In roughly nine months, Albertans across the province will be headed back to the polls to select their chosen representatives in the 2017 municipal election.
Previously alotted three-year terms, changes to legislation made several years ago under the former PC government increased the mandate of municipal councils to four years. Under the old rules, Albertans would have already voted in a municipal election by October 2016, but that, as they say, is already history. Some Albertans have expressed dissatisfaction with the new four-year term, which was obviously meant to emulate federal and provincial election mandates, but for the most part the province has been largely accepting of this new reality.
Locally, the coming election has the potential to be one of the more fascinating — and perhaps bitterly-disputed — election contests in recent memory. Heading town council over the past four years, Mayor Henk DeVlieger has navigated the municipal waters through a series of tendentious actions and decisions — such as the international furor that attended the passing of the town’s Community Standards Bylaw in early 2015 — that has evoked applause in some quarters, and red-faced outrage in others.
Often strongly critical of the governance of their neighbouring municipality, the Municipal District of Taber, present town council has had a deteriorating relationship with that elected body, some of the fallout of which has been suggested as one reason behind the M.D. of Taber’s decision to part ways with a shared fire service between the two municipalities, among other issues.
At the same time, comments directed at the M.D. of Taber as part of Mayor DeVlieger’s announcement last week that he will be seeking re-election for mayor on Oct. 16 suggest this proverbial fence has hardly been mended in recent months.
In October, Taber voters will be weighing the more socially-conservative and controversial decisions of their present council against its economic and infrastructure agendas, which have paid some positive dividends for the community since October 2013.
Avoiding the more high-profile direction steered by the Town of Taber over the past four years, M.D. of Taber council has largely effected a steady-as-she-goes approach to municipal governance, while looking to improve its own maintenance infrastructure, as well as providing new recreational opportunities for the area, such as the M.D. shooting complex.
In Barnwell, explosive population growth well beyond projected figures has presented challenges to the village in grappling with this population influx and the infrastructure concerns it can present, and will likely remain a key issue in that community’s 2017 municipal election.
In the lead up to a municipal election, we as the local media hear a constant staccato of whispers and rumours about potential candidates that are preparing to throw their hats into the ring. The sheer number of rumours and escalating level of speculation — even now, some nine months removed from the election — is almost unprecedented in our considerable experience in coverage of municipal elections in the area.
All of which can be taken as a positive sign that the appetite for local democracy isn’t waning in rural southern Alberta, but is actually on the rise — which is more than can be said about municipal elections in other parts of the province, such as urban areas, which have sometimes seen dismal voter turnouts in past campaigns.
On a less positive note, woman rarely faced a stronger degree of abuse and criticism in politics than what was witnessed in 2016, up to and including death threats, often only for expressing opinions that don’t align with the viewpoint of a cabal of angry conservatives. That being said, provincial government efforts to spark interest in more women taking part in the municipal election as candidates could have difficulty in inspiring many to attempt to break up the “old boys club” mentality that still predominates in so many municipalities.
That criticism, unfortunately, could easily be directed at our own community. Of the 14 councillors that represent Taber and its surrounding area, only one is female. But also, women must answer the call of municipal governance to see if the town and M.D. electorate proves a welcoming one. Barnwell, however, appears to be more anomalous — two women currently round out their five-member village council.
Those who might be interested in trying their hand at municipal politics in 2017 instead of just exercising their democratic franchise at the ballot box need to remember to manage their expectations. Promising to move mountains or achieve a litany of legislative goals as one voice among seven often leads to a period of disillusionment for the freshly elected who come to realize that politics is often the art of the compromise, and that holding an uncompromising viewpoint on every issue can be an unsuccessful and frustrating experience for the uninitiated.
It’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in day. And while it took time, it also took great pietas on the part of the citizenry, the Roman virtue which cultivated dutiful respect and service to the state.
Today, our pietas is far from what any self-respecting Roman citizen would consider a proper level of devotion, but our faith in the democracy the Romans gifted us is still strong.
So for the malingerers, fence-sitters, and spirited coffee-rowers out there considering a bid for October 2017, don’t hesitate. For the defeated former candidates, councillors, or mayors; the bitter rivals, or grit-in-the-eye challengers; it will soon be time to shine.
As for the rest of us, just be sure to get out and vote. That’s what really matters.