With no one else running, Bill Holden is walking into another term as mayor of his small Manitoba town — and he’s far from the only one.
Almost half the province’s 135 municipalities having elections this year — 64 — will see their heads of council acclaimed because they had no competitors, data from the Association of Manitoba Municipalities shows.
That’s just over 47 per cent, up from 41 per cent in 2018 and 36 per cent in 2014. Of those municipalities, 17 have had their heads of council acclaimed for three straight elections, a CBC News analysis shows.
And five of them, including Holden in the southwestern Manitoba town of Melita, have had the same person acclaimed as head of council every election since 2014.
The retiree — who’s leading the town of about 1,000 after decades working on the railway and running a movie theatre with his wife, Marilyn — said it’s a fulfilling role. And while he thinks competition is always good, he can see why people might hesitate to throw their hat in the ring.
“If you really do it right, it’s a time-consuming [job]. You’ve got to put in the effort,” Holden said.
“And of course … you really don’t get much [pay] to be a councillor or mayor of a smaller community, so that part doesn’t attract anybody at all. But you do have to do it for the love of your community.”
Melita resident Marilyn Anderson said she sees pros and cons to having the same leader for so long without any competition.
But she can also see why more people aren’t putting their names forward — so she’s glad the person holding the title is someone she feels does a good job.
“It’s a big commitment,” said the retired care home worker, who’s lived in town for 16 years and before that lived in a nearby municipality for decades.
“And if you really want to do that and you want better for your community, then those are the people that you need. And I feel that Bill Holden is one of those people.”
Why aren’t more people running?
There are also other reasons that could be deterring people from getting involved beyond the fact that it’s often “a full-time job for part-time pay,” said Denys Volkov, executive director of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.
Many local politicians have seen more of the negative side of social media in recent years, especially earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic when they were tasked with communicating public health orders they weren’t involved in writing, Volkov said.
“Some decided not to run again, some decided to put their names forward. But then other people in the community have seen what elected officials often go through,” Volkov said.
That increased pressure made the last few years a challenging era, especially for municipal officials, Holden said.
“An MLA or an MP, I mean, I respect them all for what they do, but … they’re not right here in the riding. So they can go to their office in Brandon or Winnipeg or Ottawa, or wherever they are, and we’re left here,” he said.
“If everybody has a complaint, I don’t have a secretary they can go to. They come right to me — or my wife, I guess.”
While the “increasing nastiness” in politics can turn away people of all genders, it tends to affect women more, said Aaron Moore, chair and associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s political science department.
That could also be contributing to the low number of women leading municipalities in Manitoba. Of the 64 heads of council to be acclaimed, only eight — 12.5 per cent — are women. However, more could still be elected next week.
The strength of an incumbent at the municipal level also likely plays a role, Moore said.
“If you’re serious about running and winning and you have an incumbent that’s either councillor or the reeve or mayor running again, it can be very, very difficult to beat them. And I think, increasingly, people are aware of that,” he said.
That factor can be even more significant the longer the same person has held the role, Moore said.
There’s also a dynamic in smaller municipalities expressed by people like Anderson, where residents are more likely to know their community leaders better — and if they’re satisfied with their performance, they won’t run against them, he said.
Why does it matter?
There can be upsides to having the same community representative for a long stretch, Volkov said.
In the three election cycles they’ve had the same head of council, for example, communities like Ste. Rose and the rural municipality of Portage la Prairie have experienced high economic growth, he said.
“The stable government actually provides economic activities that bring funding into those areas,” Volkov said.
Someone who’s been in a position longer also likely has a better grasp of the job — but the longer the same person’s in the role, the more things can stagnate, Moore said.
“I think the big takeaway is that if we don’t have any competition, then we’re not having real discussion about the state of our municipalities and the direction they should be going,” he said.
“In a lot of cases, these heads of council may be very good in their position. But if somebody doesn’t challenge them and ask questions — that’s a big part of democracy, to have those types of debates, and elections are the main forum for that.”
Tough job — but a fulfilling one
But for all the reasons someone might not want to step forward to lead, Holden said there are still plenty of good things about the job.
When he first put his name forward eight years ago, it was to try to improve infrastructure, like completing the move from rural water to a water treatment plant.
Seeing those kinds of upgrades happen during his time as mayor has been rewarding — and Holden said he wants to stay on to see through efforts like making sure the town’s hospital stays open.
As he prepares to enter his third term as mayor, Holden said he’s not sure yet whether a fourth term is in the cards. But he does know he’s not yet done serving his community.
“We’ll see in four years.… We’ve got some capable people running for council and I’m sure one of them will step up for that or somebody else will,” he said.
“But I do have an interest. And even if I don’t stay on council after this term, I will still be involved in helping out whoever does get in.”
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