Friday, September 16, 2016
You've got Four Years to Fix Democracy in Nova Scotia
If anybody would like to run Nova Scotia please raise your hand. Oh, thank you so much for coming forward. You fine folks are now in charge of the direction of our province.
This is literally the case in many municipalities across rural Nova Scotia. Annapolis Royal council- acclaimed, Mahone Bay Council - acclaimed, Port Hawkesbury mayor- acclaimed, Hants County - 5 of 11 councilors acclaimed, Town of Lunenburg council- 7 people running for 6 seats.... This is not a shining example of democracy in action. Running a municipality should not be on par with volunteering to clean the chalk board erasers.
Is it apathy? I really don't think so. We are a province of dedicated volunteers and citizens that show up to support causes that are meaningful to us. I have never lived in a place with more community minded people than Nova Scotia. But when it's time to run for council, most people pull the covers over their heads and wait for the elections to be over. What's going on?
After the election on October 15th, new councillors will take their places around the council tables. The first item on the agenda needs to be- Who is not in this room and how are we going to get them here in four years' time? If everyone sitting at the council table is a man, there is a problem. If everyone is over 50, there is a problem. If everyone is financially secure, there is a problem. If everyone was born and bred in town, there is a problem. If there is no racial diversity, there is a problem. If everyone is retired, there is a problem. In order to solve this problem, council is going to have to consult with their community.
Today I had a revelation. I realized that I was one of seven relatively young women, that I know, who seriously considered running for Lunenburg Council, but ultimately decided against it. Every one of these women is intelligent and accomplished. Most, like myself, run businesses in the town. In a province that is actively trying to attract women into politics, seven women who opted out is cause for concern.
Not offering for council often comes down to simple practicalities like meeting times. Rural councils are not full time positions and the stipends, while sometimes generous, are reflective of this fact. It is not enough money to give up a day job. A 5:15 or mid-day meeting time might work very well for a retired person, but it doesn't work well for a person with a job, a business or a child. Move that meeting time to 6:15 and you have just made it easier for a working person or parent to come forward. Many Nova Scotians need to travel for work. If we wish to include these people on councils then occasionally Skyping into a meeting needs to be an option.
Now let's talk about engagement. Council meetings are interesting. This is where decisions are made regarding all the issues that most affect our lives. Playgrounds, sewage treatment plants, fire protection, animal control, policing, community gardens, farmers markets, street festivals, heritage preservation, development, what sort of businesses are allowed to operate in town and where they are allowed to operate, how we choose to spend tax dollars... all these things are discussed and decided at a council meeting. But how can community members know that it's interesting if they can't make it to the meeting? How can people know that the discussion is interesting if the sound system is broken and they can't hear? How hard is it for the mayor or a councilor of a small town to simply post an upcoming council agenda to FaceBook with a brief description of the issues being discussed. We don't need to hire a communications strategist to achieve this goal. Council meetings are where people learn about municipal politics. Attending meetings educates the next generation of leaders. It needs to be the responsibility of municipal politicians to engage the public, so that we are always nurturing future politicians. If citizens are not showing up to meetings, then something is very wrong and it needs to be fixed.
Any good teacher understands that information is best absorbed through participation. Yes, ultimately, it is only the councilors who can debate and vote, but there is no reason, in a small town council, that some portion of the meeting can't be allotted to hearing citizens' concerns or questions. Issues can also be informally discussed at public forums. It's just not that hard to get citizens involved in government when that is the desired goal. The thing is, that is often not the desired goal. It's so much easier to make decisions without public input. Is there anything more annoying that an engaged citizen with an opinion, or worse, a citizen that is more informed about a topic than a councilor?
A good council is one that represents all the diverse views in the community. This is the end goal. Weak leaders try to surround themselves with supporting voices. Strong leaders invite different perspectives and welcome conflict. Conflict is the engine of democracy. If we don't have diversity of views on council then we just aren't doing this democracy thing very well. And we don't get diversity when councils work to keep it out.
Fix the meeting times, fix the sound systems, post the agendas to Facebook, embrace conflict and welcome engaged citizens with strong opinions. Teach your constituents about democracy. Mayors, councillors, you've got four years to bring democracy back to Nova Scotia. Ready, set, go!