Term Limits, Municipal Parties and Democratic Reform

Term limits restrict effective politicians and lifers alike, but political parties might end council deadlock and improve municipal politics.

By Chris Erl
Published March 25, 2009

Hamilton is a city of buzz-words. Depending on the month, the situation and the event, the word on the lips of every Hamiltonian media personality, local politician and engaged citizen is essentially the same. Foyer. Stelco. Marble. Tapegate. Democracy (and its foreshadowed death).

This month, it would seem, we have a buzz word that is not just one word; it's two: Term Limits.

To set the tone for discussing term limits, it is essential to refer back to a quote by a prominent American thinker of the 20th century that addresses the situation.

When discussing politics, he causally quipped, "Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant [politicians]!"

Of course, by his own admission, George Carlin hated many elements of society.

So what of the issue at hand? Recently, the Chamber of Commerce stated that term limits for municipal politicians may be a way to break the deadlock apparent in council and ensure greater transparency.

The Chamber, it would seem, has brought to light an issue that must be addressed in Hamilton if any real progress is to be made in the area of municipal governance.

Yet if they are considering suggesting term limits as the way to improve the speed with which issues are dealt in the council chamber, they may wish to look at another suggestion.

Remove the Good with the Bad

Term limits do little to improve the problems the plague our council. Yes, it would see politicians like Dave Mitchell and Tom Jackson dismissed after exuberantly lengthy stints in local politics, but there are downsides.

It removes the less desirable politicians in our midst after a set number of years, but it also does that to the excellent politicians.

If we do elect a man or woman who serves with vigor and passion, dedicates themselves to their community and gets real results for their constituents, then why should they be removed from office after eight years as opposed to at the will of their constituents?

Democratically speaking, the best way to gauge the efficiency and effectiveness of a politician is by looking at their results come election night.

So what can be done outside the realm of limiting the number of terms a politician is allowed to serve?

Municipal Political Parties

One suggestion that makes many Hamiltonians apprehensive is the introduction of party slates. Today, there is deadlock in council, attributable to the fact that we elect 16 independents to city council instead of 16 aligned individuals.

If, for example, we elected a city council along the three major party lines, we would begin to see motions passed and implemented in a faster manner then they are now.

Using a specific example, let's say a motion is tabled calling for an alteration of the Hamiltonian flag. The New Democratic caucus sits down, drafts the motion, and presents it with a forwarder and the seconder coming from their ranks.

The motion is presented, and the Liberal and Conservative caucuses sit down together to decide how they will vote on the motion. The Liberals oppose it, the Conservatives support it, and it passes with the support of two of the party blocs.

Right now, if the same motion is tabled in council, you would get 16 different opinions on the matter, each of which would be tugging and pulling at either side of the debate until the issue is so warped and frayed that it remains only shadow of what it once was.

Under a party system, aligned councillors would huddle in caucus to come up with a collective statement that would address each of their concerns.

Toward Democratic Reform

A party slate would not, of course, be in the best interests of the Chamber. Given the progressive nature of our city's politics, any unification amongst the left-leaning groups could produce an environment hardly conducive to their business interests.

Conservative groups would vocally oppose this measure as there are more urban wards then suburban wards, and, statistically, urban areas (in Hamilton especially) vote progressive.

Yet in the interests of democracy, Hamiltonians should consider this as an option to improve municipal politics and the way council operates.

The opportunities for a party slate system are abundant. Thanks to the Chamber addressing the democratic strife in City Hall, this issue has been brought to where it needs to be: the forefront.

With any luck, the buzzword on everyone's mind now will be democratic reform.

Chris Erl, a born and raised Hamiltonian, has wanted to change the world ever since becoming the Westwood Elementary School Chief Returning Officer in Grade 5. After receiving both a B.A. (Honours) and M.A. from McMaster, Chris decided to purse his passion and study urban planning.

In addition to serving on the City of Hamilton’s LGBTQ Advisory Committee, Chris is also a registered candidate for Public School Board trustee in Wards 1 & 2.


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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2009 at 15:33:49

I've never liked the idea of slates in municipal elections. While I agree that it makes for more homogeneity, it also ends up with people dividing along party lines, and unwilling to move from the "party position" despite the position of local constituents on the issue, or their own personal position.

Other problems with slates include the fact that our politicians seem incapable of performing as a minority government - as can be seen based on how little minority governments accomplishment, and how much discontent they create. Say what you will but it seems to me that Canadians prefer majority governments. Which is where we get one of the bigger concerns for me.

If you have a majority government in city council you get a situation where the majority engages in groupthink, where they refuse to acknowledge, or simply don't think about, the views of the minority parties. At the same time minorities being treated this way will of course do anything they can to disrupt, stall, delay, the council as a way of expressing their frustration with the majority forcing through their own agenda.

Slates will not help rural areas that were forced into amalgamation feel like they have any more say. If anything it risks creating an even more defined rift between rural and urban councillors since you can now vote for a separatist party (you know it'll happen).

It's sad that we really have to think about bringing in parties or term limits to "solve" our municipal problems. You'd think our councillors would all be interested in at least moving in a common direction. You also think that the people of Hamilton would pay more attention to the dysfunctional nature of municipal politics and decide to give some of the councillors the boot for their ridiculous actions.

I agree something has to be done, but I think we must realize that no system is perfect, and we would want to carefully consider the pros and cons of each proposal. We should also consider the various methods of implementing each proposal before moving ahead.

Unfortunately I think council has an interest in leaving things the way they are now.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 25, 2009 at 23:06:49

I'm against parties in any shape. Things get done quicker, but usually poorly. Best example is anything in the states where they've essentially narrowed every decision down to that of two positions, which often enough are the same or similar enough. Less opinions results in poorer representation. There does need to be a more effective way for councilors to reach agreement on issues, but parties isn't a way I'd want to see it taken care of.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted March 26, 2009 at 09:20:33

WHat we really need to do is throw out the current wards and redraw them from scratch, basedon population figures. Each councillor should represent a similar number of voters, and the old divisions of previous wards, neighbouhoods and pre-amalgamation townships should be wiped out.

THis would make the representation more fair while at the same time promoting "hamilton" instead of "old hamilton" versus "new hamilton"

While I question term limits in general, one thing is for sure - 25 years is too long. I think having a 2 term limit, with allowable re-run after a term off might have some success.

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By Deputy Dawg (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 10:12:08

While I too am not in favour of the current 'party system' for a municipal government, there is something to be said about a 'team' slate of candidates who all speak of similar goals and objectives for the municipality. I am not convinced that the rural areas will be excluded, as there is a dire need for rural inclusion when it comes to matters of Hamilton planning.

Term limits should be set by the voter. The problem is, and I hate to say it, is that the voter is not well educated with municipal matters, and as such only votes with the one they are most familiar. Consider this, as an average voter, which is more important to you... Your concern over matters which effect your immediate surroundings (ie- speeding in your neighbourhood, neighbourhood parks, pot holes on your street, your Councilor attending neighbourhood meetings, et al)? Or, matters which effect the greater City (ie- culture and rec, waste management, waste water management, police services, et al)? Statistically speaking, voters view the first question as being more important than the second question...the proof is in the high rate of incumbents re-elected.

Another consideration could be to form an Executive Team, similar to that of Winnipeg. The other is to push for Community Councils...something which is greatly lacking and needed in this City. We don't need to set Term Limits, we need to engage citizens to allow them the opportunity to hold those elected accountable!

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted March 27, 2009 at 11:50:07

Hey everyone,

Some good points have been raised and its nice to see people are getting involved in a much needed debate.

To address the point about party slates, I simply used the current examples because they would be the easiest to work from. If we look to Vancouver, they have 3 major parties that are (for the most part) unaligned with the existing parties. They also have an elected Green Party which, as far as I know, is mostly separate from the national and provincial party. In Hamilton, we can do the same thing, creating an umbrella left party, for example, that would unite Greens, New Democrats and other unaligned progressives.

As for the ward issue, I could not agree more. I hope council stays true to it's promise of altering the ward boundaries during the 2010-2014 council and finally gives us a little representation by population.

I'm glad that people are addressing this debate and hopefully it will be a major issue in 2010.

-Chris Erl

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted March 30, 2009 at 12:13:10

As usual, two separate things are being conflated. With any talk of "democratic reform", we must recognize that efficiency (defined as rapid procedural rule) and democratic participation exist in tension. The most "efficient" system would be a dictatorship. Real democracy, as opposed to the pseudo-democratic spectacle of elections, takes time. That's why it's realization is bound up in a simultaneous movement for a shortened workweek, living wage (or guaranteed income), and a people-oriented technology. Holistically, I think this is more efficient.

Chris: I don't like political parties. And I'm not sure why they work for municipal progressives, but it tentatively seems to be the case. Are you familiar with the Montreal Citizens' Movement? In the seventies, the MCM ousted a corrupt business-politician alliance (sound familiar?) and brought a broadly left-libertarian political alliance into power. However, while they made some worthwhile reforms, they failed at truly bringing political power to the citizens.

Ultimately, it's not the specific procedures of representation, but representation itself, that's holding democracy back. Real democracy is direct and participatory. As long term goals, let's run on the creation of binding popular assemblies in which all citizens can participate. Instead of career representatives, let's have recallable delegates that merely deliver the votes of the assemblies. Instead of amalgamation, let's demand confederation. Instead of "transparency", let's break down the wall between people and local government altogether.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 30, 2009 at 13:37:01

LL wrote:

As long term goals, let's run on the creation of binding popular assemblies in which all citizens can participate.

I strongly support the idea of increased public participation in political decision making (after all, it's kind of the point of RTH), but I'm not persuaded that binding popular assemblies are the way to go.

As laudable as the idea sounds, my concern is that it simply trades one unequal distortion of democratic will (unequal access to money to influence political representation) for another (unequal access to time to influence assembly votes).

Most people don't have either the time or inclination to do politics on a regular basis. That's why we hire politicians to do it for us. :)

I worry that binding popular assemblies would be even less representative than today's representative bodies. If the broad majority of citizens don't already mobilize between elections to influence political decisions, I see no reason to assume that that same broad majority would maintain regular attendance at the assemblies.

We'd likely end up with a more extreme version of government by narrow special interest than we already have.

Also, your notion that participatory democracy means everyone gets to vote seems to conflict with your notion that there's more to democracy than voting. As you wrote, "Real democracy, as opposed to the pseudo-democratic spectacle of elections, takes time."

If we want more participatory democracy, we first need to establish, nurture and cultivate broad-based community organizing - not only as a countervail to corporate, institutional power centres but also as a source of innovative policy ideas so we're not just doing the same things over and over again (and expecting a different result, as the saying goes).

If that culture of community engagement becomes more entrenched, then it may be worth re-thinking the actual structure of decision making bodies.

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By another capitalist (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2009 at 17:32:35

Some good comments!

In my humble opinion, I would like to see the Ward system scrapped.

I would like 10 councillors elected at large.

I would like a Term limit of two consecutive at a time.

I believe that the Mayor's position should have real power and it have a Veto position that can only be overturned by 2/3 of council.

In this system, kingdoms setup under the Ward system are gone. You have to have real ideas that appeal to the majority of voters.

I believe that position should also be paid better.

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