A commission will be created to look into conceptual plans for a ward election system in Lethbridge. City council debated a motion after the city’s governance standing policy committee was unable to agree on a recommendation last month.
Mayor Blaine Hyggen introduced a friendly amendment to say the budget for the commission is up to $297,000, rather than just the dollar amount. He supported the motion reluctantly and said if the question was not included on the last ballot, he likely would not agree to move the conversation forward with the high cost.
A question asking whether voters would like to use a ward election system, starting with the 2025 election, received support from 55.69 per cent of those who answered.
“Posing a ballot question and then ignoring its outcome risks alienating voters further and eroding voter turnout, civic engagement, citizen participation — all conditions that we are working to improve,” said Coun. Jenn Schmidt-Rempel. “Not exploring this further will increase distrust in council’s motives and cause people to refuse to participate further in future elections conversations.”
Councillors Nick Paldino, Jeff Carlson and Rajko Dodic were opposed to the commission. A shared concern among them was the cost. Dodic said he believes if voters had more information on cost and implementation, fewer would have voted in favour of a new system.
“I initially liked the idea of forming a commission and I liked the phases, the milestones and the timelines that were put into it and I was totally on board, in fact you could say I was drinking the Kool-Aid — right up until I saw the $300,000 price tag,” Paladino said.“Remember that some of us were elected because the public doesn’t appreciate needless spending on reports that end up on a shelf collecting dust. I stated that I would vote for needs and not wants and I am sorry but I don’t see this as a need.”
Coun. Ryan Parker said council owes residents the due diligence to explore options and he did not believe the deciding factor for the vote should be the price tag. Coun. Belinda Crowson said she is not sure a ward system is the best answer, but it is time for a community conversation on civic engagement.
“We have low voter turnout, we often see a lack of civic engagement, when we reach out to the public we don’t often hear from them, council does not demographically reflect the community, over the years across North America we have seen fewer working people elected as politicians at all level of government and we also know that elections in our city have turned from every three years to every four years and people are noting that hey often feel left out,” she said.
Council voted 6-3 to move forward with the commission. Crowson pointed out that council will have the final say and there will be opportunities for both residents and councillors to provide input as planning moves forward.
The commission’s timeframe to compile a report of recommendations is suggested from November this year to November 2023. It is anticipated that the report of recommendations would be an extensive document to include details of all the analysis, engagement, options, rationale, and recommendations including a ward system model, maps, populations and a draft of the electoral ward boundary bylaw, according to the city.