Monday, October 17, 2016

Donuts For Democracy - How to Increase Voter Turnout

Nova Scotia's municipal elections have come and gone and although there are many changes, one thing has stayed the same.  Voter turn out was very low.  In fact, it went from bad to abysmal. So, in an attempt to remedy this situation, the question that is circulating in the news today is, how can we increase voter turnout.  The answer to that question is obvious.  Donuts.  Everyone shows up for donuts. 

Yes, it's a silly answer, but that's because it's a silly question.  Why do we want to increase voter turnout?  If people feel disconnected from municipal politics; if they don't understand or care about the issues; if the most they know about their candidate is that they are nice or not nice, then is it good for democracy to simply increase voter turnout? If we could increase voter turnout by luring people to the polls with donuts or make voting mandatory,  could we all pat ourselves on the backs and say, Bravo, democracy is being well served?

Perhaps the better question is, why are most people disconnected from municipal politics.  And if people are informed, but are not voting, then maybe the question is why do they feel that there is no candidate to represent their reality. 

Municipal politics is, after all, the level of government that is closest to our everyday lives. Got a smelly sewage treatment plant?  That's a municipal issue.  Feel like you take your life in your hands every time you get on your bike or cross the street? That's a municipal issue  Angered by bulldozers knocking down heritage buildings?  Municipal issue.  Tired of the bus not arriving on time? Municipal issue.  Do you think it's ridiculous that your town will let you sell antiques from your home, but they won't let you sell art?  Yep, that, too is a municipal issue.  So, when people are not interested in municipal politics that is indicative of a real problem. To fix it we have to heal the disease, not the symptom. Voter turn out is the symptom.

Democracy was never meant to be a spectator sport. Democracy is meant to include the citizens.  But as citizens, we cast our votes on election day and then we walk away and watch from the outside as our politicians make decisions on our behalf.  We watch our politicians and applaud or boo because that is what spectators do.   We go back to our busy lives, tell ourselves how wonderful it is to live in a democracy and return in four years' time to, once again, excercise our democratic right to vote.  This has become the definition of being a good citizen.

The politicians, meanwhile, are not exactly welcoming the citizens into the fold and expanding the definition of democracy.  Well, citizens are tolerated as audience members, but not as part of the process. Wait, let me rephrase that.  In a status quo sort of way, citizens can participate in democracy.  They may request to make a presentation to council and public meetings are part of the required process in creating or amending a bylaw. But people are not stupid.  They understand the difference between meaningful and disingenuous engagement. "Thank you for your feedback, it will be taken under consideration."

It was my own experience with my own municipal government that has shaped my views of a broken democracy. Over two years ago, I brought my concerns regarding the town's interpretation of their Home Occupation bylaw to the Mayor and council. There was no room for me in the town's understanding of how the system works. What to do with  a citizen that is so impassioned to correct a wrong that she has spent half of every day, for two years,  researching Land Use and the Building Code, consulting with outside experts and reading studies and statistics?   Bring her in or keep her out? The town's response was keep her out.  Every ounce of ugliness that transpired was a direct result of this decision. 

But what if things had gone differently?  What if council, recognizing my passion to fix an error, had invited me in?  What if council invited everyone in that showed knowledge or a passion for a municipal issue. There is actually a model for this scenario.  It is called Citizen Planning. This concept was introduced to me by Bob Lehman, a two time fellow and former chair of the College of Fellows for the Canadian Institute of Planners. The idea is that the future of planning is changing and the role of the planner will also change from one of controlling ideas to one of gathering ideas from citizens and helping to bring these ideas to life.  You can read more about this concept HERE

The concept behind citizen planning translates directly to all of municipal politics.  Yes, ultimately, it  our elected representatives who vote on our behalf and that is a good thing.  But how they get to this point is the difference between a democracy that brings citizens in and a democracy that pushes citizens away. What we have right now is a democracy that pushes citizens away.

Exclusionary meeting times, committees that do not represent the diversity in the community, a lack of will to hold regular public forums to discuss large issues confronting the community, a lack of will to engage or communicate on social media.  These actions or lack of action push people away.  It is the responsibility of municipal government to include the citizens.

But it's a two way street.  If, as citizens, we hold on to the notion that we do not have a responsibility, yes, a responsibility, to engage in democracy and that once we elect our politicians our work as citizens is done, then we too,  are part of the problem.  Although I received more support than criticism for my efforts,  the criticism was loud and spoke to a way of thinking whose time has come and gone.  I was criticized for daring to challenge, I was called an armchair quarterback.  The belief was and still is that I did not know my place.  I knew my place, but it was a place that did not and does not exist within my municipal government's current understanding of democracy.

People engage with an issue when they care and when they believe their voices are respected and welcomed.  So, how about if instead of beating our heads against the wall trying to increase voter turnout, we instead figure out how to include citizens in the discussion of the municipal issues that they care about most.   What if we find an honest place for citizens within the system.  If we can do that, then we will not only be creating engaged citizens, but we will also be creating future leaders.  Increased voter turnout will be the symptom of including citizens in day to day democracy.  

None of these thoughts, however,  exclude donuts.  I still think donuts will bring in more voters.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Mum's The Word

It's interesting  scrolling through Facebook and watching my friends and neighbours freely talk about the upcoming US election.  But here we are with less than a week to go before our local municipal elections and not a word.  Not a single word from anyone I know regarding their local concerns.  The opinions and conversations are circulating through town in whispers. Yet, this is an election that we can control.  The system of municipal government, whether in Lunenburg or whether in Halifax is relatively small.  People can make a difference. Engaged citizens can have a real impact on the decisions being made.

I understand what is happening.  Everyone knows that after the election we will need to live with each other.  That candidate might be your neighbour or your cousin or your neighbour's cousin.  If you run a business in town then you may need to communicate with your local politicians and if you dared to publicly support one candidate over another then things may not go so well for you if you have an issue in the future.  If you support one candidate, your neighbour may stop talking to you.  Unfortunately, there is good reason to feel this way.  This is exactly what happened in our last municipal election. And when people speak up, they are shunned. 

Everything is personalized.  Our politicians do not have the tools to separate the issues from themselves and most citizens do not have the skills to communicate the issues without personalizing.  It's a real problem because what we end up with, what we have, is a town of disengaged people who vote based on perceptions of nice or funny or local or rumours.  We need to learn how to speak to each other.  We should be doing it in person, not online.  We should be talking and we should be listening.  But we're not.   People have chosen not to care.  There's a basic truth - What we put in, is what we get out.  If we are asleep, our politicians will be asleep, too.  If we don't care, they don't care.  If we are not willing to communicate with them, they will not communicate with us.  They are us.  No better, no worse.  

A small, local government for a small community should be a benefit.  It should make engagement more authentic.  But, instead it has become a handicap.  People are afraid to talk.  

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hey, Lunenburg, Here's a Mayor that never served on council.

The talk around town seems to be, if you want to serve as mayor then you first need to serve on council.  Do you recognize the man in this photo?  His name is Naheed Nenshi and he is the beloved, progressive mayor of Calgary, Alberta.  The man has a degree from Harvard University in Public policy.

Politics are politics and it wouldn't surprise me at all if there were people that tried to  discredit a very credible man by saying that you first need to sit on council before being qualified to serve as Mayor.  Fortunately, the citizens of Calgary put on their critical thinking caps and came to the conclusion that experience is experience and when you enter politics you bring your life experience with you to the table.

Municipal politics is not rocket science.  There is a process that needs to be learned and it does not take 4 years to learn it.  If it does take four years then that is cause for concern.

David Penney has spent 20 years working in mediation.  He has worked to solve conflicts in municipal governments and large organizations throughout Atlantic Canada.  He has worked as an RCMP officer.  He has served as chair of many committees.  He brings much needed new perspective to the table.   This is a very qualified man and it will take him a few weeks to learn the ropes of Lunenburg council.

So, if you want to say that you need to serve on council before serving as mayor because "that is how we do things around here", then by all means, say it.  But if you want to say, that you are any less qualified to serve as mayor because you did not serve on council first then I'd say, please, look at history and don't believe everything you hear.  Who is saying it and why is it being said?   Put the resumes of both candidates on the table.  Weigh their experience and make an unbiased judgement.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Brief Response to Mayor Bailey's Comment

At last night's Mayoral Forum in Lunenburg.   The candidates were asked the following question:  The issue of Home Based Business must have been very difficult for all parties.  If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

I don't understand how this question bypassed the rules of the forum.  The rules stated that questions needed to be applicable to all candidates.  But, it was asked and since I was not given a platform to respond I will briefly respond here.

Mayor Bailey stated that the town offered to assist me with the legal process available and I refused.  Yes, this is correct.  There is a provincial appeal process available to anyone that is not happy with the decision of a building inspector.  The Committee that oversees this process is called the Nova Scotia Building Advisory Committee (NSBAC).  There were a number of reasons that I chose to not go this route, but this is the main one.  It was explained to me by the chair of the NSBAC that an appeal never sets a precedent.  If I had appealed my case it would have only solved my case .  I understood, with the help of Jim Donovan, the manager of Municipal compliance for HRM, that there was an interpretive error happening in much of rural Nova Scotia.  It was not a building code problem.  It was a communication problem.  The problem was affecting many businesses.  Not just my own.  We had already lost several businesses in Lunenburg because of this interpretive error.

So, instead of making the case for only myself, I made the case to the province that an error was happening.  They heard me and they fixed it.

As for the rest of Mayor Bailey's response, well, I'd rather not address that.  Anyone who was there could feel the division her answer created.  Instead, I would like to thank Councillor Mosher for his response, when asked the same question the week before in the councillor candidates' forum. His response was wise and kind and displayed great leadership.

What he said was... I know Anna is in the room, and I really take my hat off to her. She championed a cause. As a council, we really don't have the resources to deal with one single issue like this. We are dealing with many things at the same time. The one thing I would have done differently is to bring her on board. To have included her in the conversation. He went on to say that it was a provincial issue, but in the end the best possible outcome was achieved. He held out an olive branch and I accepted it. I can explain why it was not a provincial issue, why it was easily solvable, and I have done so many times, but you know what?   It really doesn't matter. The best possible outcome was achieved and the simple fact that he said, good job and I wish we had included you, was huge. That's what a good leader does. They bridge divides. Not widen them.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Mayor With the Skill to Guide us Through Rough Water

There are many reasons to mark an X next to David Penney's name on October 15th.  He believes that Lunenburg's greatest resource is its citizens and wishes to engage them in a meaningful way.  I have seen him chair a meeting and he's a natural.  He's warm,  kind, intelligent, strong and confident. He is a good listener, an eloquent public speaker and he is a communicator.   He is a leader.

I joked once that David Penney would make the perfect Lunenburg Mayor because for the past 20 years he has worked in mental health, but every joke has some truth behind it.  No, no, I'm not insinuating that council needs counseling.  Let me tell you a bit about what David did for a living.

The reason that most people have not seen David Penney out and about in Lunenburg, despite living here for the past twelve years, is that until now, David traveled for work.  He was brought into corporations and many municipal governments to help resolve conflict and to assist organizations with mental health issues when needed.

We all remember the terrible 2014 Moncton shootings  when several police officers lost their lives.  It was David who was called in to help the RCMP deal with this tragedy.  I'm sure his own experience as a former police officer made him an obvious choice for this difficult job.   This is certainly not something that David is going to put on his campaign brochure.  I am writing about this only because I want you to consider the wealth of skill, understanding, compassion and calmness that is associated with this kind of work.

A mayor needs to have many qualities, but one of the qualities that I believe is extremely important is to be a strong anchor in a storm. Someone, who in the midst of crisis, will have the skill to lead the way.  Think of the role that mayor Naheed Nenshi played during the Calgarly floods.  A pillar of strength and leadership.

I'm not being an alarmist.  Chances are that we will get through the next four years without any major catastrophes.  But anyone that pays attention to Nova Scotia politics and who has read the Ivany Report knows that all of Nova Scotia is in for a rough ride.  We have an ageing population, out migration of youth and new people are not coming fast enough to replace those who are leaving.  According to this Chart, put out by The South Shore Housing Action Coalition, The population of residents between the ages of 35-64, will decrease from 874 to 398 in 20 years, if we continue on our current trend.

I just heard one coucillor at the candidates' forum talk about Lunenburg being financially sound.  The problem, apparently,  is everywhere, but within the 4 sq. km boundary of the Town of Lunenburg.  This head in the sand attitude will not serve us in the near future.  We need strong leaders, who are willing to confront our challenges head on, not deny that they exist. We need a leader who has the skill to negotiate our future.

I have complete faith in our future....if we can elect proven, knowledgeable people, with true leadership skills.  We need someone who understands how to navigate conflict.  That person is David Penney.