It was a change election in Fredericton. Mike O’Brien was not reelected as mayor. The number of women ward councillors has quadrupled. But once we’re finished getting excited about how much has changed, we need to take a good hard look at how much hasn’t changed.
For years now, there has been a great deal of dissatisfaction with city council. Citizens saw their concerns ignored on issues ranging from Officer’s Square, which was renovated with a lack of regard for both trees and heritage, to housing, in particular council’s initial vote against providing funding to turn the City Motel into a homeless shelter. (Council reversed that decision 4 days later due to the outraged response.)
Yet, more than half of incumbent councillors were re-elected. This despite the fact that not all incumbents were re-offering. Dan Keenan in Ward 1 and John MacDermid in Ward 10 both chose not to stand for re-election, and Kate Rogers in Ward 11 ran for mayor (and won). Of the remaining nine incumbents, only two lost their seats, Eric Price and Stephen Chase. The remaining seven were re-elected. If this is the best we can do for a change election, then something is wrong.
That something is our unfair, antiquated voting system.
Of the seven incumbents who held onto their seats, only three had to earn more than half the votes. Mark Peters and Steven Hicks, in Wards 2 and 5 respectively, both won 60% of the votes, while Kevin Darrah in Ward 7 won 52%. All three of those councillors were running against only one other person.
Four incumbents had an easier ride. With two or three people running against them, they didn’t need to score more than half the votes—and they didn’t. Bruce Grandy in Ward 3 won with 43%, Eric Megarity in Ward 6 won with 44%, Greg Ericson in Ward 8 won with 49%, and Henri Mallet in Ward 12 won with a mere 38% of the vote. Most of the voters in their wards voted for somebody else.
With the bar set so low for re-election, a ward councillor doesn’t really have to represent their constituents to keep their job. Little wonder that our views are so often disregarded while our supposed representatives give their ears to bureaucrats and developers.
If Fredericton got proportional representation, all that would change. Citizens would have more of a voice.
It is possible to have proportional representation without parties. It just takes ranked ballots, combined with multi-member wards. Fredericton currently has single-member wards. There is plenty of scope to change that. The wards are unnecessarily small and the boundaries largely arbitrary.
I used to live in ward 10. Now I’m in ward 9. I didn’t move. The boundary got redrawn. It didn’t make a lot of difference. Before the change, I had a councillor I’d voted for. I would take my concerns to him, and he would do nothing about them.
After the change, I had a councillor I never voted for. I still took my concerns to him, and he also did nothing about them.
Even taking the different concerns of different neighbourhoods into account, Fredericton’s wards could easily be doubled in size. Two councillors could be assigned to each one, as in Oromocto. Just that change would give citizens twice as much choice for representation. Adding ranked ballots would ensure that most voters would have a say in the result, not just 38-49% of them.
The Local Governance Reform Team is currently looking into ways to improve local governance and representation in New Brunswick. They have released a green paper. Yet somehow, they have completely overlooked the problem of how we vote.
The Team is accepting feedback from the public until May 31. If you would like to have your say, you can write to VibrantNBDynamique@gnb.ca, or take the survey. Several of us have already done so, asking that ranked ballots be permitted in local elections.
Once my new councillor, Ruth Breen, is in her new job, I will ask her to move a motion asking the NB government to allow ranked ballots. I will suggest that she look to Vancouver for an example: in particular, the motion they passed in February called “Local Choice: Tools to Improve Representation in Local Government Elections.”
I hope you will join me, whether your councillor is shiny-new or more of the same old, same old.
Vivian Unger is a Fredericton-based writer, and the founder of Fair Voting for NB, which advocates for proportional representation at both provincial and local levels. She has also served on the board of directors of Fair Vote Canada.