Fears of political meddling in city ward boundaries are confirmed
All around the world, wherever politicians are allowed to draw their own election boundaries, they draw maps that will help them get re-elected.
Calgary was supposed to have moved past that; we had grown up and devised a system to remove the politicians from the decision-making about their own election.
Council created an independent commission to develop new boundaries and avoid the kind of political interference and horse trading that had been a fixture of past boundary changes.
But, three months ago, in these very pages, I expressed my concern that city council was going back on this improvement, by once again politicizing the redrawing of ward boundaries for the 2017 Calgary election.
After more than a year of painstaking work based on extensive public consultations, together with their best analysis of potential future city growth based on data provided by city administration, the independent commission proposed new ward boundaries to council in December 2015.
Council rejected the proposal, and disbanded the commission. The supposed reason for the rejection was the large discrepancy in population between wards, with the largest discrepancy being 23 per cent, despite council policy being no more than 15 per cent, and the maximum legally allowed being 25 per cent.
Council decided that they needed to make their own “tweaks” to the plan, despite the returning officer explaining there would be no more time for public consultation.
If the December meeting was concerning, this week’s council meeting confirmed my fears. Administration returned to council with the new proposal that councillors helped shape and, no surprise, the changes are far more significant than just “tweaks.”
Still more shocking, several further changes were proposed on the floor of council chamber as last minute amendments. When electoral boundaries are decided by the vote of politicians, based on political expediency, rather than by an independent outside group, we call this gerrymandering.
Council appears to have used the original independent commission’s proposals as a shield against any accusations of gerrymandering, but then changed the commission’s proposals so much that the commission might as well have not existed.
At one point during council debate on Monday, Mayor Naheed Nenshi suggested shifting the community of Sandstone from Ward 4 to Ward 3 to help balance the populations.
Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu pointed out that the independent commission explicitly decided against this idea after huge public feedback opposing that change.
Chu wondered whether the mayor’s proposed change was politically motivated, given Chu lives in Sandstone, and the change would mean he no longer lived in the riding he currently represents.
At this point, the mayor interrupted debate, claimed he had no idea where Chu lived, stated that it was all just a coincidence, asserted that Chu was the one politicizing the process, and demanded an apology.
Of course, we can never know Nenshi or Chu’s real intents, but, as I wrote in December, when councillors start debating the pros and cons of a particular boundary proposal at the council table, rather than leaving it to the independent commission, they invite questions about their motivations.
What council forgets is that independent commissions serve not only to protect the public, but also to protect councillors themselves from any perception that they are attempting to influence the process, regardless of whether they are or not.
In the end, council approved their edited version of the boundaries — leaving Sandstone in Ward 4 — but what of those population discrepancies that were the supposed reason for all the changes? The maximum discrepancy has dropped from 23 to 21 per cent — still far above the maximum of 15 per cent allowed by council policy.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether population discrepancies, or political considerations, were the real reason behind the last minute changes made by council.
Peter McCaffrey is the Director of Research at the Manning Centre
This column was published by the Calgary Herald on March 16, 2016