As municipal election season gets underway, it’s time to address a perennial election question — should Kelowna move towards a ward-based system to elect our city councillors?
If you’re unfamiliar with a ward-based system, I don’t blame you. In B.C. there’s only one municipality that uses such a system, and it is right next door, in the District of Lake Country (However, Lake Country does elect both at-large and ward-based councillors through a mixed system).
In Kelowna, regardless of where you live, you vote from a list of council candidates and cast a ballot for up to eight of them. In a ward-based system, the city would be divided up into eight areas (or wards). Rather than voting for eight councillors, you would only vote for one councillor to represent your ward and another vote for mayor.
For example, if you live in Glenmore, you would cast only a single council vote for a local Glenmore councillor. You wouldn’t get to cast a vote for the councillor who represents Rutland or Upper Mission. It’s just like how we vote in provincial and federal elections, just on a smaller scale.
The question then becomes, what are the benefits and what are the drawbacks?
Let’s start with benefits. Each person in the city, depending on where they live, has one councillor he or she can go to with their issues. If your sidewalk is in need of repair or you think a street needs a crosswalk and you live downtown — you can contact your downtown councillor. Right now, you would likely send a mass email out to councillors and the mayor and hope someone responds. Then, if a councillor does respond, he or she may have little to no familiarity with the area you’re talking about.
Wards also ensure every area of the city has representation. When each of our unique neighbourhoods and areas have representation at the council table, it would better ensure no community is ignored and each neighbourhood’s needs are brought to the attention of city hall.
Studies have shown, including my own research published in the Journal of Transportation Geography, that ward-based systems also make it easier for councillors to push for specific funding or projects in particular communities, while ensuring the views of that specific community are heard—even when they may be counter to the general consensus.
On the other hand, there are negatives that must be considered too, including the negative involved with pushing forward projects that are supported by a neighbourhood or special interest group but not generally supported by the average city resident.
Political theory suggests when councillors are elected in the at-large system (like Kelowna currently has) they will push forward the views of the average voter, whereas, in a ward-based system, councillors may find themselves beholden to the views of smaller but vocal advocate groups within their ward.
Ward-based systems can also lead to increased tensions between wards within the city.
For example, if the councillor for Upper Mission was pushing for a new road to be built in that ward, and a majority of council voted it down in favour of an expanded road in Kelowna’s North End, residents of Upper Mission may feel Kelowna’s more central residents and councillors simply don’t care about their needs.
Finally, ward-based systems can also lead to more blatant vote trading. That is to say, councillors negotiate with other councillors to support projects in each others wards in order to get their local projects approved. That can lead to increased spending and councillors voting in ways that don’t actually align with their beliefs or those their (ward’s) residents.
At the end of the day, as Kelowna turns the page on becoming a mid- to large-sized city with a population set to surpass 150,000, we are now facing important questions on what we want to be as a city and how we want to get there.
Until the question of a ward-based council finds it’s way into an election as an issue, it will continue to come up every four years.