However, a closer examination of the numbers suggest that the interest is greater for the Mayor and the At-Large Councillors. Compared to the 2014 election, the number of candidates for Mayor is up from 6 to 11 – a 83 percent increase while the number seeking at At-Large position grew from 19 to 26 – an increase of 37 percent. However, those seeking a Ward Councillor position fell from 26 to 24 – an 8 percent drop. On the bright side, numbers for both the Lakehead and Separate Boards were also up from 2014.
What is interesting is how the numbers changed from early in July when the story was all about how the number of candidates was down considerably from the previous election. It appears that all the hand-wringing about a lack of candidates was for naught as numbers increased quite rapidly for the At-Large race and four wards- Current River, Red River, McIntyre and Neebing. As the accompanying figure shows, over the course of the last three weeks of the nomination period the number of candidates for At-Large position rose from five to 15 and then reached 26. The candidates for Current River grew from one to two and then reached four. McIntyre grew from one to three and Red River from two to three. As for Neebing, it acquired four additional entrants on the very last day preventing the acclamation of the incumbent. On the other hand, the Mayor’s race rose from 8 to 11 despite one of the candidates leaving the race and choosing to run At-Large, perhaps exhibiting a preference for wanting to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven.
Some may interpret this as a sign that Thunder Bay needs to get rid of the wards and simply have At-Large candidates. However, I think the relative lack of interest in the ward positions is because they are more work as the ward councilor is often the lead contact for complaints from ratepayers and voters when something goes awry in the ward. At-Large Councillors have no specific ward responsibility and can hide from specific ward related issues if they choose to and at the same time roam the city picking and choosing issues and projects that appeal to them.
There are two mains reasons for going with an all-ward as opposed to an all at-large system. First, municipal government is about services to local property and there needs to be a clear demarcation of geographic areas with someone responsible for services and issues in that area. A ward-based representative is more attuned to grass roots concerns. Side stepping that argument with the claim that At-Large councilors represent everybody is really an excuse for them to represent nobody in particular. Second, having At-Large councilors essentially amounts to having mini-mayors and the costs of campaigning when everyone is At-Large will quickly approximate those of running for mayor putting self-funded candidates at more of a disadvantage. Ward campaigns are generally cheaper to run and a greater variety of candidates emerge. Indeed, one can argue that councils elected by a ward system will have a greater diversity of representatives in terms of socio-economic background than a council elected At-Large.
Some might argue that in Thunder Bay you need only At-Large councilors because they keep the interests of the entire city in mind while ward councilors are too neighborhood focused and parochial. To that I would say it is not 1970 anymore. The At-Large/Ward hybrid system is a pretty unique one and the result of the old urban rivalry between Port Arthur and Fort William at the time of Amalgamation. Thunder Bay is nearly 50 years old and ward councilors are able to address both the needs of their neighborhoods as well as the needs of the entire city and do so by being democratically accountable to a given geographically based set of local constituents. In the end, municipal government is about services to local property and having ward representatives is the best way to keep councilors accountable to ratepayers.
I think the next City Council should seriously consider reforming the system, but they should go to one that is entirely ward based with 8 ward councilors plus a Mayor. The boundaries of the new wards should be designed to encompass approximately 11,000-13,000 people each and to change things up they should simply be numbered wards. The Council elected this October will be in office for 2020 – the 50th anniversary of Amalgamation and the creation of Thunder Bay. This should be an opportunity to celebrate Thunder Bay as well as use the milestone as an opportunity to revisit the original institutional arrangements.