I will try to reduce the jargon, but there are a few concepts to get out of the way. The Westminster Parliamentary system that we adopted from the British is based on conventions such as the notion of confidence in government among elected officials. If a majority of parliamentarians (MPs or MLAs) lose the confidence of the government, an election is called. This system brings accountability to government decisions at the federal and provincial levels, but no such mechanism exists for fixed-term municipal councils, such as we have in Edmonton. Currently in Alberta, municipal elections occur every four years. City councillors can lose touch with their base if they only check in with the public once every four years, and I would argue that the problem of out-of-touch Councillors is the current case in Edmonton. Furthermore, Councillors seem to forget the ward they are representing when they make pan-Edmonton decisions instead of local ones. I am the only candidate who has organized his priorities as “Ward 3 first, North Side Second, the Rest of Edmonton Third.” Anyhow, an opportunity exists for more community-based opinions to inform decision making in Edmonton, and that opportunity is found in the concept of the regular referendum. We should make a small change for high reward.
A referendum, or a plebiscite, is a vote on a single issue. The most familiar and infamous Canadian examples are the Quebec separation referenda of years past (of which the most recent was in 1995), but the questions do not need to be that dramatic. In fact, we are probably better with fewer fundamental questions, as we elect candidates with an understanding of what they stand for and we charge them with the duty of making tough decisions. Rather, referenda can provide opportunities to solicit genuine feedback on one-off proposals. In all honesty, they can be fun.
Referenda are democratic tools that are currently under-utilized, and I think we should use them more. They can be ways for citizens to reconnect with elected officials between elections. In my assessment, the main drawback of referenda is the expense of organizing them; but, with creativity, we can minimize the cost, and reducing cost on all government initiatives is a tenet of my election platform. I’m the guy who won’t waste your money.
Each time there is a provincial or federal election, there should also be a municipal referendum. I would like to see one city-wide and one ward-specific non-binding question asked in these cases. Edmontonians are already going to the polls, and the City could capitalize on this, and in some cases this would save money and time, as expensive consultations and debate would be reduced. It would be as though your friend is already going to the store and says to you, “Do you want me to bring you back anything?” and you say, “Sure. Grab me a can of democracy, since you’ll be there anyway.”
In other words, this means that when we go to vote in the next provincial election, we should be able to provide our opinion on topical municipal concerns, alongside casting a ballot for our next MLA. The election infrastructure will already be in place and the City would just be dovetailing on it. The costs would be marginal, and the information invaluable.
Typically, between fixed-date municipal elections (which will occur in 2017, 2021, 2025, …) we will have both a provincial and federal election. These are the occasions on which we should capitalize.
Each Councillor Can Ask One Question to Their Ward, and the Mayor Something to the Whole City
The mayor can decide on a city-wide question and each councillor can decide on a ward-specific question. With 12 wards, we could have 12 different questions. If we had to all agree on a single city-wide referendum question, we would be spinning our wheels in debate. Giving individual councillors the prerogative to ask the questions that they think are timely and in need of a direct mandate would unblock a potential gridlock and needless internal debate.
In Ward 3, for example, I may ask if residents are okay with exploring a name change for 97 Street, north of the Yellowhead Trail to honour local heritage. This question is mostly Ward 3-specific, and so it would not matter much what those in Windermere think, for example; rather, their councillor could cater a specific south side question to them. I do not know how many people in Ward 3 agree that 97 Street could have a better name (such as how Whyte Avenue is also 82 Avenue); this is why I would ask this question. I would not want to force this decision upon people and businesses, and I am running on a much more robust campaign than a single issue such as a symbolic name change.
If we agree to a name change, we can then explore options.
Besides utilizing a referendum, how else can we discover if people like an idea? Well we could wait for a petition to form. A petition is presented to decision makers for consideration, but a referendum is a way for politicians to ask their constituents a specific question instead of forcing it upon them. There is an important difference, but both are valuable engagement tools.
What else? Host an open house? But only those really in favour or really against the idea typically show up, and an open house is best used for location-specific proposals, lest you hold multiple ones, and then costs start to mount.
The beauty of a municipal referendum occurring during other election cycles is that as many people as who come out to vote for a provincial or federal candidate will weigh in on the municipal proposition(s)—and we are not taking up more of people’s time, because they will be at the polls anyway. It’s the most accurate input we could get, and it is low effort for citizens. I do not want to waste anyone’s time: this is killing two birds with one stone.
To carry on with the example I introduced earlier, if referendum results show that an overwhelming number of Ward 3 residents support renaming 97 Street, then I, as Councillor, would bring it before the rest of Council for a vote. I would expect the rest of Council to support the motion or bylaw, as the people of Ward 3 will have spoken on it. Likewise, I would not vote against a local decision stemming from another ward if the citizens of that ward just voted in favour of a proposition. A dog park? Sure, if that’s what your people asked for.
Type of Questions and Ways of Asking
Instead of the 97 Street question, I might ask something else. I am curious about removing photo radar, and if I had concrete proof that the residents of Ward 3 were against photo radar, I would try to remove all photo radar traps from Ward 3. (What a concept, to just remove photo radar from our ward? This is also a re-thinking of municipal politics: having ward-by-ward rules… I will write more about this later).
On the photo radar example, how about this as a proposition: “Wouldn’t it be nice if Ward 3 were photo radar free and if cops enforced traffic laws the old-fashioned way?”
But, do you see what I did there? I placed a bias in the way that I asked the question. For this reason, an individual councillor should not be allowed to ask leading or loaded questions. This is why a committee of Council and legal experts would have to vet the questions prior to them being voted on. A more legitimate version of the same question is: “Should photo-radar be one of several methods used to enforce traffic laws in Ward 3?”
While each councillor would have the freedom to ask their own ward-specific question, I suspect that during some referenda, many councillors will ask similar questions. If the questions are deemed to be too similar, the wording would be adjusted for consistency by said committee.
The mayor would have an opportunity to ask a question too. The mayor would likely exercise the option to ask a city-wide question, as the mayor represents the whole city. Past examples could include ‘Should we commit taxpayer money to a downtown arena?’ or ‘Should we remove the City Centre Airport to build houses?’ A future question could be about infill development, for instance. Or the mayor may want to check in on the aggressive LRT and bike lane agenda, which appears to be growing increasingly out of touch with regular Edmontonians. Wouldn’t it be great if we really knew what people thought of these initiatives?
Click here to read a previous post that I made about disingenuous public engagement surveys.
Why Wouldn’t Referenda be Conducted During Municipal Elections Instead of at the Prov and Fed Levels?
Although at first glance, it would seem appropriate to do so, there are several drawbacks. First, because we only elect councillors every four years, having a referendum on these occasions would do little to address the lull between elections at the local level. Further, during a municipal election, electors are also asked to vote for a mayor and school board trustee, and so they already have many decisions to grapple with. But on provincial and federal ballots, there is typically only one option. Adding an opinion poll would not be a burden on the voter.
Further, the municipal election itself is a quasi-referendum on local issues. A vote for a candidate is essentially a vote for their platform, and the introduction of a one-off issue could make this confusing. For example, on October 16, 2017, the good people of Ward 3 will have the chance to pick between the same-old same-old or a new dynamic young candidate who champions the north side with a low-tax common-sense approach to government. I am confident that the people will pick “Jon D for Ward 3” because they realize that the north has been receiving the short end of the stick for too long, and it is time for the positive changes that only a new face can bring. I have a multitude of substantial and symbolic ideas, as my blog shows, and the ‘Canadian Forces Trail’ is just one of many in the symbolic category.
Now back to what I was saying. What was I saying?
Special Youth Voting
I support the current voting age of 18 but, as an exercise in gauging public opinion, I also support a chit being issued to each 16- and 17-year-old high school student, which would allow participation in the referendum only. The chit would have a unique serial number on it, exchangeable for a referendum ballot at the polling station, and would serve as a means for pre-registering youth into the future voter database, a feat that will save our census collectors some effort.
Such a system of allowing ‘partial youth votes’ would show respect for teenagers, while maintaining the current democratic standard, which has good reason to remain as it is. As the special youth ballots could be distinguished from everyone else’s, it would also be possible to disaggregate their opinions, and this could allay fears of manipulation/fraud on certain hot-button issues.
Inclusion of youth opinions would be useful for several reasons, including gaining a unique perspective on the youth and their opinions. I suspect demographic and statistic lovers everywhere would rejoice with these data, as they would be highly useful for understanding trends and differing opinions by age.
In addition, this youth twist would start building a culture of democracy, and likely increase future voter turnout. We need to educate our youth on the importance of civic engagement, and the best way to do so is to make them feel welcome and valued.
If there is too much pushback to this idea, then a shadow referendum could occur in high schools, with the principal administering the special unofficial youth ballot to those who qualify. The results could still be compared to voters at large.
Elections Canada and Elections Alberta Concerns
These two agencies administer their respective elections and have jurisdiction over them. If one of them were against the idea completely, perhaps we could still convince the other. But I am confident that we could come to an agreement with both, just as the City of Edmonton voluntarily agrees to administer both the public and Catholic trustee contests concurrently with municipal elections, in order to save effort. I volunteer to sit down with both of these agencies and strike a deal. Right from the beginning of my term, I will get things done.
During a municipal campaign, one should vote on the person, not a single issue. Between elections, it would be great to know what people are thinking. Our civic system is different than our legislatures in that there is less accountability on our Councillors between elections than there is for MLAs.
My proposal is a low-effort, high-reward solution for Councillors to engage with their constituents on timely or one-off issues, and it presents some democratic fringe benefits, such as engaging youth in the process. I believe I am the first to present a feasible way in which referenda could be administered, and the ward-specific question is definitely a spin that elevates the significance of the ward system and autonomy of individual councillors.
While I remain grounded in reality, I routinely think outside of the box. If you live in Ward 3, I need your vote. I am requesting your help. I need your support. I am looking for volunteers and financial donors. Can you help me get the word out? Please share this article on social media, tell a friend, and register to help.
Jon Dziadyk, “Jon D for Ward 3”,
North Side Journal
Fine print for political junkies: The above paragraphs assume a ‘majority government.’ In the event of a ‘minority government,’ there could be several elections in a short period of time, and therefore multiple referendum opportunities. A committee of Council could state that only one referendum would happen per year, for example, and the questions have to be vetted prior to the writ being dropped. The questions could remain ready in the hopper for a vote, in times between elections, and they could be adjusted every six months if there is no election, to keep them current. Provincial and Federal elections could happen at any time, and if City Council is caught off guard, they would forgo that one opportunity. The Council committee could work out the bugs to ensure that the referendum process remains predictable and effective. If elected, I volunteer to chair this committee and work out the bugs.
For those with logistical concerns about electoral boundaries being different per level of election, this shouldn’t be a problem, as this is currently the case with trustee and municipal elections. Political boundaries are still broken up into smaller polling subdivisions and we could achieve an approximate representation of municipal wards. If we want to keep it simple it may be the case that 1-2% of citizens in a municipal ward end up voting on the referendum question presented by another Councillor rather than their own. If it is determined that this is an unacceptable risk, there are some low-cost mechanisms to fix this.