Independent Ward Boundaries? That Depends
First proposed way back in 1993, and finally created in 2014, Calgary’s independent ward boundary commission was an admirable concept designed to eliminate the political interference and horse trading that has been a regular fixture of previous boundary change processes in Calgary.
For more than a year, the commission went through a painstaking process of numerous iterations of potential boundaries, based on extensive public consultations, open houses and feedback, together with their best analysis of potential future city growth based on data provided by the city administration.
Their final recommendations were presented to council last week, and many councillors spoke extensively about how pleased they were with the work done by the independent commission, and how great it was to have such an open and public process.
Unfortunately, instead of simply holding a vote on the commission’s recommendations, council proceeded to debate the pros and cons of the proposal — completely missing the point of an independent recommendation.
While some councillors noted issues with communities being split, and workload imbalances, the primary concern was that the discrepancy in populations between wards was too high. The city’s policy is to aim for 15 per cent variance, with 25 per cent the maximum legally allowed.
However, the commission explained that their largest discrepancy of 23 per cent — still within the mandated limit — was chosen specifically because council asked them to create boundaries that would last for more than just one election, which requires a larger discrepancy at the start to ensure population differences stay within the tolerance over multiple election cycles.
In the end, council voted down the commission’s proposal in a controversial eight to seven vote, instead referring the report to the city’s returning officer for “further tweaking.”
That might sound innocent, and in fact, many councillors claimed in debate that any changes will probably be only minor, but the motion they voted for gave wide latitude to administration to make significant changes.
To add insult to injury, the returning officer confirmed that while they will, of course, consult with councillors during their work, there’s now no more time left to consult with the public again. The bureaucracy will now have the final word.
Even if we agree that the councillors’ concerns about population distribution are valid, this should have been addressed when council set the original mandate for the commission, or been raised by councillors or members of the public during the open consultation period, when the public would have had a chance to respond.
When councillors start debating the pros and cons of a particular boundary proposal at the council table, they invite questions about their actual motivations.
Those voting to let administration make future changes fail to understand that independent commissions serve not only to protect the public from politically motivated councillors and officials, but also to protect councillors themselves from any perception that they are attempting to influence the process, regardless of whether they are or not.
Countless jurisdictions around the world use independent commissions to redistribute electoral boundaries, not because those jurisdictions would be rife with corruption otherwise, but rather, to guard against even the perception of political interference.
In passing the final design of the boundaries to administration, Calgary councillors have lost that protection.
Even if no shady deals are involved — in fact, even if the recommendations of the independent commission are somehow retained in the final proposal — we will never know now how or why those changes, or lack of changes, were decided.
The shroud of secrecy and bureaucracy will surround Calgary’s ward boundaries for yet another electoral cycle.
Independent commissions are independent for a reason.
Peter McCaffrey is a research fellow at the Manning Centre and has a background in political science and electoral systems.
This column was published by the Calgary Herald on December 3, 2015