Municipalities bracing for high turnover in upcoming elections

EDMONTON — A high turnover rate is expected across Alberta for the upcoming municipal elections Oct. 18.

Former-Alberta Urban Municipalities of Alberta (AUMA)President Barry Morishita said it has been tough to be a municipal councillor over the last few years and that may be contributing to lower re-election rates across the province.

“COVID-19 has made it difficult, and quite frankly the conversations have happened on social media and some of the division that’s been created. It’s difficult to be an elected official at the municipal level,” Morishita said.

A lot of mayors in the mid-sized cities and larger cities, such as Edmonton and Calgary, are not running again, which will result in a loss of veteran leadership across the province.

On the bright side, Morishita said there is a lot of potential for new leadership to rise to the occasion. Many councillors who may not sit in the mayor’s chair and have the spotlight on them now have a chance to lead their communities.

Morishita, the mayor of Brooks, has been a municipal councillor for the last 16 of 22 years, with seven elections under his belt. He said there has never been so much negativity around being a local elected official.

“I’ve been trying to get people to run in my city … but they see what happens on social media … and they just don’t want to do it,” Morishita said.

“You have to deal with your social media and have to deal with people that say things about you.”

The intensity and scrutiny of the job has never been higher and not in a productive way, Morishita said.

Mayor Ted Clugston of Medicine Hat said it has been a “horrific” year because of COVID-19 and he understands why councillors aren’t running again.

“It’s vicious and COVID-19 proved it,” Clugston said.

Most mayors and councillors can make more money in the private sector and work normal hours with a decent life, Clugston said, who added he is running again because he has many projects he wants to tackle still for Medicine Hat.

Having to make health-care decisions as a mayor and wade into health decisions was stressful, Clugston said,

“You wouldn’t want me to tell you what heart medication to take, but yet you wanted me to tell you whether to wear a mask or not and, in my opinion, was that the right thing for your health,” Clugston said.

“It was a health emergency, not a municipal emergency.”

Mayors got pressured to declare states of emergency because they wanted to calm the panic in the communities. The decision on what to do with masks and COVID-19 tore councils apart.

Along with dealing with negativity on social media and battling COVID-19, many people go into municipal politics expecting it to be a part-time job, but it ends up being a much bigger time commitment than they anticipated.

Many people go in trying to balance their full-time job with serving on council, and it can be a shock to find out it isn’t just a part-time gig, Morishita said, although some people grow into the role and will love it.

“But lots of people, you know, they have other demands. They either have young families or they have other jobs, and I think that certainly is a factor,” Morishita said.

“The demands are higher, as well as the accountability is higher. People are paying more attention.”

Many people look at the stress of the job and decide to choose another path to serve their community without having to be in the spotlight.

For some council members, they are labelled as part-time employees and work closer to full-time hours, but don’t get compensated for their time.

“It prevents a lot of people from doing the job,” Morishita said.

Working professionals often aren’t compensated enough for losing wages at their primary jobs to financially offset joining a council for lower pay.

“Then the pool gets smaller because a full-time worker can’t do a good job in the time that they have, and if they could get paid more, then they could kind of give up more on the other income to balance it out,” Morishita said.

Councillor turnover can also be an issue.

If many councillors in one community turn over at the same time, it may take a long time for a council to get started on executing their priorities.

In some races in the province there is expected to be some significant turnover, where three-quarters or more of the elected officials will not be running again, and Morishita said he believes those places are going to be disadvantaged at least in the early months of the term.

“It takes a long time to get going. It’s a different arena if you’ve never been a municipal councillor,” Morishita said.

In Okotoks, Morishita said only one councillor, Tanya Thorn, has announced she is running for mayor, after their current major Bill Robertson announced he wasn’t running again and then tragically passed away. The rest of council has yet to declare whether they are running, and Morishita said they expect almost the entire council to turn over to new candidates.

Many of the councillors in Okotoks have been on council for a long time, Morishita said, and there hasn’t been one thing driving them not to run again, but rather they have all served several terms and are ready to move on.

Clugston said if there is an inexperienced mayor on council with a lot of candidates running on poliarizing issues, such as the fallout from COVID-19, it could tear the council apart with everybody wanting to go in different directions.

“The job of the mayor is to build consensus,” Clugston said.

“I think it will be tough for that first year to have a completely new council.”

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