US president Donald Trump was elected in 2016 after winning the electoral vote, but losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Adjusted for voter turnout, Trump was elected by only 25.4% of eligible voters (and is now endorsed by only 18.2%). Propped up by the GOP, Trump’s US is now the most prominent example of a sham democracy: government for the few, by the few.
But this may change come November, when all of Congress and one third of Senate seats come up for grabs in mid-term elections. Should a full spectrum of voters turn out and vote, the resulting Federal government may more closely represent the majority of the country’s voters.
Things are not much different in Nanaimo. In our last municipal election, only 34.1% voters turned up to vote. Bill Bestwick received the greatest number, 7.4% of all votes cast. Diane Brennan received the lowest number among elected candidates, just 4.7%. Adjusted by voter turnout: Mr. Bestwick was endorsed by 2.5% of the eligible electorate; Ms. Brennan by 1.6%. The other elected council members lay between those margins.
Councillor Jim Kipp has said more than once that this result means 65.9% of voters in the 2014 election didn’t care and continue not to care. Given that he uses this fact to refute contentions that voters want accountability, Mr. Kipp can be interpreted to mean that the council’s minimum majority of himself, Mr. Bestwick, Gord Fuller, Jerry Hong, and Bill Yoachim can do exactly what they want. Certainly, their record indicates that’s exactly what they have done.
For one, they hired their preferred CAO despite protest from the council minority about the unusual process. Competition for the job was reduced by setting the four-year contracted salary well-below market value, then after appointing Tracy Samra, they raised her salary by almost $25,000 with a similar bonus a few months later. Few details were provided for the public record.
They actively instigated a lawsuit, police complaint, and citizen’s legal action against the mayor, only to let all collapse after the immensely shaming, reputation-damaging headlines for both Mr. McKay and Nanaimo had run their course.
They attempted to create a taxpayer-funded, WHL Hockey rink and abandoned the project only when voters in a mandated referendum emphatically refused to authorize their borrowing $80 million to fund the arena, leaving them without the financial wherewithal to carry on.
They shrugged off the alarming flood of senior staff and managers who were either dismissed or took early retirements under the “restructuring” of their CAO, leaving Nanaimo crippled in its ability to handle even the most routine business in an efficient manner.
They collaborated with their CAO to reduce public scrutiny by conducting public business in a spate of in camera meetings — like spending $8M to automate the city’s garbage trucks (which later required them to increase garbage fees 40% in an open meeting. Not to mention impeding public access to council during open meeting question periods by adopting a written-form submission introduced by the CAO while she withdrew staff entirely.
After giving voters multiple assurances that no tax increase was needed to service the requested $80M loan and proposed operating deficit of the ill-fated ice arena, they floated a 2.7% property tax increase six months later without providing voters with sufficient fiscal details to justify the budget change.
I could go on, but enough is surely enough. Whether Mr. Kipp is correct about the disinterest of Nanaimo voters in 2014, there are more than ample reasons for his claim no longer to apply. Nanaimo voters very much need to care. We need to care desperately that nothing like this current council occurs ever again within our city.
We need to pledge, if only to ourselves, that the behaviour and actions of these five councillors along with their senior managers will be the low point of our city’s history. We can climb back by recognizing 2018 as our time for action.
But we cannot afford the mistake of thinking that the arena referendum shows we are already on track and all is well. The referendum turnout was a meagre 35%, only 0.9% more than in the 2014 election. The turnout for the by-election that put Sheryl Armstrong in office was only 11%. And that was just months after the ice rink referendum was defeated.
We need to recognize that our biggest challenge will be initially to inform all voters and then get them out to vote. To the first task, all of us need to actively engage in disseminating relevant information to our families, friends, neighbours, and the community at large. We need to actively seek out and involve new residents. If we do that, their voting in October will follow naturally.
Most of us believe Nanaimo is a much, much better place than the image created by our current City Hall. Most of us recognize the need to discard the limited perspectives of long-standing Nanaimo feuds and factions. The majority of us want to move away from narrow, out of date, small-town thinking that appears to characterize so much of what this council majority does.
Most of us believe that fiscal competence and ongoing integrity are essential qualities for civic governance. Neither of those qualities have been particularly evident in the fiscal management or the numerous, embarrassing headlines featuring Nanaimo in the national media during the current term of office. We must trust our elected council with almost $200 million annually of our money to administer. We expect and need more for our votes than fiscal spin and “Bite me.”
This council will always stand as an example of what happens when voters are not vigilant, well-informed, and missing at the voting stations. Moving towards a more truly representational government is a task we share with the US. In both venues, autumn elections will show, to our betterment or detriment, the degree we have achieved that goal.
Make no mistake, the stakes are huge. We are choosing who will be empowered to govern not only our community, but ourselves. Thankfully, having seen the bottom in Nanaimo, we are capable of climbing back towards the top and restoring our city to be, once again, a place of pride.
If you are so inclined, make accomplishing this task your New Year’s resolution.