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Barrie ranks low in 'democratic health report,' but mayor questions findings

'This isn’t an attack on an insult or anything; it’s actually an opportunity to let people know where there’s room for improvement,' says Unlock Democracy Canada official
2020-11-13 Mayor Jeff Lehman crop
Mayor Jeff Lehman. Photo supplied

Barrie has received low marks in a new report measuring the democratic health of local government.

The Ontario 2021 Municipal Democracy Index ranks Barrie 27th out of 32 municipalities for voter turnout, gender balance on council, racial diversity and a category called "user design experience," which looks at efforts made by each municipality to be more inclusive and inviting for ordinary citizens.

The index is a collaboration between Unlock Democracy Canada and Armstrong Strategy Group, and is the first edition.

“This isn’t an attack on an insult or anything; it’s actually an opportunity to let people know where there’s room for improvement,” said Dave Meslin, Unlock Democracy Canada’s creative director. “You can quibble about the methodology, the data we use, but at the end of the day, whatever the methodology is, we applied it equally to every city.

“The ranking is an accurate reflection of how these 32 cities relate to each other on these measures.”

Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman says he takes the report with a grain of salt, nonetheless. 

“I’m never proud of any ranking where Barrie is in the bottom half, but some context I think is important,” he said. “Although I have a huge amount of respect for Mr. Meslin and his views, they did make a few mistakes with the user experience section that hurt our score.

“For example, we did have a vote bus in 2018 and will going forward – very proud of that – where people could vote during the last municipal election, and we had online voting of course during the last byelection, but they must have missed that as we didn’t get any points for it,” Lehman said. “There were two other areas of the user experience section where I’m pretty confident we were given a score of zero, and shouldn’t have.”

Meslin said he didn’t know about the voting bus in 2018 and Barrie should have received two extra points for it, but that only the 2018 city election  not the byelection  were considered by the index. 

“That said, I think we would still have probably been in the lower half of this list of cities, which is not something to be proud of,” Lehman said.

Barrie finished 28th in user design experience in the index.

Despite this, Lehman says the user experience section is very helpful in terms of a list of things Barrie could do better  although a few might not be top priorities and others are really critical.

“But they (the index) did miss entirely the efforts that Barrie makes to be open to our residents in terms of direct consultation,” he said. “Two things I would point out in this regard. As part of our planning process, we have neighbourhood meetings held in the area of the development, before we even get to the public meeting required under the Planning Act. We are one of a very, very few cities that do this.

“Second, I have town hall meetings monthly, one in each ward of the city. We’ve done this with the ward councillors since 2011 – also something very few cities do,” Lehman added. “I would argue these are very meaningful because we face the public directly, anyone can come and speak openly, and we have to look people in the eyes and answer. That’s essential to accountability.”

Meslin says the neighbourhood meetings were “very cool.”

Barrie ranks low on voter turnout

Barrie ranked 24th on the index for its 30 per cent voter turnout during the 2018 city election.

“The other measure that I might push back on a bit with the way they calculated it is turnout,” Lehman said. “While I agree that’s a hugely important aspect of a healthy democracy, I would suggest they should look at more than one election to get their measure.

“I think turnout is lower when there isn’t a competitive race for mayor, which was the case in 2018 – even though that was in my interest, I guess,” he said. “I said at the time that I was glad I was not acclaimed, because I don’t think that’s good for democracy, and campaigns help get people talking about their city and what they want to see.”

Meslin says Lehman’s criticism is fair, that the index should instead look at the last four elections and average the results.

“But I still think that’s an indication of a problem, because you don’t just vote for mayor,” Meslin said. “When you vote, you’re voting for your school trustee. So anyone who’s got kids in school should definitely be voting every time. And you’re voting for your councillor.

“To me that’s an indication that the residents of Barrie don’t understand the importance of councillors.”

How does Barrie rank in other categories?

In gender balance, Barrie ranked 25th with 82 per cent of its councillors men.

In Barrie’s 2018 city election, for mayor and council, 30 men and 11 women ran for office. And in the February 2020 Ward 3 byelection, five of the candidates were men, three were women. Even with Ann-Marie Kungl winning the Ward 3 byelection, nine of Barrie’s councillors are men and two are women, including Coun. Natalie Harris.

In Ontario’s 2018 municipal elections, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario says 27.2 per cent of the candidates were women and, of those candidates, 29.4 per cent of them were elected or acclaimed.

“One of the reasons that we end up with less women on council isn’t about how people vote, it’s actually because of the fact that sometimes there’s just barriers to entry,” Meslin said. “The kinds of women who should be on councils aren’t running. That’s part of the problem. We’re not just looking at voting behaviour, we’re looking at reasons why certain types of people aren’t entering politics.

“The fact that Barrie has a very disproportionate gender balance is an indication that something is wrong,” he said. “Because any healthy democratic process will, on its own, naturally, deliver a council that looks a lot like the population. There’s just no reason why it wouldn’t.”

Barrie did rank sixth in reflective diversity, which measures the ratio of white representation on council versus the percentage of the population.

The index says Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) representation is almost non-existent on most municipal councils, and that lack of diverse representation not only harms the policy-making process, but is also a clear sign that politics today is an insiders’ game that attracts certain demographics at the expense of others.

“Barrie ranked high in that category,” Meslin said. “The goal is a 1:1 ratio, between BIPOC representation in the population, versus council. Barrie is 84 per cent white, and council is 91 per cent white. Compared to other municipalities, that is quite impressive.”

But Meslin said local governments need to do a better job telling its citizens the nuts-and-bolts of local elections to get them interested.

“Cities do a terrible job when nominations open. There’s no starting gun,” he said. “There’s no public awareness campaign. So the only people who are going to put their name on the ballot are political insiders. Right off the bat you’ve excluded 99 per cent of the city from the entire election.

“If the city thinks it’s up to citizens to figure out when the election starts, to me that’s negligence.”

Lehman says one measurement of democracy stands out, in his opinion.

“To me, the most important aspect of democracy is the level of engagement – are people involved, whether by running for office, volunteering, voting or expressing their views to council  or do they increasingly turn away or ignore local government for whatever reasons,” he said.

“In this age of hyper-partisanship and with all the silliness south of the border, it’s not a surprise that more people are cynical,” Lehman added. “But local government is the closest to the people and that gives us a chance to be more reflective of our community and involve more people from our community in our decisions.

“While we’re not perfect, I would note that our MPPs and MPs don’t face the public every week like city council does, with deputations, committee meetings and town halls. My point is that local government is far more accessible to the people than senior levels of government and that is one of its strengths.

“So this work on a democracy index is very valuable, as it can help us take practical steps to be even more accessible.”

“At the end of the day, the only measure that really matters is what does your council look like,” Meslin said. “Because for the next four years, those are the people making the choices.” 

Lehman says he’s a fan of Meslin and that he bought every member of city council a copy of his book, Teardown, for Christmas in 2019.

“It’s a great read with many great points and learnings for local governments,” Lehman said.