Since last October’s municipal election, I’ve been telling anybody willing to listen that, in a way, 2014 was more disappointing than 2010. Yeah, yeah. Rob Ford as mayor, yaddie, yaddie. No more crack scandals. No more drunken stupors. With Rob Ford out of the mayor’s office, everything can return back to normal.
Ah yes. Return back to normal. Regression to the mean.
As I’ve pointed out previously, 36 of 37 councillor incumbents were re-elected. Of the victorious rookies, all were white, and 6 of the 7 were male. Return back to normal, indeed, if it were the 1970s. Business as usual.
The especially frustrating aspect of this is that there were fantastic challengers running for office last year, all over the city. At least 10 off the top of my head but closer to 15 if I did an actual headcount. None of them won their races, few even came close.
Change was heralded with the election of a new mayor. 2014, however, represented anything but change. Toronto swapped up captains of a ship of state which remains charted on the same course it’s been for 4 years now. Full steam ahead!
The reasons for that outcome were multifold. (If only there were simple solutions to these kinds of complicated matters, eh?) I tend to lean on the idea that last October was a referendum on the mayoralty. The Rob Ford reign had sucked all the oxygen from local politics. Voters turned out to cast judgement on the Ford administration, yea or nay. Council and school board trustee races were secondary. Even more secondary than usual.
That’s just a fact of municipal political campaigns. Mayoral races oftentimes shape voters opinions on their perspective city council candidates who, not irregularly, get asked on the doorsteps if they support candidate X for mayor. Even though a mayor is ultimately just one vote of 45 (with a handful of extra executive powers), there’s this perception that the position is imbued with almost mystical, presidential powers.
This reduction of the role and powers of city councillors to a secondary or supporting position at City Hall by much of the voting public can have a pernicious effect on how some of these councillors go about their business. Under the radar, out of much public view. Going about their business as usual.
Even if there’s nothing nefarious to that mode of operation in individual cases, it helps contribute to this notion of ‘low information voters’. You know, a solid majority of the general public who lead busy lives and have neither the time nor inclination to keep tabs on what exactly it is their respective city councillor is doing. In the scheme of things, they’re not that important. Just keep the potholes filled and taxes low, am I right?
That this is nowhere near the reality of the dynamics in local politics is ultimately harmful to the governance at City Hall.
Which is why Dave Meslin’s post on Friday is so fucking essential and exciting.
I’m not even going to try and summarise it here. Meslin does a magnificent job doing that himself and, quite frankly, there may not be a more important post-election article yet written as this one. Take the time and read it.
The movement for Open Data has been very successful at getting raw information available. And the creation of the Lobbyist Registry and the banning of corporate election contributions were important steps. But it’s time to connect the dots, and put all of this data to work!
This is about bringing all the data on the governance operations at City Hall that is already publicly available under one, easy to follow, umbrella. See who lobbies your councillor on what issues, who donates to their election campaign. See how your councillor votes on a particular issue and does it reflect the interests of their residents or those of the people lobbying and donating to them? All with the click or two of your computer’s mouse.
(Hmmm. I guess I did just summarise my take on the article. Read it anyway!)
As you can tell by the title, Mez’s gist is about curbing lobbying influence on our local politics. A valuable and vital goal, for sure, but I’m equally as excited about the other possibilities he hints at in the post. Not only would this collection of data together in one easy and interactive online location serve a useful tool for busy reporters and other media types as they file their City Hall stories, but an equally harried and busy public could take just a few moments to see what brought their city councillor to vote a particular way on an issue of particular interest to the constituent.
Equally as exciting for me is the opportunity this creates for candidates running against incumbents. Imagine having easy access to the speeches a city councillor made during the debate on a certain issue, almost effortlessly linked to any lobbyist contact the councillor had on that issue, the campaign donations the councillor received from interested parties on that issue. Lifted onto a candidate’s website or sent out in email blasts to voters. Low cost and not onerously labour intensive, fledging and cash-short candidacies can tap into a handy, dandy campaign tool while leaving themselves more time to tend to other critical matters like canvassing and fundraising.
To be sure, this use of open data will not, cannot replace the other key aspects to a successful political run. Too often, open data, social media, the internetz in general are seen as a panacea to the drudgery of traditional campaigning. Did I mention canvassing and fundraising? It isn’t. But as a complimentary instrument in what will always be an uphill battle in unseating municipal incumbents, this could be, dare I say it, revolutionary. By shining more light into the backrooms and lessening the shadows in which some city councillors function, voters can be given easy access to more thoroughly assess not only the job their city councillor is doing on their behalf but also just how important that job is to the daily lives of the city’s residents.
With information comes knowledge and from knowledge comes power. Historically, incumbents at City Hall have held that power to maintain what seems like, in some cases, a death grip on office. If we learn how to better connect the dots, as Dave Meslin is thinking, we just might be able to tilt the dynamic a little more in the voting public’s favour.
— over-the-moonly submitted by Cityslikr