I think I have a solution to a recurring problem in both Calgary and Alberta lately.
It fits right in with the push for a growing tech ecosystem in the city.
In Monday’s Strategic Meeting of Council, your elected city ward representatives and mayor will review options on three potential plebiscite questions to appear on the municipal election ballot this fall. It will be speed limits, fiscal framework and fluoride (been there, done that).
A fourth was pitched recently on having the question of Calgary’s stance on open pit coal mining put on the upcoming ballot.
Remember, there was talking of having a citizen vote on the new Calgary event centre, we did have one on the Olympics, and there were rumblings of it around the $5.5 billion Green Line.
The province likely has us voting on ridiculous measures like our deal with the federal government and maybe even the need for provincial police. Eventually, secession, I’m sure.
This might be a good time to remind you: None of the votes are binding. So that means even if Calgarians did vote one way or another, it doesn’t really matter.
What’s funny about it all, is it’s coming during a municipal election. So even if citizens did vote to reduce speed limits, and then council decided to keep them the same, it would have to fester for four years before you could do anything about it.
Trust me, they bank on that. The voter has a short memory, they’ll say.
With all that said, there’s one question missing for the upcoming ballot.
Do we still find value in having elected officials if we’re going to vote on the hard stuff ourselves?
Take me out of harm’s way
I surmise the reason for the avalanche of plebiscite questions is because these issues have come to a head in the year prior to a municipal election.
No one wants to tick off the voters. I get it.
Vote the wrong way on a hot-button issue and it might influence how others vote for you.
Worse, it could end up in an online Facebook ad or in a campaign mailer. An incumbent candidate could wear it for the next nine months.
I posed the plebiscite question (irony) to two sitting councillors who hope to be your mayor – Couns. Jeromy Farkas and Jyoti Gondek.
Power to the people, said Coun. Farkas. It’s the law to allow them, he said.
“If councillors were not supposed to consider plebiscites from time to time, it would be legally prohibited,” Farkas responded via text.
“What right did 15 council members have to override the thousands of Calgarians who voted, several times, in favor [sic] of water fluoridation?”
Coun. Gondek said she fears, in this case, the confusion over municipal and provincial questions on the ballot.
“I also hope my council colleagues on council don’t view this as a way to shirk responsibility for decision making,” she said via text.
“Most importantly, this is all non-binding. Feels like a high-school survey of best athlete! Class clown! Best dressed!”
No one said politics was easy. Councillors were applauded when they put their names forward. They were hailed as heroes the day they were elected; thousands had faith that they were the ones to deliver a better city. Citizens had faith that these elected folks could represent their views in council.
They trusted these elected officials to be informed and make the best decision possible.
And now, they’re examining ways to abdicate that duty.
The solution is simple
Calgary is undergoing a tech revolution.
The system I would propose is simple: Give people direct access to the decisions made at council. If they want to vote, vote on everything. A direct democracy a la carte, if you will.
That secondary suite down the block. Cast your vote. The land use amendment. Cast your vote. The appointees to certain boards or committees? Boop… vote cast on my iPhone.
Heck, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Funniest Videos – they all have simple systems that allow audience voting. Surely, we could implement a simple text or app-based system that would pop up the council question as a push notification and you could vote.
A one-time spend to set up the infrastructure to allow Calgarians the ability to tune in on issues they cared about and vote – sounds like a plan.
It would save on councillor and mayor pay, ward office budgets, admin time on generating these questions. Not to mention the additional cost of having the question on the ballot. Elections Calgary said to add $50K if we add the speed limit question. In the end, it’s probably a wash.
Imagine the jobs it would create in development, implementation, data collection – maybe even a merch portal? This is something that could easily be a made-in-Calgary solution.
It’s the epitome of direct democracy instead of representative.
I mean if councillors don’t want to represent and all…
The job is the job
Since we do have a representative democracy, it stands to reason that those we elect should represent. Do I have that definition correct?
If you must, walk into a local coffee shop and talk with people. Send out a survey. Go to the dog park and talk with residents. Host a community roundtable and just listen. Don’t talk. Listen.
You have a ward budget. Use it to represent. Use it to find out how people really feel.
Then, step up.
Sometimes you’ll have to make an unpopular decision because it’s what’s right. Upcoming election be damned.
Calgarians elected councillors to make tough decisions. They asked these select 15 to be their emissaries in all things difficult, entrusting them with the keys to make Calgary better – for them and their families.
It’s incumbent upon them to find the pulse of the communities they serve, mix it with the factual information they have before them and decide.
Imagine that concept.
(Here’s a Government of Canada 1993 review of plebiscites and referendums you might find interesting.)