COLUMN: Wards’ time has come

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A competitive race for mayor in this fall’s election in Surrey has brought the issue of wards to the fore.

Once a topic that only the long shots were willing to talk about, the issue of neighbourhood representation on council is now mainstream. Former mayor Doug McCallum kicked off the discussion by saying when he announced his candidacy that wards would be implemented after he is elected.

Surrey First candidate Coun. Linda Hepner is the least enthusiastic (not surprising, given how her coalition benefits from the at-large system of electing councillors), but she is willing to hold a referendum on the topic in 2018. Assuming such a referendum passed, it would be at least 2022 – eight years from now – before there would be election of candidates in wards, which essentially are the equivalent of the provincial or federal ridings Surrey citizens are used to.

Coun. Barinder Rasode, who is also planning to run for mayor, says she is hearing a lot about wards from residents. She favours a hybrid system, with some councillors elected at-large, in the entire city, and some in wards. She sees no need for a referendum, but would like extensive public consultation.

Vikram Bajwa, who has run for mayor before and is running again this year, says wards are “nine years overdue,” but he still wants a referendum.

I’ve argued many times in this space for wards, and here’s the Coles’ Notes version of why Surrey needs such a system.

One is that it is prohibitively expensive to run for office in a city the size of Surrey and reach hundreds of thousands of potential voters. Face-to-face contact is difficult. Unless a candidate is wealthy, it is impossible to mount an effective campaign through advertising, flyers or social media.

Thus the candidates who win are in almost always part of a slate or electoral group – Surrey First, Surrey Electors Team, Surrey Civic Electors, Surrey Municipal Electors or Surrey Voters Association.

The person who was initially elected as an independent was Jeanne Eddington in the 1990s, who had a high profile due to her activism. It took her several tries to get elected and she never won by large margins.

A second argument for wards is that people can more easily get through to a council member who is familiar with their neighbourhood and its specific issues. Most candidates who will win if wards are established will be residents of that area. They will know it intimately and be responsive to issues.

This is not to say at-large councillors aren’t familiar with neighbourhood issues, but Surrey is too large, both geographically and in population, for any of them to know the entire city well.

A third argument is that wards will boost voter turnout. Every part of Canada outside B.C. has wards in larger cities. A truly local election involves candidates campaigning in neighbourhoods  and seeking support in a more personal fashion. When my son was going to university in Kingston, Ontario, he was approached by several candidates for council in his ward. Kingston is much smaller than Surrey, with a population of about 100,000.

Boosting voter turnout in local elections is critical, because local governments make decisions that affect all of us every day. A higher turnout in Surrey elections, particularly as they are now four years apart, is something all candidates should support.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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