COUNCILLORS SEEK WARD
By HEATHER MCLAUGHLIN
By HEATHER MCLAUGHLIN
22 May 2012 03:08AM
Two Fredericton city councillors say it’s time to embark on municipal electoral reform in Fredericton because of inequities in the population distributions within the city’s 12 wards.
The current ward system has been around for nearly 40 years.
“There’s horrible inequities where you have some wards with twice or four times the population of others,” said Coun. Scott McConaghy, who was returned to council representing Ward 7 (Lincoln area).
In McConaghy’s own ward, there are 3,691 eligible voters. Contrast that with Coun. David Kelly’s Ward 12 (Silverwood-Garden Creek) with 5,394 voters or Coun. Bruce Grandy’s Ward 2 (Nashwaaksis) with 5,110 eligible voters.
The ward with the lowest eligible voter population is Barkers Point-Lower St. Marys. In the May 14 election, incumbent Marilyn Kerton had 1,436 constituents eligible to vote in the ward.
“In the federal and provincial election districts, they only allow for deviations of 20 to 25 per cent. Here in the city we have scenarios now where we have deviations of 200 and 300 per cent, almost approaching 400 per cent, which is just blatantly unfair to the voters of those wards that have the higher populations,” McConaghy said. “The ability to represent those people is much more difficult in those wards, than it is in the Barker’s Point ward. More than anything, I want us to review the ward boundaries to balance this out, but I think it’s also time to have a report and engage the public to review even the size of council.”
McConaghy said it may be time to reduce the size of council to 10 plus a mayor.
“This is the perfect opportunity to start the process on that, but at the very least, there has to be a rebalancing of the numbers associated with the populations of the wards,” he said.
Fredericton’s 12 wards are drawn up largely along the boundaries of former communities that existed prior to the 1973 amalgamation. For instance, Ward 5 (Marysville) with a population of 2,805 eligible voters is basically composed of the original Town of Marysville that existed prior to 1973.
McConaghy said Marysville will always be Marysville whether it has a councillor solely dedicated to the area of not.
“What makes a community are the people in it, not necessarily the councillor who represents it,” he said.
“Something has to change ... I expect the public is in tune enough to know that there’s horrible inequities when you have some wards that are twice or three or four times the size of other wards,” he said. “That scenario just can’t remain. A person’s vote is not as valuable in some of these because of the inequities.
“It might also be a good time to reflect on how many representatives we actually need and are we still satisfied with the ward system itself? I think the ward system has worked well in this city, but I don’t think it would hurt to go out and just reaffirm that with the public,” he said.
McConaghy said he fully expects the topic will be discussed during a proposed council retreat which Mayor Brad Woodside intends to hold once the newly-elected council is formally sworn in May 28 with three new councillors taking their seats.
“On my radar, it’s very important that our institutions reflect fairness in the way they are elected,” he said.
Coun. Mike O’Brien began posting comments on Twitter just after the May 14 election, noting the population deviations.
O’Brien, who was returned to public office by acclamation, would have had to court 3,006 voters in Ward 3 (Fulton Heights-North Devon) if he had a contested race.
“If the whole concept of democracy is representation by population, we’re not doing that,” he said. “The original intent when the wards were set up was to do them by community, which makes sense in one respect ... It’s nice in one respect where people have community representation. However, when one person is representing 1,400 or 1,500 people and another is representing 5,300 people, there is some inequity there.”
O’Brien suspects there could be community sensitivity to altering ward boundaries.
“Some are very proud of their former roots, but proud to be part of the larger city. We’d have to look at that because there’s an emotional attachment to that,” he said.
O’Brien said polling jurisdictions, however, are aligned with federal-provincial election polls, so the city could following those polling divisions, but add or subtract polls from different wards.
“It would start to carve through some of the existing communities,” he said.
O’Brien is open to discussing a reduction in the size of council based on north-south lines.
“It does make a good divide. You could say, let’s go with four councillors on each side of the river,” he said. “That brings the distribution for each ward to a little over 4,000 on average. There’s ways you could look at it.”
If council has the will to discuss redrawing ward boundaries and reducing the size of council, there would have to be public discussion and O’Brien suggests a plebiscite would be the way to answer the question in the next 2016 election.
“You’d definitely have to ask the people if they’d support it,” he said.
O’Brien is also open to discussing whether voters are happy with the ward system or if they want to look at a mix of wards in combination with councillors elected at large.
Mayor Brad Woodside said he’s open to hearing from councillors on municipal electoral reform.
“We had a referendum back a few years ago and I actually supported looking at redistribution and also I think 12 members of council is too much. I supported, at that time, reducing the number of representatives to 10 and I could very easily have supported eight. Five on each side of the river with a combination of ward and at-large,” he said.
Woodside said he’s prepared to entertain discussion on municipal electoral reform at the upcoming council retreat.
“The retreat is an open discussion. I’m prepared and want to hear everything,” Woodside said.
Specifically, he wants to hear ideas on how to conduct municipal business better and even more importantly, letting the public know council’s direction and priorities for the next four years.