Opinion: Are We Electing Councillors for Their Personal Expertise?

During the lead up to Brampton’s last municipal election I became pretty involved in the city’s politics.¬† I met a guy at a children’s hair salon, and he told me he was going to run for a seat on City Council, and the idea seemed fun so I got involved and did my best to be helpful. I watched a lot of City Council meetings, always in person, right in the thick of heavy scrutiny over budgets and spending. I stopped attending after my guy came in a strong second place and today I came back for the first time since then.

We’ve got a problem in Brampton’s City Council. In fact, the same problem exists as a common thread through most representative democracies, from what I can tell, but big change builds from small places, and the problem begins at the municipal level.

I arrived a little bit late to the meeting and when I made my way into the chambers there was a citizen presenting the idea of voter reform to City Council. Patricia McGrail works with Fair Vote Canada, and she suggested replacing our current single vote electoral process with a proportional voting system. Essentially, by her suggestion, constituents would rank the candidates in the order of their preference rather than voting for an individual candidate exclusively, and that helps to ensure that we aren’t being represented by somebody who won with, say, fifteen percent of the vote in a pool of a dozen candidates. (To highlight this, the campaign I helped with, proportionally, would have beat half those elected to council with nearly and merely thirty seven percent of the votes in his riding.)

One single Councillor responded to the presentation. Councillor John Sprovieri first apologized for missing the initial moments of the presentation – just like me – and asked for the speaker’s name. That was very helpful to me in researching this article. Patricia had suggested an average increase in voter turnout with the switch to ranked voting, and Sprovieri sought some clarification to those details. Then Sprovieri elegantly, expertly, and accidentally exemplified the problem with politics.

Patricia McGrail cited that a mere thirty six percent of eligible voters were engaged enough in the latest municipal election to cast a ballot. Thirty six. She said changing to a ranked vote increases turnout by an average of six to eight percent, so the suggested reform is likely to bump Brampton’s turnout to around forty two to forty four percent. That’s between seventeen and twenty three thousand more people actually being represented by their Councillors through their engagement in the process. That’s important.

McGrail also suggested that a ranked vote means even if my top choice doesn’t win the election, I’m more likely to feel represented by the elected official the higher they appear on my ballot. In the last election, John Sprovieri was among seven candidates and that means anybody who voted for anybody other than Sprovieri is unlikely to feel represented by him. It also means Sprovieri has little impedus to represent the will of more voters than necessary. By ranking votes, Sprovieri is encouraged to fight to be as highly ranked on as many ballots as possible, which requires broader representation of constituents.

Sprovieri finished his line of questioning and then he went on to prove how poorly constituents are represented in what came across to me as poetry. Patricia McGrail spent several minutes speaking to council about how they can best represent their constituents using stats and supporting evidence. John Sprovieri responded by telling the chambers how he’s not sure he’s comfortable being among the first to reform the voting system, and how he doesn’t think he’s ready to support it just yet. Sprovieri, an elected official in a representative democracy, has personal doubts about his comfort level as it pertains to an evolving system. He did not mention the opinions of his constituents. He didn’t refer to his constituents whatsoever, despite the best interests of all eligible voters being the very core of McGrail’s presentation. Not even a hint of their interests. All we got was John Sprovieri explaining why he doesn’t want to adapt to a voting system McGrail admitted would make his job harder.

And that’s the problem. Every few years we get the chance to elect some new people to represent us. They have platforms where they make specific promises and try to illustrate their beliefs and opinions. Then we vote, and then for four years they participate in government and independently make decisions on behalf of the people who elected them – and whose taxes pay their salaries – without putting in any appreciable effort to ensure they accurately and effectively represent their constituents. I’m sure some are better than others, and every politician will have cute anecdotes about some concerned citizen who’s been writing them, but anecdotes are not evidence and statistics seem to be in short supply when a councilor explains a position.

The fact is I don’t care what John Sprovieri’s opinion of any particular matter is (and I’ve been caught on film telling him as much) because his job is simply to relay a message from the people he represents. His opinion ought to matter as much as any voter in either of his ridings, proportionally. But it doesn’t. His opinion is the only one that matters when he speaks and votes in Council even though he’s being paid to speak on behalf of the majority.

And that’s what’s wrong with politics.

As a disclaimer: John Sprovieri is the unfortunate Councillor to catch my attention today. He illustrates a problem that seems universal, and his name could be replaced by 10 others on any day.

Opinion submitted by local resident Matt Yeroschenko and reproduced here in its entirety.