The value of local representation

The entrance to Council Chambers in Ontario Hall at Kingston City Hall.

Vol. 1: To live or not to live in your district?

“He doesn’t live in the district, you know?” That was a common refrain my opponents used against me in last fall’s municipal election, as I was told by a number of people as I went door-to-door. And it was true. But like most whisper campaigns, especially in the age of social media, the soundbite hid the whole story.

In fact, I grew up in the district from 1994 to 2006 when I left town for university. When I came back to Kingston in 2011 — history degree in hand, and after a year of world travel — to do graduate work at Queen’s, and later to start my professional life, I lived there too. At least until the boundaries were redrawn (October 2014) and I moved downtown (December 2015).

Thus, all tolled, my time in the region ‘formerly known as’ Trillium (with a nod to Prince) was over 18 years, longer than any of the other contenders: A fact they were either unaware of, or intentionally left out.

No matter, I still knew the streets, I knew the neighbours, and I knew that if I were to run for office locally it had to be there. When I did run, residents agreed and the rest, as they say, is history. And even though I felt so acquainted with this area (arguably the most vibrant suburban district, an economic powerhouse for the city, and the largest district in Kingston by population), I knew I should officially move back. I did this in August 2019.

To be fair, Trillium District, as it’s now known, has changed over time. Most significantly, it morphed around the millennium when then-Kingston Township amalgamated with the City of Kingston and Pittsburgh Township in 1998. The district again found new form in the mid 20-teens when the area east of Centennial Drive became part of Meadowbrook-Strathcona. It will likely change again, perhaps in the next few years, as the population continues to grow with excellent new infill, mixed-use development behind the RioCan, for instance.

In this ‘behind the scenes piece,’ however, I want to talk less about the boundaries themselves and more about my reasons for moving back. Indeed, my decision was at once subtle and structural. Most importantly, I hope my thinking points to a larger conversation about the value of, and threats to, representative democracy: Eyes on the street and technocracy, respectively.

Let’s start with the subtleties. There’s nothing more important to a sense of community and belonging than to be truly seen. To be known and accepted as you are is a great gift indeed. That’s not as esoteric as it sounds. It’s simply saying ‘hi’ to your neighbour as they scoop up their dog’s poop. It’s volunteering to shovel snow at the school down the road and thanking the custodians and admin staff for all their hard work (especially these days, post-strike). It’s inviting friends over for coffee in the backyard and asking the elderly couple next door to come, too. This is the stuff of life and it’s what famed twentieth century urbanist Jane Jacobs said made for vitality in cities, the proverbial eyes on the street.

Such a gaze helps create conditions for safety and welcome — Greetings, gatherings, coming and going are things that connect us to each other and, importantly, our representatives. Sharing such subtle interactions allows us to build healthy relationships, relationships that can be reflected with greater depth at City Hall when the councillor knows the district and can serve the people well accordingly.

A number of councillors over the years made the same choice I did: running in an area they knew, but didn’t live in, only to move there after their election. Mary Rita Holland, 2014, and Jim Neill, 2018, come quickly to mind. Others, like my predecessor Adam Candon, 2014-2018, didn’t live in their district during their tenure. Though I think such presence is important, there are other, more structural realities which have the power to overtake even someone who knows their district incredibly well, whether or not they chose to live where they represent.

These forces are two-fold. The first is driven by other levels of government. The province, for example, controls everything the city does under the auspices of the Municipal Act. With no constitutional power, municipalities are creatures of statute. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the local government’s ability to tax only property (compared to general sales taxes or income sales taxes of the other jurisdictions, to be clear). In fact, those municipal monies, plus grants from Queen’s Park and Parliament, renders only approximately 10 cents on the dollar for on the ground services like libraries, parks, public transit, recycling, and roads. It’s important to take that in: almost all of the practical work of government (save schools, hospitals, and transport) in our lives is carried out by municipalities, yet they are the most constrained and the most underfunded.

Thus, even when local representatives find overwhelming community support for initiatives, they may not be able to finance them. This is especially true because our local level of government is the only order not allowed to run a structural deficit. Councils can borrow for big projects, just not operational spending like they do in capital cities across the country.

Similarly, in circumstances when constituents may strongly oppose a project or development, councillors may be unable to stop it. Why? Because certain provincial legislation handcuffs City Hall. Take the Planning Act. It essentially says that the planning committee must accept and vote in favour of staff recommendations. If they do not, the committee must provide a compelling rationale for their descent — opening up a can of worms that is the quasi-judicial Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. And, at least currently, no committee members are planners. 

In other words, there is no definitive/binding local representation as such, only a body in place to ask good questions of projects progressing through the process. Of course, this is not bad, necessarily. In my experience, as vice-chair of the committee in question, 9/10 times staff make good recommendations, and often they will work with proponents to address both councillors’ and the public’s concerns. When they don’t, however rare as it is, there’s little that can be done by councillors. The power of the planning professionals is the first example of technocracy that limits local representation.

The second, is the increasing digitization of city operations, specifically the ‘Contact Us’ feature. When residents make complaints, ideally they do so through the portal just mentioned. It’s intended to streamline response times by staff and gather data on concerns around the city. Rightly so. The more information we can have, and the less pain for residents to have their queries addressed, the better. While I think the communications staff responsible for this project are very capable and caring people, and are doing a terrific job ironing out the wrinkles in the process, I am weary of the endeavour at a high-level. Indeed, my concerns are not personal or professional, they are philosophical. I wonder whether and how councillors are of use if everything happens online. The cups of tea, shovelled sidewalks, picked up dog poo, seeing our neighbours, talking with them, phoning our councillor, working on things together — they all start to pale in comparison to a quick click of the mouse, a digital response, a canned answer.

To be incredibly clear, I am not calling into question the importance of transparent, accessible communication with municipal government, or any organization for that matter. It is a must. Tools like ‘Contact Us’ and even social media are important pieces for democracy. Nor am I suggesting an untoward attitude from the bureaucracy. On the contrary, they are in it for the city as much as anyone; they are good and decent people. But I am concerned that the inherent impersonality of these mechanisms add to the structural isolation of a community electing certain people to bring their thoughts and judgement to bear on issues on a daily basis.

Which leads to a question of whether or not that way of local representation is even relevant in today’s hyper-connected and troubled world.

Vol. 2: To work from the inside or out?

The results of last week’s federal election had been in for a while. I was watching into early Tuesday morning from a hotel room in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I was stranded, with my car in the shop, after a minor mishap on the highway headed home from visiting friends in Ohio — Thankfully, I voted early! The media pundits had all been weighing out the numbers, considering who and what and where things shook out for the federal parties. Then after some time, on CBC, columnist Andrew Coyne said what I had been thinking: If this election teaches us anything, it’s the need for proportional representation.

While the other commentators literally sighed at his insight, as if it was some preposterous proposition, he was right. The Conservatives won nearly 240,000 more votes than the Liberals (6.15 million to 5.91 million), but were awarded 36 fewer seats, losing the chance to govern, despite more people voting for them than any other party. Our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system once again distorted the outcome of an election. You might point to the same thing in the tarnishing of the Green Party who had 1.16 million votes compared to the Bloc Quebecois who had 1.37 million votes. The Greens received three seats, the Bloc more than 10 times that at 32 seats. The NDP, too, failed to get their fair shake, only securing half the number of seats compared to their corresponding share of the popular vote. In short, you could say the FPTP is bad for the right and the left of the political spectrum; it discriminates, regardless of party, delivering false results, time after time, after time.

I’ve articulated my thoughts on changing to proportional representation (PR) many a time in our community over the last 10 years. I won’t do so again. I cite the examples above, however, because they point to fundamental flaws in our democratic institutions. One of the flaws City Council has agreed to address in local voting by implementing ranked ballots for the next municipal election. But more than finding an antidote to the broken electoral system in and of itself, the fundamental flaws in question speaks to a question about the value of electing anyone to start.

To be sure, I am not questioning democracy writ large. The old adage often attributed to Churchill still stands: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for everything else.’ I am thinking about, though, whether working from ‘inside’ the system (as an elected official or bureaucrat) is of greater or less value from working outside (as an activist, community organizer, or engaged citizen/resident).

This is a conundrum I’ve considered for many years, first from the outside as a leader of a number of non-governmental organizations, and in between while running for office, and now inside, as a city councillor. You could say, my question is an exploration of the continuity and change between reformation and revolution and/or militancy and moderation — A framework I paraphrase from local Kingston author and farmer Aric McBay’s recent work Full Spectrum Resistance.

Throughout modern North American political history, many examples of this tension emerge. Jumping back 100 years to the suffragettes, or 50 years to the civil rights movement, 30 years to Quebec separatism, 10 years ago to Occupy Wall Street, or even today’s push for climate action, the dynamic between lobbying and organizing for system change is complex and paradoxical. Because, in fact, as much as all of these movements worked to mobilize the masses for a given cause, they seem to have found their completion in an institutional change. Women were enfranchised, black rights legislated, referendum held, Dodd-Frank Act passed, climate emergency declared, and all the action that followed. I simply wonder if external pressure is only ever hoping for internal results. If that is the case, does the latter need the former?

Enter local representation. As someone who lobbied the city, the province, and the federal government for a near decade on a number of social, environmental, economic, and democratic concerns, I never knew the impact of a letter writing campaign, rally, social media blitz, presentation to a municipal committee, and so on. These days, as I make decisions considering the evidence before me as a councillor, I am profoundly aware of the impact these actions have on council’s movements.

Yet it’s not a simple impact. It seems to me that local representatives are just like everyone else, inconsistent and sometimes confused. I don’t mean any disrespect to my colleagues. I count myself in the previous statement (as I think almost all of us would if we were honest). I also don’t mean to make excuses for politicians who lie — we should always try to keep our word. My point is rather that there is an important place for changing people’s minds, and being overwhelmed with correspondence and conversation can be part of that. In other words, outside pressure does make a difference.

Of course, if a councillor or influential bureaucrat is particularly implacable, the more exposure to a certain perspective may only serve to entrench them further in their views. But ideally, it does the opposite. A mass uprising on an issue destabilizes ideological stakeouts as folks consider that which is going on around them. This happened in my case with guns, as I wrote about previously. You can also see it happen regularly at council when a delegation comes: An individual or group of people present on an issue and, with the evidence provided, someone around the horseshoe changes their mind. I’ve also documented that when it came to the climate emergency motion passed in March.

The constant interplay that thus exists between outside and in is critically important for the health of our collective, societal life. One cannot exist without the other. Neither is of greater or lesser importance because, in the symbiotic relationship, each fuels and informs the other. And the local representative sits at the nexus, ideally listening to the outside as he/she/they make decisions on this inside. At least that’s what I’ve come to so far.   

Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” piece for the Kingstonist. He tweets @robert_kiley.

One thought on “The value of local representation

  • I was hoping you would do what you promised and have lights put up on Centennial , Edgar & Davis by now. I am very disappointed as this intersection is not getting any better in fact it’s worse every day. You promised to do your very best for us Robert.. have you done that yet ?

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