Municipal Politics: A New Approach
Commentary: By Louie Milojevic
Achieving transformational change of a renaissance calibre in Hamilton requires that Hamiltonians elect leaders of no ordinary ability.
This expectation is of course popularly voiced every election.
However, encouraging greater voter participation and candidate diversity, initiatives historically heralded as the surest way of improving democratic government, gives voters only a partial edge on election night.
Certainly, more residents at the ballot box with a wider selection of candidates, increases the likelihood of a more demographically representative and legitimate local legislature.
For an incoming council with several historic decisions on its agenda this would be beneficial; a confirmation that policy going forward is an expression of the popular will, instead of the meagre 38 per cent who voted the past three municipal elections.
We often need reminding, particularly when our collective expectations have been lowered by an uninspiring federal or provincial election, that municipal voters have an altogether different level of empowerment, and greater control of their city’s destiny. When voters cast their ballots in a federal or provincial election, they do so on the basis of party ideology, vision or the character of a party’s leader. The individual capacities of a party’s local candidates hardly come up. They are elected not because of unique skill sets or professional distinctions, but because their respective party’s platform best resonates with a constituency at a given moment.
For a city “On the Cusp,” our municipal elections have yielded surprisingly consistent results. The past four have produced four different mayors, but decisions still rest in the hands of a council with more experience governing in times of decline than leading a renaissance.
If the campaigns of major candidates in this fall’s election serve as any indication, transformational change will continue to elude us. Municipal candidates are great at identifying the issues and stating where they stand. On the campaign trail, like federal and provincial candidates, they force-feed voters the correctness of their positions, and leave with them an abundance of policy positions as the only criteria on which to base their vote.
Consequently, municipal voters go to the polls with the same mindset they have during provincial and federal elections, knowing where candidates stand on the issues, but hardly anything about their ability to deliver. Even once elected the professional profiles of our local representatives matter little. Outsiders seeking greater familiarity with Hamilton as a business or living destination, learn quickly that the only information available about our leaders on the city’s website is what committees they chair or sit on. A remarkable oversight made more glaring by viewing the detailed profiles of Hamilton Health Sciences’ executive council, another significant publicly funded local decision-making body.
In prioritizing policy over competence, we overlook the important fact that the representatives we send to city council go there as individual problem solvers, not party members. They have no party apparatus to hide behind or rely on, only their own experiences and skills to navigate the free-for-all of municipal politics.
Yet voters seldom demand that municipal campaigns be as much about the candidates, their biographies, resumés and personalities, as they are about the issues. There is no better way to improve Hamilton’s transformational potential than learning who the candidates are, in the same way employers do with employees.
The familiar stories of college graduates trying to land that elusive first job should be instructive. In today’s market employers conduct several rounds of interviews before hiring, with candidates being on the receiving end of countless but somehow always-relevant questions.
With a little aggression, more probing questions, and a local media that takes greater interest in the profiles of “outsider” candidates, voters can turn municipal elections into a similarly effective drawn-out job interview. A competence barometer levels the electoral playing field, preventing candidates with name recognition and resources but not necessarily the ability to govern, from winning election on popular issues alone.
Candidates for local office should meet the same standards as those seeking positions in the private sector. No municipality should expect transformational progress with representatives whose electoral success falls short of the rigorous hiring process that most working professionals overcome.
Louie Milojevic is the recipient of a 2014 Young Scholars Award from the Cosmos Club Foundation of Washington, D.C., and former doctoral fellow at New York University.