Voters should congratulate themselves over the election

By Don White

1021 - Well ... hello, Nanaimo! How was that for an election? 

First, I congratulate Nanaimo voters - because we deserve to be congratulated. And I want to make the point that regardless of whether your preferred candidates were successful when the votes were counted, yesterday's election should be regarded as a victory. In fact, I suggest that it represents multiple victories. 

For one, Nanaimo has elected a council that ran on - and demonstrated throughout their respective campaigns - a desire to hear our voices. They wanted to represent us and our interests in City Hall; they saw their roles to be administering the city on our behalf; and they agree that city business should be done, as much as possible, in open council settings. 

All foundation pieces for good governance. All reflections of the premise that elected officials serve, not rule, those who vote them into office. What a difference from the last four years!

For another, Nanaimo voters spoke emphatically and clearly. When the final poll was included late last night, preliminary results showed a decisive difference of over 2,500 votes between the eighth and ninth candidates, not at all like the 100 votes between those candidates in 2014.

That difference may have resulted from the increase in voter turnout - another victory for Nanaimo. Yesterday, voter turnout rose from the 34.1% in 2014 to 40.8%, again according to preliminary results. The increasing voter involvement which began with the 2017 Event Centre referendum and the byelection now has every reason to continue. 

The focus and tone of the candidates and the campaigns they ran was largely positive, forward thinking, and inclusive. They were less about grumbling about the dysfunction of the past and need for its elimination than they were about what we can become. And the values, opinions, and visions of the inclusive-minded candidates elected reflect those of the entire population. 

The spread of votes across the field - for candidates who won and those who didn't - shows our new council the breadth of our diversity. Whether a favoured candidate won, all our votes demonstrate the values we hold to be important. Our new council may have been elected by the few, but they should govern for the many. This council appears to understand that fact. Regardless of who we voted for, then, our voices will be heard. We should expect that.

Another victory I'll note was the successful way new media, such as online news, analysis and information, stepped up to provide needed information to voters. I won't go into this now, but watch for more on this topic appearing shortly in my column on NewsNanimo.ca.

Now that we are on a roll, we can get set for our next democratic exercise - the referendum on electoral reform, which begins tomorrow, October 22, and runs to October 30. Watch for further writing on why I think voting Yes for proportional representational is an absolute no-brainer.

But today, take a respite. Treat yourself. If you voted in Nanaimo's 2018 Municipal Election, give yourself a big congratulatory hug. Yesterday citizen voices for democracy spoke loudly and clearly in our city. And now, once again, we can begin the journey forward.

Tomorrow for Nanaimo begins next Saturday

By Don White

1013 - LOOKING BACK at the 2014 municipal election, it's hard to believe what we're seeing now. Compared to the last time, with its minimum of related events and general lack of interest among the voting public (remember the 34.1 per cent voter turnout?), the current campaign is distinguished by its energy and engagement. 2018 looks like an entirely different ball game.

For the past couple of weeks, voters have turned out in force to numerous public meetings. On every side - voters, candidates, and media - there has been mindful discussion of the issues. Voters have brought their values to the foreground, crystallized them, spoken about them, sought perspectives from the candidates, and gauged the prospects accordingly. 

Special interest and neighbourhood groups have organized their own get-togethers and invited candidates to living rooms, community and activity centres. An invitation only meeting with female candidates was held at VIU. Everywhere, you can hear the wheels turning in the minds of the electorate as they assess the prospects. 

The approaching election - the only opportunity when citizens have a guarantee of being heard - has made voters in Nanaimo hungry for related information. Their energy and engagement started building with the referendum on the $80-million Event Centre, ramped up during the following by-election, until today when voters are actively seeking responsible, accountable governance in a way not seen in 2014. To provide for that demand, new sources have stepped forward.

The Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, OurNanaimo, and Leadership Vancouver Island collaborated to run a Civic Leadership Speakers’ Series covering the fundamentals of local governance and the necessary competencies for elected officials. Those thinking of running in Nanaimo's Municipal Election attended sessions with, among others, Carol Matthews, previously Dean of Human Services and Community Education at Vancouver Island University. OurNamaimo also created candidate assessment tools and information to assist voters who would be facing an anticipated over abundance of people running in October 2018.

The Chamber of Commerce collaborated with OurNanaimo to hold two evenings of debate: one for mayoralty and one for councillor candidate. The United Way held an all candidate meeting so voters could hear candidate views on housing issues and the homeless. Groups of two and more candidates have seized the initiative themselves, and are holding meet, greet, and question sessions in every region in the city and on topics from city planning to the arts and culture right through the final week leading up to the election. 

2018 has produced other significant changes in Nanaimo. In the meetings I've attended, the level of dialogue, debate, voter questions and considered answers have been well above what I witnessed in last election. And interchanges have been civil to a degree rarely seen in the last four years. I suspect much of the improvement originates with the candidates now seeking election by the voters because even the type of candidates has changed.

Nanaimo now has millennials running for local office. How significant is that? It's huge! These are the people who will inherit what happens in our city in the coming term and after. These are the ones who have the biggest stake in our future. And now they have stepped forward with their broader perspectives and educated thinking. More than any other factor, their running in the municipal election has brought our city to the cusp of change. 

Media coverage of the election has been extensive and has also increased the buzz. Online news sites such as Nanaimonet.comNewsNanaimo.ca, and NewsNanaimoNow.com along with the printed News Bulletin and non-local media such as the Times Colonist have been providing candidate profiles, views on specific issues, and general information. Some individual citizens have done no less. For one, Tod Maffin has invested a huge amount of time and energy (and in my opinion deserves a medal) for streaming coverage of the majority of meetings and creating an online spreadsheet listing all sources of candidate information. 

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the 2018 election has already served Nanaimo well. It has energized our community and brought us back together. If the past four years can be described by a single word, that word could be “divisive.” But not now. Today, our community is energized, and united. After four years of faction fights, we are engaged in a common endeavour: electing those to navigate us through the rebuilding of Nanaimo and realization of its future. 

What is taking place in Nanaimo feels like a working example of the truism “even illness brings its gifts.” It's fair to say that having experienced four years of dysfunctional governance resulting from our previous apathy, people in Nanaimo are now actively insisting on a better future and encouraging each other to do the same. Good on us! We have packed candidate meetings and talked to some great prospects; we have worked to define key issues that will determine the choices that we make. Civic pride is on the increase. Now we have only to get out and vote. 

With less than a week to go to the election, that should be our focus - getting ourselves and others to the polls. Voting at advance polls has been reported to be brisk. Imagine the change that's guaranteed if we could get 50% of those eligible to actually vote in this election! Find someone who didn't vote in 2014 and take them with you. Tomorrow begins in Nanaimo on October 20.

Assessing candidates is a real challenge


By Don White

1008 - It's not easy sorting the candidates running in the Municipal Election. The range of personal styles and values, their various platform planks, and sheer number can make the process feel daunting and the results feel tentative and uncertain.

In an earlier column, I noted factors that help identify the better candidates. Another crucial variable, to which I've only previously alluded, deserves to be expanded. It's the evaluation of whether a particular candidate is better suited for committee work than to sit on council. 

 Councillors need a broad focus covering a multitude of issues and parallel broad experience at doing many tasks - or at least show the willingness to develop them. A narrow focus or range of experience may indicate a candidate is better sitting on one or more committees.

Committees have narrow focuses and only make recommendations, not ultimate decisions. They can benefit from having members with specialized knowledge and expertise. When committee recommendations are brought to council, that group's broader view comes into play.

However, even if a particular candidate has a broad focus and comes with parallel experience, it doesn't mean she/he is suitable for council. In addition to breadth of focus, good councillors need a full package of other attributes. The best prospects for a municipal council have strength in all the following crucial traits - in addition to past experience. Those more suited for committees demonstrate fewer of these attributes, or the full basket of traits is less pronounced.

Independence: strength of character and ability to think independently on issues. A good council candidate doesn't automatically latch onto the issue of the day nor parrot the received view of it. 

Leadership: can tease out the key aspects of an issue and making them salient to council and the community at large. Acts as an opinion leader not a mere follower of others. 

Team player: understanding that working together has more influence on important decisions and achieving personal priorities than going it alone. No one candidate has all the answers. 

Commitment: recognizes the time needed to do the job and is committed to invest it. Good councillors come to meetings prepared and on time. The best prospects do the same. 

Management: can manage a complex organization; set a strategy and carry it out (both short and long-term), think critically; anticipate and prevent problems; seek the expertise of others; develop a solid, over-reaching vision for the city, and carry out its actualization. 

Effectiveness: has the ability to actualize and deliver key initiatives; develops solutions with clear lists of action items and timelines, not merely statements of intentions. 

Fiscal competence: knowledge of finances, can set priorities, read a balance sheet, understand and ensure a comprehensive budget, and monitor fiscal progress and status throughout the year. A competent councillor knows how every line item fits into the whole of city finances.

Focus and Perspective: recognition that diverse views and voices represent the entire community; includes voices who think differently to ensure meeting the needs of all.

Communication: is articulate, intelligent, and represents you as you want to be seen on the provincial, federal, and global stages; understands successful communication depends on the audience viewing the speaker as credible and takes the necessary steps to foster that view. 

The presence or absence of this full package of traits can indicate the suitability of candidates for council or committees. Deciding someone is more suitable for the latter does not diminish the value of their contribution. The work of municipal committees is vital for well-run cities. Committees rely on the expertise and experience of members. Designating some candidates as best suited for committees means we retain their valuable input and participation. 

The converse is also true. Incorrect assumptions of candidate abilities for council too easily result in problems. For four years we have seen the Peter Principle in action in Nanaimo City Hall. Our elevating those who were unqualified to the level of their incompetence in the last election has cost Nanaimo dearly. Now, a number of candidates who are running appear best suited for committee work, not council. Elevating them to council could cost voters just as much. 

Since those running for council appear disinclined to sort themselves, it is up to voters to do it for them. Voters are the managers of city council and, consequently, the ultimate city managers. But we only get to manage once every four years, so it's imperative we do our job responsibly. 

Watch out for candidates who come late or unprepared to meetings. If this is how they perform when they want us to give them a job, imagine what they'll do once they're hired. 

Picture the candidate on the national news looking exactly the way they show up. Are they presentable? Articulate? Talk to them. Are they good listeners or only repeat their own agenda?

Be careful of candidates who speak continually about one issue. Regardless of its importance, it may indicate the narrowness of their horizons. A narrow focus may make them useful on a specialized committee, but a poor prospect for our city council.

Beware of those who trot out extensive committee experience as the main argument for their election. Their CV may only demonstrate that committees are where they need to be. Extensive committee work, alone, is not an indicator of their ability to step up. 

In the end, our councillors, not committee members, are the ones directly accountable to voters. We need the best candidates for council to steer City Hall on our behalf throughout the coming term. If we again elevate those unsuitable for that position, we will continue to pay the price we have paid and are still paying for our poor choices in 2014. 

 I'll post my final picks during election week. 

Beware single-issue candidates in October election

By Don White

0929 – Don't be distracted by the homeless in the municipal election. 

Okay, now that I've hopefully captured your attention, let me clarify. 

First, it's important you understand that I believe issues related to homelessness, poverty, and caring for those in need who live within our city and society at large are very important issues. Without reservation. I believe how we deal with these issues reveals the heart of who we are. I also believe that allowing homelessness, poverty, hunger, and other basic human needs to continue neglected undermines the best aspects of our natures. It diminishes us. Nothing in this column, including the opening statement, should be interpreted to counter this position.

And ... I believe it's equally important that we not treat the municipal election as being concerned only with homelessness. Nor should we vote exclusively for candidates whose focus and abilities connect primarily to this issue – or to any other single issue. Electing a single-issue council is not in our best interests. And homelessness, at the moment, has the disturbing possibility of being this election's Colliery Dam. 

Remember how that went? Campaigns were run and candidates were elected based on expectations of how they'd vote on that single issue. And when not all met those expectations, factions, feuds, accusations of betrayal continued through the current Council's term. Months, even years of acrimony, acts of revenge, and sabotage derailed other vital business of the city. 

Ongoing divisiveness over the Colliery Dams arguably rooted much of the civic mayhem and dismantlement of city services and staff that followed. If we now let homelessness be the single central important issue of the election and the single basis for selecting candidates, we risk repeating one of the worst chapters in Nanaimo's civic governance. 

Yes, absolutely, we need to include concern over homelessness and affordable housing when choosing whom to vote for. But it's essential to maintain a broader focus. This is especially important for this election. We need to keep in mind that just changing City Council does not mean Nanaimo will be on its feet again. A new Council simply means the rebuilding of our city can get under way. That restoration is of huge importance, and is equally daunting.

As voters, we need to acknowledge that we are only beginning to glimpse the true costs and decimation brought about by the outgoing council and its senior managers. Dealing with the fallout will be long term and expensive. We need a council composed of individuals who are capable of managing finances, savvy about human resources, infrastructure, and competing priorities - or can quickly learn to be. We need people at the table who are capable of rebuilding the overreaching vision of our city, a vision that covers a multitude of important issues. Settling current and future lawsuits, replacing essential staff and programs, will not easily be accomplished by a single-focussed council, no matter how honourable their intentions.  

Which raises a parallel concern. The slate of candidates now running for election shows a predominance of experience and knowledge in the social services. That is not a reason to exclude such candidates, but it highlights the need to choose candidates who have a broader perspective. Balance in a council - or in any other governing body - is essential if it is to represent all voters for whom it governs and represent all needs of any voter in particular.

Assuming those elected will focus on the needs of all voters is not something we can assume, and then slough off the responsibility to Council if they fail to do so. In the end, it comes down to us. The take-home message is this: It is important to maintain concern for homelessness and poverty and to take effective steps to implement solutions - and to the same degree - it is important to elect those who can and will deal responsibly and competently with other civic issues that affect the well-being of taxpayers and voters. It’s a truism that to be an effective caregiver of someone else, you must also take good care of yourself. That applies equally to the Nanaimo electorate.

Voting in an election is a little like speed dating

By Don White

0922 - An election campaign is like speed dating - except that after the round of initial chats, you take on four-year relationships with several of the prospects. No trial period. No getting to know each other first. No gradual process of trust building. Instead, you are stuck with those you choose. And, as we know, breaking the relationships, if possible at all, can be hideously expensive.

Evaluating candidates for an election, then, is both similar to and different from developing other relationships in life. In all, we start by looking for traits we think are needed. If we find the desired attributes, we see what happens when we get together. If the first encounter goes well, we open up a little more, agree to have a second, and begin to build a bit of trust. But in an election, we're all in. Make an estimate and vote, then live with the consequences, good or bad. Which makes our accurate, initial assessment of candidate traits all the more important.

Several helpful sources exist for assessing traits of candidates in the Nanaimo Municipal Election. Our Nanaimo's Meet the Candidates is a useful compilation of sources for information on each individual and their Candidate Evaluation Tool provides a convenient table for recording your assessments. Think of it as checking out your speed dates online.

(Nanaimonet.com also has the campaign platforms of most candidates).

Honesty and integrity are foremost. Can you estimate whether the candidate is consistently reliable, distorts, or changes with the political wind direction? Personally, I have concerns about these aspects for some of those running on the current list. 

In the same vein, does a candidate possess conflicts of interest, allegiances or relationships, present or historical? I have had it with old Nanaimo factions and their long-time feuds. I'm tired of the way they've dominated local politics with their quarrelling and vendettas. This applies to several candidates. It is time for Nanaimo to grow up. Become a city in fact, not just in name.

I am tired of political platforms and promises masking personal agendas. Does the candidate demonstrate an understanding that she/he is there to administer on your behalf? Had we culled candidates on that basis in the last election, the Bestwick Five couldn't have hijacked City Hall, hired Samra, nor attempted to manipulate voters into buying a hockey rink. 

Ability to do the housekeeping - manage city affairs - is also vital. Candidates need experience, education, and training if they are to competently oversee the day to day running of the city. But when scoring individuals on these traits, be aware of the difference between overseeing and input. Ask yourself whether the candidate, despite his or her experience and knowledge, is better suited for committee work than sitting at the Council table. More than one candidate who is running has been a valuable contributor of service and information both to Council and to voters. I'd delight to have them sitting on municipal committees, but I'd never vote for their sitting at the Council table. Since they appear not to differentiate between their abilities to function satisfactorily at the different levels, it is up to you and me to do it.

Equally important is fiscal competence. Every year, we give elected candidates $180 million of our money to manage. Does a candidate's experience, training, and financial disclosure forms recommend suggest his/her ability to be a competent fiscal manager? Responsible financial managers can interpret financial statements, recognize solid business plans, and manage their own finances. A recent article on NewsNanaimo.ca may help you come up with answers. 

I also estimate whether a candidate demonstrates sufficient intelligence to know what's needed, how to accomplish it effectively, and to represent Nanaimo in the media. I assess whether they possess absolutely crucial, critical thinking skills. On more than one occasion, I've cringed while watching councillors simply accept what they were told by “experts”, including City staff. Rather than question details or implications, responses have been token, designed more to create a facade of active involvement than ensure adequacy. Not to mention our numerous public shamings.

Also social skills. These are obviously lacking in many of the current Nanaimo Council. Their absence showed up in: the lack of any unified sense of purpose on the Council; inability to listen and hear what was said by others; lack of respect and decency; rigidity, inflexibility, incivility and attempts to dominate, not accommodate dissenting points of view. The absence of these qualities also informs my avoidance of old Nanaimo factions. We live in different times: sexism and bullying are unacceptable. But if we're not careful, we'll get the same council once again. 

What's a candidate's local and global vision? I want to know how each plans to integrate the preservation of Nanaimo's natural beauty with the historical, insatiable drive of municipalities to increase their tax base. Do they think global when acting local? I want people at the Council table who understand that climate change, the fate of BC’s orcas, the threat of oil spills, and diminishing natural resources also affect and are a vital part of everyday living in our city.

What's the candidate's experience in the world outside Nanaimo? How broad - and inclusive - is his or her perspective? We need people with vision and experience sufficiently large to encompass diversity and more than one perspective. To avoid repeating past mistakes, councillors need familiarity with other cities, methods, and cultures, and have the willingness to seek it. Being born, raised, and lived only in Nanaimo is not necessarily a plus. Remaining blindly parochial is not a trait we should embrace. It stands between us and the future.  

Despite the speed-dating nature of the campaigns and the hurried commitment to a four year term engendered by the municipal election, if we mindfully assess and vote for individuals on the basis of the traits they display that support healthy, respectful relationships between Council and voters, and a knowledge that our city is part of larger national and global communities, we have a better than reasonable chance of actually getting the city that we want.

We need to vote only for those we believe we can trust, and choose our politicians as carefully as we would choose a partner.

We can't stress enough to get out and vote Oct. 20

By Don White

Over the past two years, I'm not the only person to have noted a couple of parallels between Nanaimo and the U.S. I've mentioned them in a previous article and it's timely now to expand those observations.

In 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump was elected after winning the electoral vote but losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Clinton got 48.2%, Trump's 46.1% of all votes cast with a voter turnout of 58%. Adjusted for the number all eligible voters,Trump was elected by only 25.4% of total U.S. electorate.  

Also in the U.S. - as in Nanaimo - the power balance may change this fall. In November, all of Congress and one third of Senate seats will be decided in mid-term elections. But for change to happen, the focus of citizens in both venues needs to change. 

Barack Obama argued in an impassioned speech before more than a thousand students at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, that the challenge now facing the U.S. is less to convince 2016 voters to change their minds as it is to get people who didn't vote in the last election out to polling booths in 2018. And Obama's analysis applies equally to Nanaimo. 

In 2014, 63,861 voters were registered in Nanaimo for the municipal election. Of those, 34.1% showed up at the polls and cast a total of 22,305 valid ballets. Bill Bestwick received 10,213 or 45.8% of votes cast, the largest percentage of all candidates. Diane Brennan got 6,547 or 9.4%, the lowest of those elected. In terms of the number of voters who could have voted in 2014, however, the votes received represent only 10.3% – 16% of the possible popular vote. That's all it took to get a seat at the Council table for four years - every year making significant decisions on how to spend another $180 million of taxpayers' money. 

Would the same percentages have held with a higher voter turnout? Although we cannot know for sure, my suspicion is that candidates with support from only a small, loyal core would likely receive a diminishing percentage of the popular vote as the total number of voters casting ballots increases. 

With it's small base, the outcome of the 2018 Nanaimo Municipal Election will very much depend on the numbers of eligible voters who show up. We had 26 candidates for Councillor in 2016; we have 40 registered for 2018. With 14 more divisions of a limited number of ballots from the same turnout as 2014, winning percentages could be even lower. We stand an increased chance of electing fringe candidates who do not truly represent Nanaimo voters.

Your task and mine is to identify anyone - friends, neighbours, associates - who didn’t vote in 2014, and get them to the polls on October 20. We need to do whatever it takes. (Hey, why do you think I'm writing these columns?) If you find relevant material, print it as handouts and give it to someone not on the Internet. Copy material into emails and provide links to anyone who is.

To paraphrase Obama's exhortation to US voters only a couple of weeks ago: the upcoming election in Nanaimo is not about the candidates - it's about you and me. It's about you and me getting previously non-participating voters out to polling stations. Task #1 is not about convincing voters to switch allegiances. It is about motivating the 64% who missed the last election. 

If we really want change in Nanaimo for the next four years, and I believe most of us do, we need to take on this crucial mission. With another low voter turnout like 2014, we risk getting an equivalent of the current council for another term. If that isn't a stomach-turner, I don't know what is: The risk of four more years as dysfunctional and expensive as the last.