Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ Arbitrary Municipal Election Thoughts

Arbitary Municipal Election Thoughts

What is there to say? I had actually written out some candidate analyses for this election, but for reasons that will become obvious I don't think I am going to publish them.

Every election season I fall off the wagon and get involved, and every election season I regret it. In some ways this election was better than others because a handful of supportive people helped me tilt at windmills. In other ways this election has been quite disappointing. As is usual with municipal elections, knowledge about the candidates and issues has been ridiculously low. I have put in some effort to raise that awareness, but as usual I did not work hard enough, and as usual my efforts have been largely futile.

This shows up in my blogging. I have been thinking about this election for two years now. I originally had grand plans to examine rapid transit in depth, actually doing some research so that we would be able to answer basic questions about the debate. I fell down on the job, and as far as I know we still don't have good answers to really basic questions. How much will it cost if we don't build a rapid transit system? How much have other road widening projects cost? What other places have been successful/unsuccessful in adapting rapid transit, and what factors have contributed to these successes/failures?

Instead of writing anything coherent or comprehensive I am going to spit out arbitrary thoughts that you can read or ignore.

Blacklisted by Google

During the campaign I confirmed my suspicion that Google is blacklisting my domain. When I ego-surf my name it shows up in the results, but searching for other specific terms that are on my website often don't show up in the search results at all. I am pretty sure I know why I was blacklisted: before this boring blog I used this site to host a wiki for Fair Vote Canada. That wiki got attacked by linkbots and I did not delete the spammy links, so Google and Bing must have concluded that I am a terrible person who does not deserve search engine traffic. That wiki is long gone, but the sentence stands, and unless they show me some leniency I pretty much expect no search engine traffic.

That demotivates me to write candidate reviews quite a bit. On my defunct Livejournal I covered some all-candidates meetings, and I got my one and only Internet reader because he Googled the names of candidates in his ridings.

Does This Election Matter?

If you listened to the local buzz around this election, you would question whether there is an election at all. There are few election signs out. I am told by candidates that attendance to all-candidates meetings has been poor. The fluoridation referendum has some traction. Rapid transit is a big topic of discussion. Waterloo Ward 6 and the Waterloo mayorship are being hotly contested. Other than that, nobody seems to care very much.

In some races, this is a sensible reaction. The challengers for Regional Chair and Kitchener Mayor are pretty sad, to the point where I believe that it would be disastrous if the incumbents lost.

But there are other races that will make a lot of difference: Kitchener City Council and the Regional Council representatives for Kitchener.

Kitchener City Council

Many of the Kitchener City Council races are crucial, because they may well determine the makeup of City Council for the next 20 years, and thus will have a big impact in shaping the city.

Here's why: After shrinking the size of council from 10 wards to six several years ago, the council is being restored 10 wards. In addition a few incumbent councillors are finally vacating their seats. That means there are lots of wards where there is no incumbent. Thanks to low voter turnout, underinformed voters who often choose candidates based on name recognition, a broken first-past-the-post system, and the additional experience and knowledge that comes with incumbency, dislodging incumbents in this town is remarkably difficult. When we choose new councillors this election, we may well be appointing them to lifetime positions.

Too bad nobody cares. In Ward 10 there are four candidates running, and all four of them seem to be campaigning at least semi-seriously. After reading their platforms, looking at candidate questionnaires and attending (and helping organize) some all-candidates meetings, I know that there are significant differences between the candidates. But at the end of the day I think that the winner will be based on name recognition. I don't know who that winner will be -- it could be the one with glossier brochures or the one with more lawn signs -- but it upsets me that the citizens of our ward are not paying closer attention to this decision.

Kitchener Regional Council

The Kitchener Regional Council races are even more underexposed. People don't even know what regional council is, and they certainly do not understand the many ways in which it is much more important than city council. The Region handles many important services, such as transit (and light rail!), dictating which greenfield spaces we may develop, handling garbage pickup, and administering the police force. There are 10 candidates for the four available positions. Three are incumbents and one is a city councillor who is making the jump to regional level. It is pretty clear to me that these four will take the four seats, even though there are some pretty strong challengers in the race.

As an example, I am pretty sure my most-preferred candidate (Derek Satnik, if anybody is counting) will finish seventh or lower. Satnik is a wildcard -- he might be a development mouthpiece who would pressure Regional Council to approve all kinds of sketchy questionable development projects in the region, or he might be an amazingly well-informed advocate for sustainable growth and conservation. I think that determining whether Satnik deserves a seat on regional council is one of the most important decisions Kitchener voters could make, but his candidacy is not even on the radar. That is partially his fault for not running a more high-profile campaign, but it is also our fault for not investigating our options better -- and given that I can't decide whether Satnik will be a nightmare or a dream candidate, I deserve a lot of blame as well.

I am singling out Satnik, but there are other intriguing candidates in this race as well. Unfortunately this race is a done-deal, and although I am not actively unhappy with three of the four winners (Geoff Lorentz being the exception, if anybody is counting) I am far from convinced that the winners are the best choices Kitchener could be making. And boy howdy will this council be making some important decisions, including but not limited to rapid transit.

Rapid Transit

This is another topic I could write endlessly about, but I will attempt to restrain myself.

The story is that for years and years we have been engaging in one of the most visible public consultations I have ever seen -- an "environmental assessment" for rapid transit in the region. Regional council approved a rather-broken proposal to build light rail transit (LRT) in Kitchener-Waterloo at the cost of $800 million -- provided that the province and federal government covered the tab. Those two governments covered a good chunk of this tab, to the tune of $565 million. But that leaves $235 million uncovered, and now regional council has backed off its decision. The question now is how the Region should proceed. Should it try to fundraise the missing money? Should it scrap the idea? Should it go with bus rapid transit (BRT) instead?

In many ways it is stupid for me to care about this issue. Even though I have participated pretty heavily in the Rapid Transit public consultation process, I barely use Grand River Transit -- my record high is five trips in 2007 -- and I don't intend to start even if we build trains. But as a cyclist and pedestrian I care a lot about road congestion and safety, and the promise is that by putting transit infrastructure in place we will reduce the number of commuter trips taken by car significantly as the region grows. The other big promise is that rapid transit will intensify development along the "spine" centred on King Street.

In my mind rapid transit is a leadership issue. Rapid transit represents a turning point in the region -- it will be expensive regardless of the option we choose, even if that option is to build nothing. If we don't decide upon rapid transit now I don't think we can restart the planning process in ten or twenty years, even assuming societal stability. It took too long to get to this point, and we are already feeling the effects of sprawl (especially in Cambridge, which is rapidly becoming a bedroom community of car-commuters). It is barely feasible to revamp our public transit system as it is -- as the region grows it will just become more difficult and more expensive.

That's why I find so many candidate positions on rapid transit so disappointing. With a few notable exceptions, almost every candidate has backed away from the idea of light rail. Many candidate positions are two-faced: candidates support rapid transit so long as the region does not have to pay for it, but expecting the region to foot the bill (raising property taxes in the process) is absolutely unthinkable. Bah. I am especially intolerant of this rhetoric when it comes from incumbents -- particularly incumbents at the regional level.

I am no fan of increased taxes. In fact I suspect that it will soon become too expensive for me to live in Kitchener-Waterloo, partially thanks to increased rent and the associated property taxes. But the standard line of "I like rapid transit, but it is too expensive" is staggeringly stupid. It betrays both a lack of vision and a lack of insight. Rapid transit will never get cheaper to build. Traffic congestion is already increasing. The limits of our existing iXpress system are already starting to show -- the buses are sometimes filled to capacity and leave passengers behind.

Rapid transit has somehow become my key issue in this election. I am willing to listen to candidates that oppose the proposed light rail transit system -- I oppose it too, because in an effort to get the cost down to $800 million from $1.2 billion we threw Cambridge under the bus -- but anybody who wants my vote had better have some vision of what to do instead, some understanding of the complexities in this situation, and some appreciation of the way rapid transit (and light rail in particular) has captured the imagination of citizens in this region. For the most part, what I have seen so far has been profoundly disappointing.


I will be voting NO to the question of whether Kitchener and Waterloo should discuss the benefits and drawbacks of amalgamation. This is clearly a bait-and-switch tactic being used by those who support amalgamation and want to push it through. The fear is that although amalgamation supporters currently want to "talk", a strong YES vote will be intepreted to mean that Kitchener and Waterloo residents actually want to amalgamate, and the "Let's Talk KW" people are not doing much to dispel this myth.

I actually don't care much whether Kitchener and Waterloo are officially amalgamated, so long as the cities run effectively. In many ways the cities are slowly amalgamating on their own. When I moved here in 1999 the Kitchener and Waterloo public libraries were silos. Now Kitchener residents can get Waterloo library cards and vice versa. The online catalogue has been combined, and you can get search results from either library system using one interface. Similarly, people are now talking about merging (or at least increasing coordination between) emergency dispatch systems and other essential services. All of this has been happening without official (and no doubt expensive) officially mandated discussions between the cities.

We are told that if the vote is YES and the cities are somehow convinced to merge there will be a second referendum. Okay, I guess. I think I believe this, but I am not sure whether I should -- nothing in the current referendum question mandates this, and there are no rules forcing the cities to ask their residents for the final decision just because they held a preliminary referendum earlier.

It bothers me a lot that there have been few (if any) debates around this issue. I have been looking for public fora to attend and have had little success in finding any.

It also bothers me a lot that this referendum is being used to stifle actual discussion about amalgamation. Whenever somebody brings up opposition to merging, the standard response is that since this referendum is about discussing amalgamation and not whether amalgamation is good or bad, we should refrain from discussing the advantages and disadvantages of amalgamating. Instead we are supposed to only discuss the advantages and disadvantages of talking. That response has the effect of stopping discussion, not spurring it on. The portrayal of any opponent as being backwards for opposing discussion also bothers me.

In one of the Record debates Carl Zehr (who strongly supports amalgamation) offered the clearest explanation of why we need this referendum -- without a mandate from its citizens Waterloo City Council refuses to talk. Okay, I guess. It sounds like more of an excuse than a reasonable justification to me.

If there is one thing I have learned about politics, it is that referendum questions that seem innocuous usually aren't, and that the consequences are usually bad.


This question will not be appearing on the ballot where I live, so I have not been paying much attention to it. If I was to vote I would be checking to see how much of the NO scaremongering is based on actual science, and how much is based on wishy-washy "publications" and hand-waving. I wish there was a third-party that carefully examined the claims of both sides, but expecting truth at election time is unreasonable.

It bugs me that so many of the NO proponents are antiscientific -- anti-vaccination activists in particular, but also "alternative" medical activists and chiropractors. Although I do not wholeheartedly oppose medical alternatives, and I deeply sympathize with the lack of trust they have in our conventional medical system, I have big problems with the way so many of these practitioners refuse to hold their practices to scientific scrutiny. It is a logic error to oppose ideas because you don't like their proponents, but that is my gut reaction.

On the other hand, it bugs me that dentists are refusing to attend public fluoridation debates on the basis that it does not help to give anti-fluoridation activists credibility by debating them. That is a losing strategy -- the existence of the referendum means the anti-fluoridation people already have credibility, and boycotting debates because your opposition is beneath you makes you look arrogant.

Voting Systems

Man voting systems at the municipal level suck. Regional council is especially bad -- it uses a system called "block voting", where you choose up to four names, and the four people with the most votes win. That virtually guarantees incumbents always win, because most voters choose the one or two candidates they really like, and then fill up the rest of their slots with incumbents they don't hate. That means incumbents get on almost every ballot, while challengers get on a much smaller fraction of ballots. In turn, incumbents have a huge advantage.

In private conversation, Jason Hammond has suggested that one way around this is to only vote for challengers you like, leaving the rest of the slots unfilled. It's an interesting idea.

The real solution is to use something like Single Transferable Vote (STV) for Kitchener Regional Council. We would rank our candidates, and then a complicated method would work to make sure that as many votes as possible help to elect some preferred candidate. Basically, unpopular candidates get dropped, and their votes get reallocated to their next choices.

Similarly, we should use a instant-runoff voting for city councillors, regional chair, and mayors. You again mark your preferences from most to least favoured candidate, and low candidates get dropped and their votes reallocated.

Both of these systems mean that candidates with similar views have a harder time splitting the vote.

In addition, I wish there was a "None of the Above" option on ballots. I would be tempted to use it in at least one of my races.

School Trustees

Man. I have no idea what is happening on this level at all. I don't even know the names of the candidates. I am your typical uninformed voter on this level, and will likely be leaving this section of the ballot blank. That sucks, but I rationalize it away by saying that I don't use the public school system any more and will be unlikely to do so in the future. That's exactly the terrible reasoning I criticize other people for, so in addition to being uninformed I am a hypocrite.