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This grassroots movement is fighting the power of Canadian city council incumbency

Imagine a high-school student council whose members never graduate but stay on year after year, growing older and crankier as the student body they govern evolves. It shouldn't be much of a strain for residents of Toronto to picture. That's what their own city council is like.

Councillors hang around year after year – sometimes decade after decade – aging in place as the dynamic city they govern changes all around them. The same old characters have the same old quarrels over and over in a repeating loop of futility.

Like any group or organization that doesn't renew itself, they have become inward-looking, inbred, ingrown. Voters tune them out. Cynicism about politics grows. The political system stagnates. Recent events to the south remind us where that can lead.

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How do we break out of this trap? In the past few years, reformers have focused on lobbying for changes in the election rules. Some would put a limit on the number of terms councillors could serve. Others would throw out the first-past-the-post voting system and bring in something like ranked ballots.

But getting these changes through is tough. Three provinces have tried and failed to change voting rules by referendum. It remains to be seen what will happen at the federal level with the Liberal promise to abandon first past the post before the next election. The provincial government changed the rules this year to allow municipalities to introduce ranked ballots, but one, Hamilton, just voted the idea down.

A small group of reformers has another idea.

This week, the Open Democracy Project announced it was putting together DemocracyKit, "a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded resource to equip the next generation of city-builders." The plan is to give newcomers the tools they need to break into the restricted club of city politics.

One of the people behind it is Chris Cowperthwaite, a campaign consultant who happens to be the son of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. After working on many elections over the years for his mother and others, he concluded that new candidates need more than "bright, shiny buzzwords about 'changing the way we do politics.'"

They need practical help with the nuts and bolts of campaigning. That is especially important in places such as Ontario where party politics is banned at the municipal level and newcomers can't count on formal party support to help them get organized. The democracy kit would include such things as fundraising plans, a guide to door-to-door canvassing, website templates and contact-management systems.

It's all aimed at counteracting the power of incumbency. Sitting politicians have overwhelming advantages. They have name recognition, especially critical at the municipal level, where most voters aren't paying much attention. They have access to the big-name spin doctors and campaign managers who dominate the election game. They have a web of contacts in unions, community groups and local business associations that help them get re-elected. They know the ropes.

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No wonder that so many manage to stay on and on. The Open Democracy Project says that incumbents won 92 per cent of the time in elections held in three cities – Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa – since 2001. "Turnover on the Canadian Senate is higher than on the country's city councils," it says.

Just look at Toronto's last election in 2014, when John Tory was elected mayor. In 37 of the city's 44 wards, an incumbent was on the ballot. Just one was defeated: John Parker in Ward 26 – Don Valley West. Some of the councillors warming their chairs in the council chamber have been around municipal politics since well back into the last century.

The cozy cartel down at City Hall is one reason that Rob Ford charged into the mayor's office in 2010 on a promise to "stop the gravy train." He is gone, but the frustration that fuelled his rise remains.

The democracy kit is a modest idea that can't hope to cure the problem of local democracy on its own. The people behind it tend to be on the liberal and left side of the arena. But Mr. Cowperthwaite and his group have hit on something. The answer to opening up municipal politics may not lie with sweeping solutions like changing the electoral system. It is just as important to build from the ground, giving new candidates for office the skills and resources they need to succeed at a game where the deck is stacked against them.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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