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5 Ways To Enhance Local Government And Democracy In Surrey

10/15/2014 06:14 EDT | Updated 12/15/2014 05:59 EST
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I love civic elections and good governance. Not surprisingly, I am quite excited about the election in Surrey because there is a tight three-way race for mayor between Barinder Rasode of One Surrey, Doug McCallum with his Safe Surrey Coalition, and Linda Hepner of Surrey First.

It is difficult to say who will be crowned "Your Worship." Nonetheless, I'd like to highlight five things about the vote and the election process that need to change to enhance our local government and democracy. I hope whoever gets elected in Surrey will take note and turn some of these ideas into a reality.

Time for campaign finance reform

In the 2011 civic election, Dianne Watts and her Surrey First team received $676,283 in contributions. Most of this money came from developers and business.

On the other hand, Bob Bose who ran with the Surrey Civic Coalition for a spot as a city councillor received only $29,920 for his entire slate. Most of this money came from unions, construction firms, and some industrial companies.

Surrey First basically flooded voters with a well-financed campaign, while Bose and his team where trying to get their message across on a shoestring budget.

In Vancouver, the situation is even worse, in terms of the millions necessary to run a campaign. In 2011, the NPA received $2,555,707, compared to Vision Vancouver's $2,227,402. The left-of-centre COPE only managed to secure $361,120.

As you can see, there is not a level playing field. A quick solution would be to cap donations such as from corporations, unions, and third parties including restricting third-party advertising from special interest groups.

Ethical and conflict of interest problems

This invasion of big money in politics creates many ethical and conflict of interest problems for local politicians. For example, a mayor or city councillor should not be voting on any proposal involving a union, corporation, or developer if they received a significant donation from them. This is just common sense. The end result would be politicians voting for what is in the best interests of the citizens and their city, instead of what is in the best interests of their donors.

The end of 'one person, one vote'

Another problem with the election is allowing non-resident property owners to vote. Basically if a person owns property in 10 different towns or cities in B.C., then he or she could vote 10 times throughout the province. This diminishes the democratic principle of "one person, one vote" and skews democracy in favour of property owners or the wealthy.

Residency requirement

What is even more ridiculous is that a candidate only needs to live in B.C. for six months prior to the election in order to be a candidate for local office. In other words, you can parachute candidates from all over the province to run for office in your city.

It makes sense for candidates to live in your city, never mind the province, for at least three years prior to the election so they are familiar with the issues and have built a track record in the city.

Return to the ward system

Last, Surrey needs to return to the ward system. The mayor and three councillors can be elected at-large and seven councilors can be elected to represent all the town centres in Surrey. This would give Surrey the same representation as Vancouver -- which is more than appropriate considering the growing size and stature of Surrey.

A ward system makes politics more accessible for the citizen. A candidate doesn't need thousands of dollars to run a city-wide campaign or to seek the nomination of a political slate. Independents would have a good chance of getting elected. This is because the elections would be held in smaller neighbourhood districts or wards.

In a ward system the citizens become politically engaged and well-represented with their own city councillor to focus on the specific issues, needs, and challenges, as well as the strengths of their community.

There you go! My five things about the elections and the election process that need to change to enhance our local government and democracy. Let's make it happen first in Surrey.

Alex Sangha is an award winning social worker and author based in Surrey, B.C. Alex has an MSc in Public Administration and Public Policy from the Department of Government from the London School of Economics. To contact Alex, email alexsangha@gmail.com.

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