Winds of Change?
By Jenn Prosser
Municipal elections wrap up Monday the 18th, and for a moment I would like to request your attention down south.
The 2010 Lethbridge municipal election has proven one thing above all else: people are demanding progress in local government. People are starting to feel the widening space between themselves and locally elected representatives, and finding it is difficult to connect to people when they don’t have a relationship. This has come out loudly from forum attendees and comments from citizens, online and elsewhere. People are more actively engaged in this election than they have been in council proceedings in the years leading to this election. Already advance voting has seen 2 565 people come out, a doubling of advance voters from last year.
There are 30 aldermanic candidates, and 6 mayoral candidates to vote for. The mayoralty race is not contested by an incumbent, while there are 6 of the 8 previous aldermen running again.
While Lethbridge traditionally re-elects its incumbents, this election looks like it might be an upset. There are a number of people running who have ran in the past couple elections unsuccessfully, and there are three candidates who had sat on council previously that are looking to be elected again. It is also entirely possible that Lethbridge will elect its first female mayor this year. Public perception points to Cheryl Meheden as being the front runner, though her two main competitors are not too far behind. In the Aldermanic race, it is doubtful gender parity will be reached on council as the number of men running far outweigh the number of women, and the front runners for the 8 spots are predominately male.
The “sexy” issue in the 2010 Lethbridge election is communication. Incumbent aldermen are being painted as out of touch with the changing needs of the city, and their defensive positions and responses are doing little to prove their good intentions. The government made a bad investment (Asset Backed Commercial Paper – a stock invested in by many municipalities) and the answer has been better communication.
Communication is a sticking point in all local elections. Successful city council candidates require strong and broad social circles. There is a cross section of people who support you, and their demands are too often conflicting and specific. Without good communication channels, it is easy to remove yourself from the community at large while expending efforts to satisfy responsibilities, at the obvious expense of electoral viability.
Why would Lethbridge any different? The small city of Lethbridge offers a unique example of why communication is so critical. In many ways, it is small town-like in its municipal affairs, mixed with city-learned expectations. Public opinion of taxation; and a diversity of social issues are found to be in line with the national median, despite the reputation of being disengaged and conservative. However, social circles can be narrow, and socially defined.
Despite the high level of community engagement and advancement within post-secondary driven institutions, and non-profit organizations; council has not capitalized on new communication methods, or technology to increase their transparency. Lethbridge city council has yet to even start broadcasting council meetings, nor do they use any type of media effectively.
There is a problem geographically as an overwhelming number of the 8 alderman are from one area in the city. Lethbridge is dived into three general areas: Westside, Southside, and Northside. In the 2010 municipal election, there are 10 aldermanic candidates who reside on the Southside, 15 who reside on the Westside, and 5 who call Northside home.
The Westside is a fairly new, but is the largest growing in population size. It also tends to be heavily populated by students, easily 6%-7% of the total student population in Lethbridge. It is also important to know that the west side is physically removed from the rest of the city, and connected through two bridges.
The Southside has the majority of businesses, and services. It also has significant high density housing, has a mix of high and low income housing, with lots of home ownership.
The Northside is 30% industrial but also has high density neighborhoods, more diversity in housing needs and styles, and a significant though small business core.
The distance and the divergent needs of Lethbridge’s geographic area are creating different demands for Lethbridge’s city council, demands that many are saying current council hasn’t met. This election process has seen a manifestation of those demands through citizen feedback and interest generated forums and surveys.
Communication isn’t the only issue, but it is an active one. Other issues encompass taxation, tax assessment process, relationship with administration, physical infrastructure, and a ward system.
Citizen interest has been made visible by forum attendance, candidates running, volunteers campaign, and on line engagement. Lethbridgeaccountability.ca has seen a consistent high level of access and has received positive feedback from viewers. This will make for interesting Election Day, as public opinion is divided among so many candidates, and re-election is far from certain for incumbents.
Lethbridge low down:
Post-secondary institutions: Lethbridge College, University of Lethbridge
Council: 8 seats, at-large-elected, considered part time, expected to fulfill 30 hours weekly
Mayor: Full time
Founded through coal mining, and whiskey trading
Rising technology and neuroscience research centers
Windiest city in western Canada (source: primarily anecdotal personal experience)
Jenn Prosser is a political junkie who has worked with the Alberta and Lethbridge municipal governments for a number of causes including women’s issues, post-secondary education and low-income housing. Currently, she is the content editor for a local community paper, The Journal. She authors the blog electlethbridge.wordpress.com and co-runs lethbridgeaccountability.ca. When not compiling survey information, or following candidates around with a camera and note pad, she knits and watches West Wing.