Antonio Simoes admits it’s “not a sexy issue,” but he believes his fledgling campaign pushing Burnaby to adopt a municipal ward system would improve local democracy and, in turn, better address more vital issues.
“Nobody walks around Burnaby going, 'Geez I wish there was a ward system.' People complain about taxes, people complain about housing, but, for me, all of that starts from the ... failure of municipal government to deal with these issues at a more specific level,” the barrister said.
Burnaby’s eight councillors are elected “at large” across the city, with voters picking up to eight names from identical ballots no matter where they live. Simoes wants to see a hybrid system, with five wards – similar to ridings – and three councillors elected at large.
A more democratic option?
This way, residents would know who to call about issues – such as a dangerous intersection or a development proposal – in their neighbourhood, Simoes said.
“I find in Burnaby, whenever I've had an issue that I would like to raise with a councillor, I have no idea which councillor to communicate with,” he said.
Council addresses big-picture, citywide issues “really well,” Simoes said, but more local issues can get lost in the fray.
“If you had a local councillor who represents their neighbourhood, that councillor could very well be the driver of change for different types of housing, different ways of servicing their community, because they would be focused on that community,” he said.
To advance the cause, Simoes plans to take pictures of supporters holding a sign reading “I want to be heard.” He also plans to create a Facebook page and start a petition.
Burnaby council could pass a bylaw creating a ward system, but it would be subject to final approval from the province.
B.C.'s lone ward system 'works well'
While many cities in Canada have ward systems, there’s only one in B.C.
When the District of Lake Country incorporated in 1995, its four constituent communities wanted to remain distinct while joining forces, according to Mayor James Baker.
Baker was a member of the regional district at the time and helped lead the incorporation effort. “From the get-go,” he said, it was important to have local representation for Carr’s Landing, Oyama, Winfield and Okanagan Centre.
Lake Country, a community of roughly 15,000 near Kelowna, has four ward councillors and two at large.
“It works well for us,” said Baker, who has served as mayor since 2005.
The ward councillors can champion local issues but have to convince their colleagues to support their causes, ensuring a good balance for the entire community, Baker said.
“I think it's more democratic, in fact, in that you get guaranteed representation,” he said.
'It's something that could work': councillor
Burnaby’s longest-serving councillor, Dan Johnston, said he has heard the idea raised a few times over the years, but it’s never garnered much support.
He said he didn’t have a strong opinion about the proposal either way.
“I don’t know. I think it’s something that could work,” he said.
If Simoes gets strong support for his campaign – perhaps thousands of signatures on his petition – Johnston said council would likely give the idea serious consideration.
“It will be interesting to see what kind of support he gets,” Johnston said.