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"Appalling" democracy

Decreasing the number of Halifax councillors would decrease representation and hurt voter turnout.

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Bucking a relentless PR campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, last week Halifax council voted not to reduce the number of councillors from the present 23. But we haven't heard the last of the issue. City staff is now preparing an application to the Utility and Review Board to redraw district boundaries to better match population distribution across those 23 districts, and you can be sure that the Chamber and other business groups will continue their campaign behind the scenes and that the UARB will be pressured to overturn the council's vote.

For that reason, the city's submission to the UARB needs to set out clear reasons why reducing the number of councillors is a rotten idea, and people in the community should see the move for a smaller council for what it is: a power grab.

A smaller council necessarily limits access to government for those who are not already connected. Business groups like the Chamber will always have access to politicians, no matter how many or few councillors, so the Chamber's real aim is to limit access for other people---people whose opinions about what's best for the city don't align exactly with the Chamber's well-funded lobbying efforts.

See, when those other people have representation on council, some councillors might (gasp!) dissent from the party line. There might be (horrors!) debate or (clutch your pearls!) "bickering." Far better, from the Chamber's perspective, to just let their bought-and-paid-for pols run the show without any protest, without any of the pesky little people getting in the way.

Lately, the advocates for a small council have been trotting out the line that we're "over-governed." By this they don't mean they're opposed to security certificates, which allow Canadian courts to use secret evidence to prosecute people. Nor are they objecting to ballooning police budgets and the 24/7 police surveillance state. Rather, they fear citizens might have too much democracy, too much say in how they are governed.

Last week, councillor Tim Outhit used the example of Prince Edward Island, population 130,000, which has 27 elected members in its legislature. This compares to HRM's population of about 400,000, which has 23 elected councillors. PEI's arrangement is "appalling," said Outhit.

But voter turnout on PEI has been over 80 percent in 12 of the last 13 provincial elections (the 13th had "just" 78 percent), and PEI consistently has among the highest voter turnout of any jurisdiction in North America. In comparison, even with a celebrated internet and phone voting system that made it painless to vote, in the last Halifax election voter turnout plummeted to a record low 37 percent. I'd say it's Halifax's turnout that is appalling, not PEI's.

To be sure, a lot determines voter turnout rates, including demographics, history and, in PEI's case until very recently, a scandalous tradition of spoils (a tradition shared by Nova Scotia). Maybe it's not fair to look at that one example.

So I asked Bobby O'Keefe, who works at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the right-wing think-tank based in Halifax, what he thought. Using data AIMS has collected, O'Keefe took 10 Canadian cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000 and looked at the population per council district and voter turnout. His conclusion: "The more people you've got for each councillor, the lower voter turnout tends to be. Is the number the only thing at play? No, of course not. But if you want your city's citizens engaged, taking away voices from the council table might not be the best path." (I've linked to O'Keefe's blog post on this, as well as to a larger database of more cities, at thecoast.ca/bites.)

This makes intuitive sense: the smaller the districts, the more the likelihood that residents personally know their councillors---and the people challenging their councillors---and the more intimately the councillors know what's going on in the districts. City Hall becomes not just a bureaucratic abstraction, but rather a truly representative body that can be engaged with positively.

We're fighting a lot of different battles in the war for greater voter participation, including increased apathy and a sense of civic hopelessness. The last thing we need to do is lessen citizens' voice at City Hall by reducing the number of councillors.

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