New blood versus same old faces: who should prevail?

Knowing the ropes: do voters give it too much weight?

Much has been written about the need for fresh faces on Ottawa’s city council. From community coalition Our Ottawa to the high profile residents behind Fair Chance, from columnists like Randall Denley to bloggers like Blake Batson, the call for change at City Hall has been loud and clear.

There’s no question that Ottawa’s pattern of re-electing incumbents is not exactly healthy for our local democracy. But is a clean sweep what we need? What are the pros and cons of supporting incumbents versus voting in new faces and new voices?

Incumbents:

On the pro side, incumbents have no learning curve. They know the ropes, they know the rules of order, they have relationships with staff and know how to answer constituents’ issues and resolve problems. There’s no waiting while they set up an office and hire staff – they’re ready to go as soon as they take office. They also know what to expect – they understand the pace of a councilor’s lifestyle, so there’s no adjustment period while they get used to the evening meetings, the event-after-event weekends, the reduced family time and the lack of privacy.

But incumbents get tired. They might get lazy, or take voters for granted. They may resist new ideas, or ignore some communities in favour of the constituents that voted them in. Some are quite parochial in their approach, focusing on the narrow interests of their ward instead of the city as a whole. Some get defensive when challenged by residents (Gord Hunter, for example, is notorious for his quick email trigger).

Challengers:

The advantages of non-incumbents might include energy and enthusiasm for new ideas. In some cases it might mean a generational shift. Depending on the candidate and their background, it might mean connections with different communities and different perspectives.

The primary disadvantage to a challenger is inexperience, particularly if that challenger is new to city politics in general (Mayor Larry, anyone?). The learning curve is huge and it takes time to take it all in. Some candidates do bring with them vast experience with city processes, but things may look different on the other side of Council Chambers – and there may be similar resistance to new ideas and solutions that some long-serving councilors exhibit.

I want vision and direction at City Hall as much as anyone, but I’m not entirely sure a full slate of new faces is healthy. New folks need mentoring and support as they learn on the job. And there is something to be said for institutional memory.

So what will I keep in mind when deciding whether to support an incumbent or looking for fresh face to support?

How hard do they work? I don’t mean how many community events they attend – some local politicians would attend the opening of a pizza box (and tweet it, probably), they’re so busy. I mean the work they need to do on your behalf. Do they respond to requests for information or assistance? Do they do their homework – are they prepared for meetings? Do they understand the issues facing the different neighbourhoods in their wards? Do they understand and are they able to help you navigate municipal processes and policy? Do they know when to lead and when to listen? Are they responsive to community input on controversial issues, or are they defensive?

Can they look beyond the parochial to consider the interests of the city as a whole? Our city is profoundly divided, and the interests of rural and urban communities often seem to be in conflict. This plays out in council time and time again, often at the expense of sound, sustainable city policy.

What about the bigger picture – the environment? The economy? The city’s relationship with the province and its obligations regarding key social services? Are the candidates going to be leaders, advocates, even champions for the marginalized and vulnerable, for the kind of city we want to call home?

Those of us with an urbanist bent should look closely at the current council, at who is retiring and who is hoping to be re-elected. While not all sitting councilors have announced their intentions, it is likely that that a good portion of council will be replaced by attrition. Of those hoping to stay, who would be an asset and a mentor to the new folks? Who might perpetuate the dysfunctional dynamic?

So for those calling for sweeping change, a caution. It’s not easy being a councilor. There’s a huge learning curve, and if we have too many new faces at the table we may not see the change we want while we wait for them to get caught up to speed. Without some experienced voices showing leadership, council deliberations may be even more muddled than they are already.

photo by Les Chatfield

4 comments

  1. It’s helpful if some of the newcomers have other, useful experience, like working in politics for others, and a broad experience background that flattens out the learning curve. I am also doing a pile of reading this summer, to become more knowledgeable about everything a city needs.

    You don’t want to vote for someone just because they are new or just because they are an old incumbent. You want the best person available.

  2. I think that labeling all incumbents the way that has been done here is unfair. It is true that some long term incumbents are way too comfortable in their chairs and need a shake to ensure the City moves forward. One term incumbents need a little time to get the hang of things at City Hall and therefore probably only spend half their terms actually achieving something. I have met a few of this year’s challengers and all I hear is ” make the city run like a business, get the wards to act in the best interest of the city and keep taxes down.” So far not really impressed and given the choice of low performing incumbents and naive challengers – I guess I am scared.

  3. Ken, I think that was the point I was trying to make – I did not intend to paint all incumbents with the same brush, only to lay out what might be perceived as the pros and cons of both incumbents and challengers. In the end, each need to be evaluated for their merits. I would hope that we don’t end up with a clean sweep; I’m not sure that would be healthy for the city, as we need some institutional memory and there are some excellent long-serving councillors

  4. We need fresh blood, no doubt about it!

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