THE BLOG

Are We Paying Enough Attention to Municipal Politics?

07/29/2013 12:34 EDT | Updated 09/28/2013 05:12 EDT

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Mississauga's rapid growth and change illustrates the importance of municipal politics in shaping the direction of cities.

In recent weeks, municipal politics in Canada has seemed to be getting more attention, even if for the wrong reasons.

There was Rob Ford-- mayor of Toronto, the largest city in the country -- gaining international media attention over alleged use of crack, something that prompted mass resignations of his staff. This, of course, was the culmination of bizarre behaviour -- such as frivolously calling 911 -- not to mention baffling policies -- such as championing a mega casino that would have damaged downtown Toronto, and wanting to eliminate bike lanes.

This anti-urban attitude from Toronto's mayor comes at a time when many suburban mayors in the Greater Toronto Area are realizing the benefits of sustainable urbanism -- walkability, bikeability, and good urban planning. Oakville's mayor Rob Burton is a champion of sustainable growth policies and long-time Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion -- once dubbed the "Queen of Sprawl" -- has since become a champion of sustainable urban policies that prioritize walkability and mass transit. A priority of hers recently has been the establishment of a walkable and bikeable downtown for Mississauga.

Of course, Rob Ford is not the only mayor making news for the wrong reasons, with the mayor of Montreal having been forced to resign amid corruption charges and the mayor of Laval, Quebec resigning over sexual misconduct charges. Both these mayors had recently replaced previous office-holders who had to resign amid corruption.

This is of course not to say that all (or even the majority of) Canadian mayors are disasters. Calgary's mayor Naheed Nenshi has become nationally known for his thoughtful and intelligent approach to politics, for championing sustainable urban planning policiesaimed at curbing Calgary's car-dependent sprawl -- raising the crucial question of what kind of growth Calgarians want (as it is not just about growth in and of itself).

Nonetheless, despite the many good examples of Canadian mayors, some of the bad examples -- especially those like Rob Ford who cast a bad reputation on their city -- raises the question, are we paying enough attention to municipal politics? And, especially, are we paying enough attention to who gets elected to municipal office?

Voter turnouts in municipal elections are often lower than that of provincial and federal races. In many cases, municipal politicians may be subjected to less scrutiny and media attention than elected officials at the provincial and federal level.

Are we paying enough attention to municipal politics? After all, cities are important economic engines and municipal governments do make key decisions that affect the type of city people live in -- whether the direction of development be that of car-dependent sprawl or walkable downtown-like neighbourhoods, whether landscapes are generic box store developments or development that enhances the unique character of a city. Municipal politicians make crucial decisions on roads and infrastructure, on mass transit, and are the closest to the ground on issues of affordable housing.

There are also issues of density and heritage properties that affect the character of neighbourhoods, of conservation that is crucial to green spaces, to preservation of wetlands.

Fredericton's last municipal election saw a substantive discussion of the direction of growth and development in the city, sparked by the mayoral candidacy of sociology professor Matthew Hayes. Hayes raised concerns about land-use and sprawl in the city, about the city becoming increasingly spread out and car-dependent -- something that brings additional infrastructure costs in roads and other services, and can even affect health as people walk less.

As a small city in the Maritime provinces of Canada, Fredericton has a unique character that is important to preserve, mixed-use downtown-like neighbourhoods, which foster walkability and community, are important in preserving and enhancing quality of life.

This was all a valuable discussion that Hayes sparked, and showed the importance of municipal politics in shaping the future of the neighbourhoods and city in which we live.

Tom Urbaniak, in his biography of Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, highlighted that while she deserves credit for leading Mississauga through a time of tumultuous change -- as it transitioned from a series of towns and rural areas into a full-fledged suburban edge city -- a problem was the lack of media coverage and scrutiny given to a suburban municipality and, especially, the lack of a real debate about Mississauga's development.

For a long time, Mississauga city council consisted only of McCallion loyalists, true public debate was lacking. In particular, debate on the spread of automobile dependent sprawl in Mississauga, of generic box store and strip mall developments, and of heritage properties not protected.

With the 92-year-old mayor having announced that she will not run another term, the next mayoral election could potentially open the way for a full public debate on Mississauga's future. Growth and prosperity are desirable, but there also has to be a serious question about the type of growth that is desirable.

Municipal politics cannot be taken for granted, it cannot be considered merely the lowest tier of government. Municipalities can be seen as the level of government closest to the people, crucial debates and decisions on urban planning -- fundamental to determining the character of a city -- on service provision, on conservation, and other areas play out at the municipal level.

We need competent and capable elected officials at the municipal level subject to full scrutiny, municipal politics is an important forum that must not be neglected.