Letter to the editor 1, June 20, 2019
Of elections and legitimacy
I was recently voted in to represent District 3 at Saint-Lazare’s city council on June 9. Despite my best efforts at knocking on the doors of all 1,250 residences and meeting with more than 200 people, I was elected in a by-election that attracted a dismal 10-12 per cent of all eligible constituents. While I was legally chosen, I feel that I lack the necessary legitimacy to be characterized as a true representative of the people. I need to confront this liability.
Electoral apathy has its negative consequences. On one hand we risk letting local politics be coloured by the annoying rants of faceless social media provocateurs and self-important cynics who take pleasure in the confusion and distress they cause.
On the other hand we collectively cede an important part of the political discourse to a few dozen very motivated persons who push specific issues. Although these groups generally promote worthy and necessary subject-matters, they do not necessarily reflect the general preoccupations of most residents in the district – as I have discovered during the campaign. Relatively few have mentioned the environment as their main concern; most thought city hall to be unresponsive to a host of more immediate worries they face as residents – a comment that would apply to most districts, I suspect.
A clue to their apathy was revealed when most people I met were pleasantly surprised – some astonished – at actually meeting a real live candidate. Most also told me that once elected, their representative made no efforts to meet with them during their mandate. They also felt that nobody was listening to them.
How do I propose to fight this apathy that undermines our local form of democracy? One way is to maintain personal contact between the representative and the people. To that end, I have promised those I met during the campaign that I will stop at every residence during my term to register all of their concerns and questions. In some cases, I will even organize some town-hall form of meetings on common issues. The concerns will be listed in a document that will be deposited with the administration and council. It will include possible solutions and options. In addition to bringing up these items at mayor and council meetings, I pledge that I’ll inform all those who have expressed their concerns on the city’s response in each case. I’ll take the occasion to inform the people how they can otherwise contact city hall if they feel they need a solution to their particular problem.
To those who think voting in a municipal election is a useless exercise which changes nothing, I will remind them that for all its defects and weaknesses, city councils are generally able to show some progress relative to the past. Compared to federal and provincial governments, city councils have more direct influence in the lives of the people. The relative worth of that influence is dependent on five main elements: the degree of popular involvement in the decision-making process, the existence of a meaningful consultation process before deciding on big projects, the responsible management of city finances and policies, effective representation on the part of mayor and council, and the quality of city’s response to complaints and concerns.
If people were more interested in local governance, they would realize that they have the unique collective power to force their representatives in improving the quality of life in our community the way they expect. Voting does matter.
We need to be conscious that city hall does far more than organizing parades, planting flowers, and extinguishing fires. I remain convinced, however, that council has the main obligation to reverse elector apathy.
Member of St Lazare Council