Low voter turnout expected for Saturday's civic elections
Published Monday, November 14, 2011 6:47AM PST Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:34AM PDT
Polls for about 250 civic bodies open this Saturday, giving British Columbians the opportunity to choose who will fill more than 1,600 offices including mayor, council and school board trustee.
From cities grappling with Occupy encampments, to covering costs for a new rapid transit system in the Lower Mainland, local hopefuls are campaigning on issues that impact citizens directly every day.
Yet many officials are already expecting to be ushered in without strong shows of support.
Municipal elections in B.C. historically suffer from the lowest voter turnouts of any level of politics. Experts say about half as many people make the effort to vote in civic elections as compared to provincial contests, while provincial elections draw about 10 per cent fewer voters than federal races.
"It is a very poor showing and it's kind of paradoxical, because you would think the closer the politics is to your home, the more likely it is you might participate," said Prof. Hamish Telford, director of the political science department at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Instead, people have a mistaken belief they need not pay much attention because whatever decisions are made won't result in catastrophe, he said.
"It's not the City of Abbotsford that's going to take me into the war in Afghanistan," said Telford.
But cities' powers do range from hiking property taxes and managing policing to shouldering water and waste responsibilities, operating public transportation and infrastructure development.
While leadership will be tested on all these issues, several municipalities turn on a few key issues.
Whether the Occupy camp should stay or go has seemingly stolen the show in Vancouver, where participants have even hijacked two mayoral debates to shout at frontrunners Gregor Robertson, the incumbent, and Suzanne Anton.
Anton has taken a hardline from the start, saying the tents should have never been erected in the first place and once they were up should have been immediately forced down. Robertson has taken a more conciliatory tone with participants, but quickly closed the gap in his position by bringing the situation to court. City lawyers are now asking a judge to shut it down.
That drama will play out in the three days just ahead of polling this week, as it will come Tuesday in Victoria, where a similarly contentious camp remains staked in the ground.
East of Vancouver, the public may be driven to vote based on their views of a two-cent-a-litre gas tax being implemented to fund cities' portion of a $1.4 billion extension of the SkyTrain. The Evergreen Line, which has been 20 years in the making, will link Coquitlam and Port Moody to Burnaby, Vancouver and Surrey.
Sixteen among a group of 22 mayors voted in early October to approve the tax that will also support ten other transportation projects. Those in favour included Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender and North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and Richmond's Malcolm Brodie were among those opposed.
In Abbotsford, debate is awash with talk over a $300 million project to regenerate the city's water supply to match population growth in a public-private-partnership. Voters will be asked their opinion on the issue in a referendum question.
Mission city officials may face heat over a bylaw mess that allowed the fire marshall to charge high inspection fees when homeowners were consuming massive quantities of electricity. The goal was to route out illegal grow-ops, but some homeowners who were charged despite being innocent have sued, and the city has since suspended the bylaw.
Voters in Williams Lake will be weighing in on the proposed $1-billion Prosperity mine project, which has been rejigged by Taseko Mines (TSX:TKO) after the federal government blocked its approval last year for environmental reasons.
Kamloops will be the first B.C. municipality to provide Braille ballots to voters.
In other municipalities, certain candidates have grabbed the spotlight.
Paul Hebert, whose three-year-old son was kidnapped and then safely returned in September, has his sights set on a council seat in southeastern Sparwood.
Travis Daleman, who's running for mayor in Abbotsford, only turned old enough to vote -- 18 -- a few weeks before the polls. Meanwhile, at 78 years old, Port McNeill Mayor Gerry Furney is gunning for re-election after already spending the past 36 years running the Vancouver Island town.
Prince George mayoralty candidate Bruce Fader is drawing unwanted attention for posting violent, erotic poetry online.
Brian Alexander says he's undaunted from vying for Kamloops' mayor, despite spending three nights in jail in mid-October. The candidate was arrested on charges of obstruction of a police officer and failure to produce a driver's licence and insurance.
In Burnaby, a parents' group that fought the passage of Burnaby school district's anti-homophobia policy will field five candidates for school trustee.
In the last general local election of 2008, 3,050 candidates ran for 1,660 offices in 250 local bodies, according to the Local Elections Government Task Force that reported to the province in May 2010.
Despite the wealth of choices, Simon Fraser University Prof. Patrick Smith predicts voter turnout in most cities won't see major flux, helping the incumbents to retain their seats.
"Other than this Occupy movement, this election has the potential to not have any issues that have resonance with the voters," said the director of the Institute of Governance Studies. "Across a lot of cities, we're not close to any major protesting on the streets on most things."