Opinion: We can fix Burnaby's democratic deficit. Here's how.

Julie Maclellan

Hey, Antonio: You’re not alone.

This blog post is my shout-out to Antonio Simoes, whose fledgling campaign to have Burnaby adopt a municipal ward system caused me to take a dive into the results from the 2018 municipal election campaign. There I sat on the floor of my cubicle, surrounded by printed spreadsheets, highlighter in hand, poring over numbers and contemplating whether, in fact, having wards in Burnaby would (a) have any kind of impact on the results of civic elections and (b) improve democracy.

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My conclusions? (a) Probably and (b) Hopefully.

OK, it’s not quite a ringing “Change to wards right this second” endorsement. But it is, at least, a call for Burnaby city council to not dismiss the idea out of hand. In an interview with my colleague Kelvin Gawley, longtime city councillor Dan Johnston said council would likely give the idea serious consideration if Simoes gets strong support for his campaign.

I hope council does better than that. I hope the sitting councillors see value in looking further at the idea, regardless of whether Simoes gets thousands of signatures on his petition or not. I hope they will push for a full analysis of the reasons why the city might want to look at such a change and what impact it might have on civic politics.

Let me make my own bias clear up front: I hate partisan politics at the municipal level. I dislike the fact that, in order to get elected in large B.C. cities – cities such as Vancouver, Surrey or Burnaby – candidates have to align themselves with a party.

For me, wards are a complete no-brainer in cities as big as Vancouver, where the unwieldy ballot in the 2018 election had some 150 names on it. Nobody can possibly make a good decision at the ballot box with that many candidates to choose from.

Burnaby isn’t quite so bad. But it still suffers from the same fundamental problem: if you want to get noticed in the pack, you need the help of a party machine. As most voters know, Burnaby has been under the firm control of the Burnaby Citizens Association for, well, the better part of forever – with full sweeps in 2008, 2011 and 2014 and a great deal of majority control for years before that.  I simply don’t like a system that can produce power monopolies, over and over and over again. It’s not healthy for democracy.

And no, that’s not a criticism of what the BCA stands for; this criticism applies regardless of whether I agree with the party in power or not. For me, there’s something particularly depressing about centralized partisan control at the local level. I truly believe – naively, perhaps – in the value of having independent citizens stepping forward to run for office because they want to make a difference in their community.

But those people just aren’t going to get elected in our current at-large system.

Growing up in Barrie, Ont. in the 1970s and ’80s, I was used to ward politics. It was pretty simple. If you lived in Ward 1, you voted in Ward 1, where a handful of candidates – four to six or so – vied for your vote. As a candidate, you didn’t have to try to reach all the tens of thousands of households in the city, just the ones in your own neighbourhood.  As a voter, you didn’t have to get to know 30, 40 or 50 different people in an attempt to pick the best six (or eight, or 10, as the case may be). You just picked the one you liked best.

Now, there’s an element to our current at-large system that I like – I get to pick my own “slate” by choosing more than one candidate. I can balance my own ballot however I see fit, choosing the mix of personalities, political viewpoints and backgrounds that I think best represents my city. (After 30 years of voting, I have yet to pick a slate that actually gets elected in its entirety, but I live in hope.)

The other biggie is that – theoretically, at least - being elected in an at-large system means all councillors have to consider the good of the whole city, not just lobby for the needs of one particular neighbourhood.

That sounds good, right? But the argument, for me, cuts both ways.

Because I’d argue that sometimes neighbourhoods might very well need their own voice – especially those neighbourhoods that are underrepresented at the polls and in the halls of power. Just because the current system provides for equal access to city hall doesn’t mean it’s equitable.

Inevitably, there will be some neighbourhoods – those with more transient or less affluent populations, for instance – where not as many people vote or feel they have the wherewithal or power to take on city hall. Think Vancouver: Does the Downtown Eastside have the same clout at city hall as Shaughnessy? Or here at home, do the residents of Edmonds feel as empowered to take on civic issues as the residents of Buckingham Heights? Are the residents of the more “empowered” neighbourhoods overrepresented at the polls, at public hearings and therefore, intentionally or not, in the decision-making of an at-large council?

I don’t know. But we need to ask.

Then there’s diversity. Burnaby city council, as we noted after the civic election, is very much still dominated by men – generally older white men.

Would a ward system help to change that?

Wards are often suggested as a way of improving representation for underrepresented communities. Now, this may well be more true in large American cities, where neighbourhoods often divide more clearly along racial lines. But it’s worth pondering for Burnaby, too.

Interestingly, in neighbouring New West, a similar “slate” situation (in New West’s case, a team of allied candidates but not an official party) led to one of the most diverse results ever in a municipal election in terms of both gender and racial representation.

So it seems that cuts both ways, depending how inclined your particular slate or party is to care about such issues. Should voters in Burnaby need to be reliant upon the goodwill of the Burnaby Citizens Association to put forward a more diverse slate of candidates? Or could we perhaps take matters into our own hands if we broke up the power of partisan politics?

I don’t know. But, again, it’s worth asking.

Ditto with increasing the number of voices on the political spectrum. The existing at-large system, with its entrenched party politics, allows for far too much opposition-free decision-making (although, in Burnaby, things have undeniably changed for the better under Mayor Mike Hurley). Would a ward system allow people of different political philosophies to get elected? Are some areas of the city more conservative, or more left-leaning, or more green, in their viewpoint? Would a ward system just replicate the same old first-past-the-post democratic-deficit problems on a smaller scale, or would it actually allow more voices, from more parts of the political spectrum, to be heard at the council table?

Again, I don’t know. But it seems worth asking.

Interesting as the debate is, though, it all raises the key question: Would having wards even matter in Burnaby? Would our election outcome look any different than it currently does in an at-large system?

The poll-by-poll breakdown from the 2018 election suggests it might.

I say “suggests,” because that’s all that the results can ever do. Burnaby residents can vote at any polling station, so just because you cast a vote at a particular poll doesn’t necessarily mean you live there. However, if we argue that, generally speaking, most people at any given poll are likely to live in that neighbourhood, we can find evidence that different areas of Burnaby do indeed vote in different ways.

I performed a little experiment, going through the poll-by-poll results to see which candidates placed in the top eight at each station. I used eight as my magic number since Burnaby elects eight city councillors. (Should you need a refresher as to who any of these folks are, you can find more about them all here.)

There are a few long-serving council members whose support is spread broadly throughout the city. Pietro Calendino, Dan Johnston and Colleen Jordan each earned enough votes at virtually all the polls to make the cut each time – Calendino and Johnston were, in fact, pretty consistent poll-toppers throughout the city.

But there were a few neighourhoods that bucked the BCA-first trend.

Broadly speaking, the northeast quadrant of the city was more strongly Green than elsewhere.

That includes the Burnaby Mountain area (the University Highlands and Forest Grove polling stations), as well as Cameron Recreation Centre, where Joe Keithley – the sole Green candidate to get elected in Burnaby - actually topped the polls in all three cases. Burnaby candidates Rick McGowan, Joel Gibbs and Mehreen Chaudry also polled well in those areas – McGowan and Gibbs made the top-eight cut at all three polls, and Chaudry at two (Forest Grove and Cameron, missing out on the top eight at University Highlands by all of one vote).

Then there’s the mixed bag that is the Metrotown area.

Probably not surprisingly to anyone who’s followed the demovictions issue, McGowan polled well in Metrotown, with some top-eight showings at Metropolis at Metrotown and Chaffey-Burke school. Gibbs, likewise, performed strongly in the neighbourhood, polling in the top eight at two Metropolis at Metrotown polls, Bonsor Recreation Complex and Chaffey-Burke school.

Interestingly, the Burnaby First Coalition also had a top-eight candidate at a number of Metrotown polls – Heather Leung at two Metropolis at Metrotown polls, Bonsor Recreation Complex and Windsor Elementary (the latter being slightly out of what you might call Metrotown proper, but still within the general area).

The Greens also had some localized support in the northwest, where McGowan polled well at Willingdon Community Centre and Gilmore School, and in Edmonds and surrounding neighbourhood, where Gibbs in particular polled well (at Edmonds Community Centre and Taylor Park School).

Even the BCA, which polled strongly around the city (as evidenced by the fact it elected seven candidates to council), saw more support in some areas than others. Established neighbourhoods in west-central Burnaby – I’m talking about polls such as Moscrop, Burnaby Central and Cascade Heights – saw Burnaby Citizens Association candidates favoured over Green challengers. Those were areas where the one non-elected BCA candidate, Baljinder Narang, would indeed have made the top-eight cut.

I could go on and on, and everyone will likely draw their own conclusions from the results, but the point is this: Different areas of Burnaby do indeed vote differently.

Does that then suggest that Burnaby’s election outcomes would be different if we were ward-based?

It’s impossible to extrapolate any future outcomes from these results, since a ward-based system would operate completely differently. But, with realistic evidence suggesting differences in neighbourhood preferences, I’d go with a solid “probably.”

Which leads to the next logical question: Would “different” necessarily mean “better”?

This is where I would respond with “hopefully.”

If nothing else, a ward system might help to make citizens feel more connected to the workings of their city – and that’s got to be a good thing.

What sells me the most on wards is Simoes’ simple point: “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.

Having a local ward representative would give people a local voice – a voice specific to Edmonds, or the Heights, or Metrotown. Councillors would have a more intimate knowledge of the specific local concerns of each of the neighbourhoods, and citizens would know who to go to when they needed help.

It seems to me it serves to make local government more local – and that’s kind of the whole point, really.

Even if, with all the potential pluses of a ward system, voters still believe in the value of an at-large council that considers the needs of the whole city, all is not lost. We could consider a hybrid system where some councillors are elected by ward and others at large. In Burnaby, that might be as simple as dividing the city into four quadrants, with four ward reps and four at-large.

And, if we’re worried about the possibility that wards could degenerate into one big series of same-old unbalanced first-past-the-post election results, why not wards plus a ranked ballot system, as was recently tried in London, Ont. for the first time?

Point is, there are lots of possible systems other than the one we’re using – and lots of reasons to at least consider changing that system.

While I’m not yet 100 per cent convinced that wards are the answer to Burnaby’s democratic deficit, I think there’s enough of a case to be made to merit a serious analysis by the city before we head back to the polls in 2022.

Over to you, Burnaby city council.




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