Below is the body of my submission to the Hamilton City Council’s Representation Review. As some of you may be aware the council recently proposed to change the local government elections from the current two wards and 12 councillors to a single city wide ward with ten councillors. I argue that this proposal will take us in the wrong direction. If you would like to have your say on how council should be elected then you have until Monday on the City Council Website.
I would like the Hamilton City Council to adopt option 4 as presented in the discussion paper of the Representation Arrangements Review. This is the option with 4 wards, 12 councillors and no community boards. I strongly support an increase in the number of wards from the status quo and strongly oppose moving to a city wide voting system.
The purpose of the council elections is to ensure that the city council represents the full range of Hamilton city residents, that the council is competent and of a quality that the city deserves and that the council can function effectively. These are the qualities that my submission and recommendations seek to promote in this city.
I believe that the best way of ensuring that the council meets these conditions is to design a voting system that will in time lead to an increased voter turnout and a higher quality of voter decision making. I have assumed that the current FPP/bloc voting system will be retained after next years referendum. If the voters of Hamilton decide to change to STV then some of my recommendations will need to be reconsidered.
The purpose of the ward system is to allow the representation of multiple communities of interest on the city council. This is particularly important considering that our city currently uses bloc voting, a multi member version of first past the post. This means that a single, ticket, party or faction can easily gain all the seats offered in a ward. This is often seen in the WEL Energy Trust elections where a single ticket is often returned winning all the seats offered.
This phenomenon is dangerous as it potentially allows a small segment of the cities’ population to capture the city council and ignore the interests of the rest of the citizens of the city. Having two or more wards allow multiple communities of interest to be represented, simply because a different bloc may win each ward. Wards do not prevent a single bloc from winning all the seats in the city but they increase the chances that there will be multiple blocs compared to a single city wide ward.
Having multiple wards also enables electors to make higher quality decisions regarding candidates. To take a hypothetical but realistic example, say an east ward voter in the last election only had two hours of spare time during the 2010 election campaign to compare the various candidates. There were 6 Mayoral candidates and 18 Council Candidates meaning that the voter could only spend on average 5 minutes researching the various candidates before deciding which ones represented them the best. If the city had been a single ward then there would have been 39 Council candidates to evaluate, giving less than 3 minutes per candidate.
In this situation it is much more difficult for the individual voter to make an informed decision about the quality of the candidates and who amongst them will best represent their interests. Correspondingly the increased difficulty associated with making an informed decision will make even fewer people inclined to vote and further lower the abysmal Hamilton City Council elections turnout. This is why I oppose moving to a city wide ward system.
Increasing the number of wards would likewise make it easier for a voter to make an informed decision, allowing voters to select a council that is more representative of the voters and increasing the turn out. Research looking at 30 countries has found that smaller ward sizes do have a significant impact in increasing voter turnout.1
A mix of ward and city wide councillors would be an interesting compromise solution but I fear will not make much difference to the council. I suspect that more often than not the East Ward will return one bloc, the West ward another and the city wide votes will return one or the other of these blocs, adding very little to the council’s representativeness. On the other hand it is possible for blocs which do not have plurality support in either of the two wards to have a plurality of the city at large meaning that this system could theoretically lead to 3 blocs represented in council. I suspect that most often it will be one or two however.
Community boards would be an effective means of allowing communities to explore and develop their own distinct identity separate from that of the city as a whole, however they are an additional cost in both time and money and I believe are unnecessary expense at the moment. However this is not a point that I feel strongly about.
Number of Councillors
There are two factors that need to be considered when determining the number of councillors. The first is the adequacy of representation and the second is the effectiveness of council. Both goals are important and sometimes a balance between the two is necessary, as a general rule smaller groups reach decisions quicker than larger ones, but larger ones can represent more parts of the community and bring more information to the decisions that are made.
Looking at the current council I do not think that we have effectively represented many of Hamilton’s communities of interest. Moving to a city-wide ward would make it even less likely that many communities will be represented on council and therefore I can not support a reduction in the number of councillors while moving to a city wide ward. I believe that the number of wards will prove to be the main determinant of effective representation on council and that if the number of wards were increased it would be possible to decrease the size of council while maintaining or enhancing the current level of effective representation.
With regards to the effectiveness of council it should be realised that the best size for a subcommittee is 3 to 6 people. Council currently having four subcommittees this means that with either 10 or 12 councillors the subcommittees should be able to work effectively and the individual councillors should remain effective. However with 12,000 voters per councillor the Hamilton City Council is already at the upper limit of representation in a study of European Constituencies.2
1Pippa Norris, Electoral Engineering: Voting Rules and Political Behavior (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 162–176.
2Kingsley Purdam and others, ‘How Many Elected Representatives Does Local Government Need? A Review of the Evidence from Europe’, CCSR Working Paper, 2008 <www.ccsr.ac.uk/publications/working/2008-06.pdf>.