Small Cities Need Big Ideas

By no one’s account is municipal electoral reform as sexy as it is for federal and provincial politics. For the most part, Canadians seem happy with their municipal electoral systems, but I'm of the mind that new thinking can improve community engagement and advance small cities.

It is important to understand that the two factors informing any electoral policy are the competing representations of ideas and areas. Small cities have political characteristics that predispose them to benefit from a certain style of government; their geographic experience is much more homogeneous than those of large cities. Consider the 2001 amalgamation of Ottawa, which annexed whole former suburban cities and surrounding rural villages.

If small cities can remove the need for geographic representation from their political systems, they can create a politic based on ideas and strategic development. Maybe it’s time to borrow a few pages from the Left coast.

Vancouver’s city council is made up of a partisan mayor and 10 council members elected at-large by the whole city. Parties may nominate up to a full 10 council candidates as well as a mayoral candidate. Their party system also extends to the representatives of the Vancouver Park and School Boards.

Optimistically, I see municipal parties as a way to encourage like-minded citizens to get together and generate comprehensive plans to move their cities toward sustainability and prosperity. The exchange of coherent ideas is inherently good for democracy, and having municipal parties would discourage single-issue and ego-centric candidacy. Save for communities with glaring geographic segmentation, partisanship has real potential to invigorate municipal politics.

I don’t personally see the need to extend partisanship to park and school boards, but small city councils across Canada could do themselves well by tapping into the ideas of their citizens.