A few of my own beliefs off the top: If you’re not for democracy when it’s inconvenient, you’re not for democracy. Because democracy is always less expedient than just making a decision and gettin’ ‘er done. If you’re not for democracy when it costs money, you’re not for democracy. Because a democratic process always has a bigger price tag than just having whoever’s already in charge get down to work. If you’re not for democracy when your opponents are likely to “win,” then you’re not for democracy at all.
Today, city council voted not to hold a by-election to replace Councillor Doug Holyday, and chose instead to appoint someone to serve out the term until the next election in October 2014. Let’s be clear: city council was well within its rights to do so—the relevant bylaw gives council a choice, when faced with a vacancy, between appointment and election. They even have a guideline in place for how to proceed with that choice: it states that if the election is less than one year away when the vacancy arises, council shall appoint someone and, if more than a year away, council should order a by-election. With about 14 months until the next election, council chose to disregard that guideline. It was well within its rights to do so. But, on principle, I think it made the wrong decision.
Coming up at the end of this year, city council will pass a budget. If past years are any gauge, the process will be bitter; cuts to programs that people in this city depend on for their quality of life will be seriously considered; a cut to the Land Transfer Tax will likely be part of the discussion; and, no doubt, a thousand other small, important things will be debated. And if recent years are any gauge, the margin at city council on that budget decision could conceivably come down to a single vote.
Coming up on the council agenda is a billion-dollar-plus decision on transit in Scarborough—whether to proceed with a subway or LRT to replace the aging SRT line. That one could wind up being close, too, especially if (and when) the federal government fails to cough up the money council has requested.
These and other decisions are worth billions of dollars, and will influence how life is lived in this city for a long time, in some cases decades. I think they are important decisions.
And I think it is important that voters from across the city have representation in those discussions. We don’t live in a direct democracy—we don’t hold referenda on each issue—and I’m thankful for that. We live in a representative democracy. To function in a way that’s healthy, a representative democracy requires that citizens are represented. (See, it’s right there in the name.)
When the elected representative of Ward 3, Doug Holyday, decided to step down from that job so he could take another one at Queen’s Park, the people of Ward 3 were left without a representative. Of course, they have the mayor, who represents all of us. But everyone else in the city has the mayor as an at-large representative overseeing the interests of the city as a whole (I’m talking about the job, not any given mayor’s performance of it) and a local councillor who represents local ward interests. Doug Holyday left the people of Ward 3 without a local representative.
And, so, when it came time to decide how to represent the people of Ward 3 for the next 14 months, every ward in the city had a vote in the discussion except the people of Ward 3. The representatives of the rest of the the city decided that they, rather than the voters of Ward 3, should choose who will represent the people of Ward 3. Every neighbourhood in the city will get a vote—through representative democracy—as to who will act as the Ward 3 councillor, except the neighbourhoods of Ward 3. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong. Even if it is allowed by the rules.
There are arguments in favour of appointment; clearly so, since a majority of councillors voted that way.
One is the cost—$175,000, more or less—of a by-election. In a city where every day that council meets likely costs $50,000 or more in staff and other expenses, I find the cost argument unpersuasive. Some things are worth spending money on. I think consulting voters about their own representation is one of those things.
Another is timing: Nominations for the 2014 election open on January 1, and there will only be eight council meetings between a theoretical by-election date and the next election. The new councillor would not be in office a single month before the next campaign opened. That’s why council had the one-year guideline in the first place. But I think the guideline was probably closer to right. “Only eight meetings” is eight opportunities for city council to collectively make the city a better place or screw it up. Fourteen months seems like a long time to me—more than a quarter of a term—for the 52,000 people of Etobicoke Centre to go without an elected representative of their own.
The worst argument—and maybe the one most common in my Twitter stream—is that Mayor Rob Ford wanted an election. The operative principle here seems to be that whatever Rob Ford claims he is in favour of is inherently bad. This is persuasive, obviously, to only a segment of the population, but it appears many find it very persuasive. (Variations: It’s Doug Holyday’s fault the people are unrepresented, so let Doug Holyday’s friend the mayor accept the blame; Rob Ford’s hand-picked candidate would likely win anyway, so why bother?; the Ford brothers have perverted democracy in their own ways over the past three years, and what goes around comes around.)
I understand partisanship. But I find this line of thought reprehensible on its face. The principle that every ward in the city should get to elect its own representative is not contingent on them picking someone I like, nor on whether it is politically beneficial for the members of council with whom I agree or disagree, nor on whether they chose well or poorly last time around.
Besides, the Ford brothers were in a win-win situation: If they got the by-election, they’d have used it as an opportunity to swan around campaigning for themselves. As it is, they are stomping around proclaiming the virtues of democracy (they’re right about that) and accusing their opponents of a nefarious scheme to appoint a pinko (they’re likely wrong about that). There was no council decision that would have looked like a political loss to Rob Ford. And in this case, I think he gets his win with a side serving of the moral high ground, which may be a worse conclusion for his opponents if they have to choose between bad political options.
Thankfully, despite what the mayor and his brother are already trying to claim, the vote did not break down along partisan lines. Gord Perks (the mayor’s most steadfast opponent) and Mike Layton voted to hold a by-election. Denzil Minnan-Wong (the mayor’s erstwhile henchman) voted for an appointment—an action, for what it’s worth, that outgoing Ward 3 councillor and deputy mayor Doug Holyday also supported.
There’s plenty of reason to think the mayor was on the right side for the wrong reasons—the louder he proclaims his principles, the closer we might look at the polls. Indeed, over the past three years, I have constantly criticized him for being on the wrong side of decisions to subvert or short-cut democratic processes: rushing his first budget, back-door cancelling the Fort York bridge and axing the Jarvis bike lanes, firing the TTC general manager, paying no mind to integrity and conflict-of-interest and campaign spending rules, and on and on and on. Bit by bit, decision by decision—even if usually acting within the strict procedural rules—he and his allies have pecked away at the processes meant to ensure as much community consultation and democracy as possible steer the system.
I’m no believer that he saw a light on the road to Damascus and embraced democratic principles in August 2013. In this case, the right thing to do was also to his political advantage. Fine. But I think it remained the right thing to do and others, a majority of council, decided not to do it anyway—perhaps for political reasons, perhaps for practical ones. But the decision they made, to do something expedient rather than more costly and democratic, is in line with a trend towards taking shortcuts with principles. It’s one we’ve seen through the Ford administration, one we see in Ottawa often and in provincial legislatures often enough, one we see all the time in revelations about the U.S. government—shortcutting the process to accomplish a desired result.
The problem is that we are very seldom in agreement about the desired result, and shortcutting the process amounts to forcing decisions on people who should have a voice in making them. That’s why we have the process, and sometimes, as boring and slow and expensive as it is, the process is all we have. If it were left to me to decide if we should have the decisions I like or the decision-making-process I think is fairest, I would not hesitate to choose the latter.
The decision to appoint someone—likely someone very closely politically aligned with the man voters chose—to serve out the next 14 months as councillor for Ward 3 is not the biggest subversion of democracy we’ve seen in recent years, and it will not likely cause any irreparable damage. Most likely, in the long run, and possibly even in the short run, it will turn out to be no big deal. It was made according to the rules. It is an acceptable decision.
But I still think it was the wrong one.
PHOTO: Steve Russell/Toronto Star