Without a by-election, democracy is a sham

Ballot & pencil photo
On paper or online, elections should adhere to the Spandex Rule.

Originally published in the Democracy Is a Sham” href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/mark-towhey-/toronto-by-election_b_3813233.html” target=”_blank”>Huffington Post, 25 Aug 2013

On Monday, August 26, 2013, Toronto city council will decide how to replace Doug Holyday as councillor for Ward 3, Etobicoke-Centre. Although it will cost up to $225,000 to hold a by-election, council’s own policies say that’s the right choice. Anyone who values democracy will agree. Not just on principle, but because the alternative process of appointment being considered by council is a sham.

If council chooses to proceed with a by-election, voting day is proposed to be November 25. Potential candidates will have time to get organized and conduct a meaningful campaign that connects with residents in Ward 3. They will get the pulse of the community and residents will get a sense of the candidates. Voters can then choose who will best represent their interests at City Hall for the next year.

The newly elected councillor will have a strong mandate to take into council chambers where she can stand up, empowered by the people of Ward 3, to advocate for her community’s interest.

By contrast, a new councillor appointed by other councillors will be beholden not to the people of Ward 3, but to the politicians who appointed him. That, alone, should be a fatal blow to the validity of an appointment process. But, it gets worse.

Some current councillors want potential candidates for appointment to promise they will not seek election in 2014. They say this is a way to avoid giving an appointee an unfair advantage in the next election. But asking for such a promise is dangerous for democracy in three ways.

First off, there’s absolutely no way to enforce such a promise, so it gives an advantage to the candidate who is willing to lie. Second, it deters candidates with a genuine passion to represent and serve their community’s long-term interests, and gives an advantage to those who are just after the job.

Finally, it doubly ensures the appointed Councillor will be responsible to the wrong people since, not only weren’t the elected in the first place, they will never be held accountable in an election. This not what democracy should be.

The final nail in the coffin is the appointment procedure council is planning to use. The clerk proposes that council use the same process it’s used before. In a nutshell, there are two steps.
Step one is a selection meeting to be held at the local community council, where it will be easily accessible by those who live in Ward 3. Candidates will appear, make their pitches and community council will choose one. Local councillors, who know the community much better than their colleagues from other parts of the city, will make the decisions at this meeting. This makes sense.

It would then make sense for step two to be a meeting of the full city council to ratify the decision made in step one. The power to appoint a replacement is vested in city council, not community council, so it must give make the final decision. It makes sense for council to review the nominee proposed by the community council and approve, or veto, the local decision.

But, that is not what has been proposed. Instead, the proposed step two is a complete “do-over” at city council. Any citizen can apply and appear before city council in step two, even if they didn’t do so first at community council. Councillors from across the city can then choose anyone they want, regardless of what the Etobicoke Community Council has decided. The effect of this is to say: “Thanks, Etobicoke, but we really don’t care what you think.” This does not make sense.

If city council doesn’t care what the people of Ward 3 have to say when choosing their next councillor, it should have the guts to stand up and say so. Creating a sham process so locals can think they’re having a say, when they really aren’t, is offensive.

For all these reasons, council should choose a by-election as the only fair and democratic way to choose a new representative for the people of Ward 3. The people deserve that much.