Changing the World, One Town at a Time

Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there. ~Gary Snyder

Municipal governments take care of the details. They build skate parks, protect or develop land, and invest in infrastructure (or not). They decide if you can raise chickens in your back yard, whether or not you can spray pesticides, and how much green space to leave in your downtown area. They are the nuts and bolts of our society.

Despite this, most media attention is devoted to provincial and federal politics, and municipal governments are often relegated to grubby younger brother status. They lack the glamour of big politics: no hobnobbing with the rich and famous, no $500-a-plate dinners, no flights on private jets at tax payer expense.

While they may lack pizzazz, however, municipal politics are also a relatively easy, affordable way to get involved and shape your world. Nearly anyone can do it: to run, a candidate must only be 18 years or older, a Canadian citizen, and a resident of B.C.

Meet Andrew Mostad, a recent graduate of the BCIT business program who has just submitted his candidacy papers to run in the up-coming Lantzville civic election. Mostad is a 23 year old Lantzville citizen who is running because he believes that municipal politics are where he can make the most difference. “In the everyday lives of constituents, municipal governments are the more relevant,” he says.

Myron Jespersen, who ran as a federal Green Party candidate in the Nanaimo-Alberni riding this year, agrees. “It is at the municipal level that decisions are made that affect our daily life — the water in our taps, the roads and sidewalks we drive and walk on, and the decisions about what happens on the lot next door to my house or down the street or at the city centre. These are the things that make a difference to where I live.”

Jespersen is a tall man with salt and pepper locks and an easy smile, well known in Port Alberni on both the social and environmental scene. After his experience in last May’s federal election, he has decided to run for City Council in Port Alberni. Because of the smaller size of the electoral area, he can stand on the record of what he has already done in the community, whereas much of his federal campaign was spent driving between communities, trying to increase his presence in Parksville, Qualicum, and Nanaimo.

Despite their small size, municipal governments also have a fair amount of influence within the bigger picture. Mostad says, “Municipal councils have a lot of power to lobby provincial and federal government on behalf of their constituents. If they can do it as a single community, as a partnership, it’s one of the best ways for constituents to have their voices heard.”

Owen Strudwick, a former District of Tofino Councillor, agrees. “The coolest thing I’ve seen done in municipal politics was the resort status Tofino lobbied for and got,” he said. “It gave Tofino a way to upgrade infrastructure to allow all the tourists to continue to come into town.”

While our provincial and federal politicians seem to spend most of their time wading through reams of bureaucratic red tape, municipal politicians are getting things done. Take Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and that city’s new bike lanes. Within hours of council approval, work began. Another controversial example is the speed with which Lantzville town council is moving through the debate on urban agriculture, despite the multitude of serious concerns raised by many Lantzville constituents.

This very issue inspired Mostad’s foray into municipal politics. Often people get involved in civic elections to try to be the change they would like to see. For Mostad, the decision was a result of volunteering with Lantzville’s Friends of Urban Agriculture, or F.U.A.L. F.U.A.L. is a group of citizens working to promote and defend urban agriculture in the small community of Lantzville, B.C. As the volunteer spokesperson, he says he dove into that issue, and then so many other issues started to crop up. He started attending Council meetings, and was disappointed with what he observed.

A big issue was a lack of transparency. “There were in camera meetings, behind closed doors, every single council meeting I went to.” That, and issues around representation made Mostad think that the best way to change things was to get involved in the process itself.

In Tofino, Strudwick felt like council could use a “straight shooter.” He was of the opinion that some councillors were “flip-flopping” on votes, and decided that he could be someone “who would not bend in the wind every time someone complained.”

A straight shooter he was, but it came at a cost. Strudwick recalls that, “In my six years on council I endured repeated attempts to have me fired or disgraced and even many physical threats.”

And therein lays the kicker: Politics is not for the faint of heart. Municipal politics can be a dirty game — small towns entail familiarity, and things can get personal. Gord Johns, an energetic father of three and current District of Tofino Councillor, says that “everyone in local elected government will lose some friends, and it has a tremendous toll on your personal life.”

To be successful, a councillor needs a thick skin. Of the criticism and threats he received, Strudwick says that, “All of this took a mental toll on me and made me an angry man. It has taken about three years to relax and get over it. If not for that I might still be there.”

On the other hand, this intensely personal aspect is also a large part of the appeal. Myron Jespersen says, “I have the opportunity to get to know my councillors or mayor and city staff; some of whom will live down the street from me. There is a good chance that I will bump into a councillor on the street and can ask them face to face about a decision that they have made.”

For Mostad, the personal connections he is making campaigning are a wonderful bonus. “I have received so much support from places I didn’t expect. It’s been really gratifying. Having people who don’t know me offering to help is really amazing.”

Civic elections are also infinitely more affordable than provincial or federal, which is good, because most candidates are self funded. Mostad says that the average spent on a campaign in the last Lantzville election was around $300 to $400. Gord Johns says he thinks the average spent last election in Tofino was very low, probably around $200. “I spent $0,” he said, “and topped the polls.”

The low numbers are due in part to the small area candidates need to cover. In towns like Lanztville or Tofino, 300 – 500 votes are enough to get you in. In bigger cities like Burnaby or Richmond, candidates need 10,000 to 14,000 votes to be elected. Keep in mind that voters get more than one choice. Councils are usually made up of 3, 5, or 7 seats, including the mayor’s. When voting in a civic election, each constituent gets as many votes as there are seats.

In British Columbia, voting occurs on the third Saturday in November, and successful candidates are expected to assume the role of councillor by December. Councillors will then serve a three year term, at which point they are free to run for re-election if they wish.

If you decide to run for council, Strudwick suggests getting involved in the community early. “You really want as much face time and name recognition as possible. Most voters will have an idea of who they want but they will choose the name they remember fondly.”

Strudwick credits his success to the years he spent working in the community grocery store, a position which meant that a lot of people knew who he was. What he doesn’t mention is that he was a bit of a local legend in Tofino, as easily recognizable for his numerous “self modified” cars as for his job. During his election campaign, Strudwick even held a contest for one of his cars – a huge, dark blue Monte Carlo with orange flames on the sides and a surfboard-fin sticking up out of the trunk. He had an artist draw a rendition of the car and then gave it away to the best entry. In the end the winner didn’t want the car, but it is a great example of that incredibly personal aspect of small town politics.

And maybe this is the real draw of municipal governments. There is more room for characters, more flexibility for individuals to exercise their own expertise and experience. Johns says that being a councillor has given him an incredible opportunity to make change and determine the future of his community.

Jespersen thinks this flexibility exists at a policy level as well. “I believe that there is greater opportunity for experimentation at the municipal level. Every town believes that they are unique and so there may be less resistance to being different if community consensus is there.”

Couple flexibility and fun, add the ability to make lasting change, and municipal governments are a clear winner.

Mary Joan McGeragle is a student of creative writing and political science at Vancouver Island University.