Democratic government is based on representation and accountability. Since municipal government is the level of government which is closest to the people, it only makes sense that municipal voters should do everything they can to maintain these principles – including thinking carefully about the method by which they elect councillors.
There are two methods of election practiced in municipalities: at-large elections where voters in the entire municipality vote for all the candidates and ward elections where individual candidates are elected by voters in a geographic subdivision of the municipality. Mayors are almost always elected at large.
By-Law 2004-62 was the instrument by which the Township of Madawaska Valley dissolved the ward system which was established at the time of amalgamation. No doubt the council of 2004 was acting in good faith. They wanted to save money (the preamble to the by-law states this) and I am sure they wanted to promote unity and a sense of community in the relatively new municipality. Apparently, everyone in TMV was experiencing these warm-fuzzies because, the preamble notes there was “no attendance at the public meeting nor any written comments received.”
Was elimination of the wards cost-effective? Not so much. Consider the cumulative cost of the at-large system in terms of representation, accountability, social interaction between communities and lost economic opportunities in the Township of Madawaska Valley in the last fourteen years.
Populism meets scatology
No one in 2004 anticipated the CAC which was to come. Not the, literal, excremental cac allegedly smeared on the Railway Station’s basement walls, and not the verbal cac that was recently aimed at a citizen in the municipal hall. I mean the capital C-A-C cac that rose to the surface before the 2014 municipal election and solidified, in part, from a waste-liquid issue. The Citizens’ Action Committee.
The defining moment of a populist movement
Political scientists define populism as a movement which sees society through us-versus-them lenses. Usually “us” represents the honest, fiscally responsible, ordinary people while “them” stands for the corrupt, spendthrift elites whose number is up and whose privilege will disappear when “the swamp is drained.”
On January 17, 2013, hundreds of citizens demonstrated outside the township hall. The crowd was whipped up by those alleging rural wells would be taxed and that rural residents’ tax dollars were going to pay for improvements to the wastewater treatment facility. I wasn’t on my porch that night, but I got a firsthand report on my nightly check-in.
Damned fools to be out on a night like this,
was the assessment of the situation. I laughed at the time, but five years on, I am not laughing and I have to disagree. Those folks definitely weren’t fools. They were effective political operators, and that demonstration was the defining moment of a populist movement which ran a slate of candidates and got five people elected to council and several others appointed to municipal committees. Along the way, however, it pitted rural residents against townies and exacerbated rifts between communities.
An injustice the at-large system allowed
I’ve taken a look at council composition following the elimination of wards in 2004 and I am fairly certain that the anger exploited by the CAC was a reaction to a real problem: that policies and the distribution of resources by councils did not appear to adequately address the needs, or reflect the interests, of rural and seasonal voters. It may have been an incorrect perception, or it may have been true. If true, it was an injustice. It was an injustice that the at-large election method allowed.
The council of 2011-2014 had no representation from Radcliffe when it was initially elected. Even after one councillor died and another resigned, the replacements didn’t come from Radcliffe. In the council before that, all councillors were from the Bay even though one had Radcliffe roots. In the Township of Madawaska Valley, the at-large system made it possible for a whole group of citizens to become alienated from their local government. Understandably, those citizens became angry and reacted by organizing politically. And they were very effective.
Without changing the electoral system, however, the result of that political activity merely changed the group with that monopoly of power and different taxpayers became under-represented or ignored.
Too much “localism”
I wish an at-large voting system would work in the Township of Madawaska Valley, but there is still too much “localism” at play. Sadly, we can’t yet move beyond divisiveness and achieve social cohesion. Until we can, each group’s interests and rights must be protected by the election method which prevents the possibility of one group imposing its agenda on the others.
The Citizens’ Action Committee and the council it created demonstrates exactly why TMV needs a ward system.
Representation by populism
In Part 2 of ARE YOU REPRESENTED? which I have titled Representation by populism, I will present how the at-large system combined with populism and localism became a political, social and economic albatross for the Township of Madawaska Valley. Specifically I will look at how a special interest group that campaigned for change got elected and shifted the sights from wastewater to a new target. That will provide an opportunity to consider who needs representation in 2018; to review the suggestion to return to a ward system in the municipality’s very own strategic plan; to assess the benefits of wards for guaranteeing greater democracy; and to imagine some suggestions for a future ward system.
About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A writer, historian, performer, gardener and teacher, Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook. The views expressed in this article are his own.