Believe it or not, there are some smaller municipalities in Ontario where the municipal election is no big deal. We now have less than a week to vote in what is turning out to be a very interesting election. Despite the ugly and annoying bits, this is still a good thing.
There are 444 municipalities in Ontario, and according to the Association of Ontario Municipalities (AMO), 120 municipalities have had their head of council (mayor, reeve, etc) acclaimed in this election. These numbers are up from the last municipal election. Of the 3,273 municipal positions up for grabs this election, 536 have been acclaimed. Journalists from several media outlets are fretting the state of democracy itself.
Thankfully — with the exception of the various school board positions — this is not the case in the City of Kawartha Lakes.
Five candidates were acclaimed in this election: four English public school board trustees and the city’s lone separate school board representative. This should give us pause: our local school board TLDSB (which covers more than the CKL) had a budget in 2017-18 of just shy of $214 million dollars. That’s a lot of public money being spent on our kids and the trustees are our voice in all the important decisions and oversight on our kids’ education. So here’s hoping that next election there are people willing to put themselves forward for what is often a thankless job.
But, if the number of candidates running for a council seat is is any indication, democracy seems alive and well in the CKL: there are 40 people running for nine positions. Following the various social media sites reveals that in some wards (Ward 5 for example) voters are suffering from an embarrassment of riches — there have been several posts by voters lamenting the number of qualified candidates. The reduction from 16 to 8 wards has no doubt intensified the battle to represent our wards.
This election is also the first with the new laws for third party advertising. The City’s only registered third party advertiser, Bill Denby, is most definitely stirring the pot, so to speak. He has now claimed authorship for the anonymous, so-called report on Mayor Letham, and he has been contacting candidates in every ward. Denby’s latest crusade is to call for a forensic audit of the last council and claims that he will get this through his close relationship with “honest Premier Ford.”
Readers will remember that Denby finished a distant last place in the race for Mayor in the last election. Denby’s involvement is not a welcome addition for many voters and candidates alike, with several candidates complaining to The Lindsay Advocate about his style and treatment of others. But like it or not, he is a registered third party advertiser, and according to Aaron Sloan, manager, municipal law enforcement in the CKL, “we have had a number of queries and complaints [about Denby’s signs]. The MLE Division’s staff investigated and removed a couple of Mr. Denby’s signs. Mr. Denby has been very open and approachable about the signs and the MLE division has provided education and direction to Mr. Denby. The current version (as seen Monday morning) meet the requirements of the Election Sign By-law.”
And then you’ve got Ontario Proud, the right-wing advocacy group that is running promoted and branded ads on Facebook targeting the CKL. As discussed previously in the Advocate, Ontario Proud is not a registered third party advertiser in the CKL. Complaints have been made to the City about this so hopefully the issue is at least investigated at some point. If it’s not investigated, the third party rules are pretty well useless. (Maybe they should go on wherever the pile is that we keep studies about a second bridge in Fenelon Falls or the Colborne Street Bridge in Lindsay.)
Elections have always had an element of rumour and hearsay, and for that matter, outright lies. These days, we have social media to amplify and ‘echo-chamber’ any number of half-truths: spin can now reach lightning speed — and nothing has to be true to be believed. Let’s face it — too many people get all of their ‘information’ from social media. The Russians know this — it’s why they used Facebook and Twitter to hack the last U.S. election. Ontario Proud knows this, too.
Arguing about politics with someone on Facebook is kind of like wrestling with a pig. After about 15 minutes, you realize the pig likes it. Call me old-school, but I think facts are important. And facts need context, research, comparison, and reason.
Perhaps nowhere in the city is the combination of reduced wards, the effect social media can have and a ‘good-ole bare-knuckled’ election more evident than ward six, the battle royale of this year’s election. This ward has an astounding seven contenders vying to represent the ward (which includes Downeyville, Reaboro, Dunsford, Omemee.) Among the seven are two sitting councillors and two former councillors (making the argument over who can use the word ‘re-elect’ in a brand new ward, well, interesting.)
With only five days left in the election, this race shows no sign of calming down. At least two campaigns have made complaints to the police. There have been any number of allegations — and the last all-candidates meeting (held at the Coronation Hall in Omemee on October 11) had two security guards and two uniformed police. Things seemed to reach a fever-pitch at that Omemee meeting when one candidate, Ron Ashmore, was alleged to have used the ‘c-word’ and ‘b-word’ towards a female candidate.
The Ashmore campaign has vehemently denied the allegations. The Lindsay Advocate was told, on the record, by candidate Jeff Farquhar at that debate, that he heard Ashmore say those words. The on-line squabbling is just as acrimonious: In a post on Ashmore’s election Facebook page (using an image of Winston Churchill) Ashmore claims the high ground decrying “The social media mob attacks anyone whose ideas they dislike.” This post makes no mention of a now-deleted tweet from the Ashmore campaign where he called one candidate a “compulsive liar and mentally ill” and accused another candidate of a sexual assault in 1982 — all in the same tweet. Social media mob attack, indeed. (After the original publication of this article, Ashmore has apologized for that deleted tweet.)
More interestingly, Ashmore’s Facebook page has reposts of the Ontario Proud posts, proving that this campaign is being used to influence the election. Ashmore’s campaign also features several reposts of Gord James’ campaign for mayor. This is a glimpse of what will happen when we allow provincial and federal groups into our election surreptitiously through groups like Ontario Proud: even municipal elections will become a partisan screaming match, with ‘slates’ of candidates. For his part, James has not officially endorsed a candidate in the ward, telling the Advocate, “I have not endorsed Ron.”
All of the mayoral candidates, when specifically asked about the tone of this campaign, reported to the Advocate that for the most part it has been a very civil campaign, which is promising. Some candidates reported missing signs but in general this was described as being ’on par’ with previous elections.
For those of us who have already voted, we can now just watch — hopefully not as one would a WWE cage match. I think one commentator on the dodgy (at least as far as third party advertiser rules go) Ontario Proud posts got it right when they said ‘you have to get out to meetings.’
Deciding who to vote for isn’t the hard part of democracy, it’s the easiest. Holding your representatives accountable, through reasoned debate, vigilant oversight and civil discourse — throughout their term — is the real work. Simply liking a Facebook meme is not going to do that hard work for us.