 7 to fill a seat that went unfilled.

Bird believes a major spring flood and the pandemic deterred people from running in Montcalm.

Gayle Loewen / RM of Portage

Portage la Prairie Councillor and Deputy Reeve Garth Asham.

Municipalities that don’t hold elections will end up saving money. For Montcalm, the savings will be about $5,000, said Bird.

Garth Asham, deputy reeve of the RM of Portage, said he cannot recall an election where the entire council was acclaimed.

“I don’t know the reason. I just hope people have the confidence in us, that we’re doing a pretty good job,” he said.

Asham, a councillor for 16 years, believes Manitobans are still interested in municipal politics.

Some potential candidates lack time due to family, work or other commitments, he said.

While the RM of Portage’s council was acclaimed, there is no shortage of competition in the City of Portage, where four people are running for the vacant mayor’s chair and 14 for six councillor positions.

There tends to be more competition for vacant seats, said Christopher Adams, an adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

“I don’t know the reason. I just hope people have the confidence in us, that we’re doing a pretty good job.”–Garth Asham, deputy reeve of the RM of Portage on why the entire council was acclaimed

In Winnipeg, 11 candidates are vying to replace Mayor Brian Bowman, who isn’t seeking a third term.

Voter turnout is low in municipal elections, so name recognition is critical, said Adams.

If there is an incumbent, he said, potential challengers may decide against running because they feel they don’t have a chance of winning.

Low remuneration and “toxic debates” are among other off-putting factors.

When an entire council is acclaimed, the “glass half-full” perspective is residents are satisfied with their council, said Adams.

Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun Files

Brandon City Council member Shaun Cameron.

The “glass half-empty” view is a general lack of interest in being a council member.

Acclaimed candidates may not face the same level of public accountability as someone who makes promises or lays out a platform during a campaign or debates in a contested election, said Adams.

In Brandon, no one is running against four incumbent city councillors, including Shaun Cameron.

“I’m hopeful it’s as a result of the work I put in,” Cameron said of his acclamation.

He said the early victory won’t stop him from putting his ideas “out there” to get feedback from residents before his second term begins.

Cameron said “polarization” in politics could be discouraging some people from seeking election.

Kellendonk is part of a group called Let Women Lead, which is working to break down barriers and encourage more women to enter politics.

She believes people are discouraged by the “dysfunction” they’re seeing at some levels in the U.S. and Canada.

“The viciousness of the political environment is what’s turning off not just women, but men, too,” she said.

Kellendonk cited recent situations in Manitoba where female mayors were stripped of some of their duties by their own councils.

Of the 785 candidates reported to the AMM as of Wednesday afternoon, 163 are women.

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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