Several news reports over recent months have lamented the lack of candidates running in this fall’s municipal elections in various provinces and territories. This has led to more acclamations than ever before, and in some cases, it has led to fewer candidates than there are positions available. A municipal council that is not fully populated is certainly not good for governance. Citizens really have no choice in who they vote for if there aren’t enough people running and expressing their unique ideas and visions.
That the problem is pan-Canadian, and that it is getting worse year over year is more a symptom than it is the cause.
The topic of mistreatment of elected officials at all orders of government is often brought up as one of the causes for the lack of candidates. Who’d want to put themselves in a position of public service only to be abused by those people the elected officials are there to serve? Families often get drawn into the maelstrom too, even though those people certainly did not sign up for that additional public scrutiny.
Conflict is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy, but the conflict needs to be one of ideas, and it needs to be left behind once the council meeting is over.
Codes of conduct or codes of ethics are common for elected officials, but maybe they need to be part of the social contract for members of the public as well. It’s common to see a poster on the wall of the civic building that talks about the town office being a respectful workplace. That would extend to the treatment of council members as well.
I suspect that very few of them are taking on the role for the glory, remuneration, and ‘gold-plated’ pension; mostly because there isn’t much glory, the remuneration isn’t very significant, and pension contributions are probably non-existent anymore.
The vast majority of elected officials are there for reasons of public service versus reasons of self-service. I explore this in much more detail in my first book, Who’s Driving the Grader and Other Governance Questions.
The increasing intrusiveness of social media, particularly Rant and Rave pages on Facebook, is commonly expressed to me as a reason council members choose to retire after a single term and why potential candidates choose not to put their names on the ballot. That malevolent, or maybe just uninformed, keyboard warriors can anonymously poke at good people infuriates me.
An ultra-segmented media landscape that has devolved into a zero-sum, gotcha, and click generators rather than providers of thoughtful, authentic information and opinion feeds into this cycle too. There are many outlets that call themselves ‘media’ but which are really just there to generate subscriptions and other forms of revenue any way they can. These entities are not really part of the Fifth Estate. They are not in existence to hold government legitimately to account, and they become part of the bullying problem. Looking at it from the outside, again, why would a community-minded person put their name on a ballot if they know they will be hit over the head with a stick on a regular basis in the interest of rage farming?
Taken together, I think that increased workload, expanding bullying, abuse from ‘media’, the cost of campaigning, and other factors – most of which I’ve not got space to address here - have created a perfect storm that has led to a historic low in the number of people willing to stand for office this year. I suspect next year will be worse, and the year after that will still be worse.
We all know there’s a problem. I have a couple of questions:
Have we identified the real problem, or just the symptoms of something bigger; and
What are we going to do about it?
The abuse goes beyond elected officials, of course. We commonly hear about, and sometimes see, mistreatment of members of municipal administrations as well. We are also seeing more abuse of those who have chosen a career of covering the work of governments by being members of the legitimate media. Together, this abuse of elected officials, administration, and the media remains an insidious and growing problem. It’s something we would like to try and do something about, but that’s a blog post for another day.
Do you have any thoughts on those two questions I posed a little earlier in this post?
As always, you can reach me at email@example.com.