Planner . Filmmaker . Edmontonian
Editor’s note: Spacing Ottawa reader Adam Bentley send this to us in the form of a letter to the editor. Discussion around reducing the size of city council is an election topic not just in Ottawa but in other Ontario cities as well, but the idea of radically expanding the size of our City’s governing body isn’t one we had come across before. Here’s how Adam says it could be done:
Real Council Reform Should Return Power Back to Citizens
Mayoral candidate Jim Watson recently suggested reforming city council by creating a smaller city council and dividing the city into boroughs. All Mr. Watson’s proposal does is concentrate power into the hands of an even smaller group of career politicians, with little difference of opinion between each, and create an extra level of government that would have no real power.
Any reform that happens to Ottawa’s City Council should benefit the city’s wide variety of voters because ultimately, it is them who elected officials must serve. Real council reform should be based on New Hampshire’s House of Representatives –a legislature consisting of 400 members (for a state with a population slightly more than greater Ottawa), each of whom are paid an annual honourarium of $200 for their service to the state and represent a diverse cross section of the state’s population. Even though each representative only takes on a small role (as opposed to a few politicians taking on many responsibilities –each amassing quite a lot of power), collectively they work as hard as any other legislature.
This system has many advantages that lead to more and better input from many different citizens in legislation. The first advantage is that because the work is divided amongst so many people, being a Representative is a part-time job. Therefore, members don’t seek to become career politicians. They are primarily interested in serving the public good. The second advantage is despite such a low wage, the risk of influence peddling and bribery is minimal because due to the large size of the legislative body, each member only has a relatively small amount of influence.
With a similar amount of resources as required to maintain the current council, such a system of representation could be implemented in the City of Ottawa to replace the small, inward-looking bunch of current politicians who are no different from those of the past, and will be no different from those of future councils under the current council model.
An adaptation of the New Hampshire model for Ottawa would be as follows:
The council would be comprised of about 200 councilors, meeting two or three times per month –as is the current frequency of meetings. There would be no government or opposition, just members elected to represent their constituents. But unlike the current system, instead of a mayor, there would be a Speaker of the Council whose role would be to manage the operation of City Council and act as its external spokesperson. The speaker would be elected by a majority vote by councilors, much like a provincial or federal legislative speaker. Council would typically meet in the evenings or on weekends, to make it easier for people who work during the day to attend meetings (this applies to councilors, observers, and presenters).
Multiple councilors would represent individual constituencies (districts) of 30,000 to 50,000 people. Given the total number of councilors, each councilor would represent about 3,000 people. Multi-member districts balance representation of geographic and non-geographic (such as income, ethnicity, and ideology) constituencies, and encourage councilors with different perspectives to work together on common issues.
Councilors would be elected every four years by single-transferable vote. In other words, voters would rank as many candidates as they wanted running in their district. Through a system of quotas, the most preferred candidates equal to the number of councilors for the district would be elected to City Council. Assuming current levels of voter turnout, a typical quota might be 1,000 votes. Allowing people to be elected with so few votes keeps campaign costs low, allowing more people to be able to afford to run for elected office.
Due to the higher number of councilors and part-time nature of their work, council’s administrative resources would be divided amongst more elected officials. This division would include councilors from the same constituencies sharing staff and smaller individual office budgets. The Speaker’s Office would manage council business with help from the Clerk’s Office.
The responsibilities of City Council would not be much different from the current council, but would also include hiring city managers (There would be five managers and a C.E.O. responsible for different departments, elected by majority vote), attending committee meetings, holding office hours to meet with the public or other officials, and critiquing the work of city managers. Councilors would be expected to devote six hours per week to their public responsibilities.
Each councilor would receive an annual honourarium of $600, as well as have their travel expenses covered. Urban councilors would receive a bus pass or a bike, while rural councilors would receive money to cover gas expenses or rural bus pass.
Reforming Ottawa’s City Council in a manner similar to New Hampshire’s House of Representatives would bring a greater diversity of opinions to City Hall, allow a greater number of citizens to participate in the decision-making process, and take self-interested career politicians out of public affairs -leading to policies and by-laws with better public input, more public support, and ultimately more public faith in democracy and government.