Longtime observer offers his two cents on municipal election
Keeping watch on politics
By Jeff Green
A well-known political watchdog at Memorial University is predicting a lower than normal voter turn out during the Sept. 27 municipal election in the City of St. John’s. Dr. Peter Boswell, interim head with the Department of Political Science, said he doesn’t think there will be a huge number of voters casting ballots mainly because the mayor’s seat is largely uncontested.
“Studies that we have done here and studies that have been done in other parts of Canada on municipal elections, indicate that if there’s a tight mayor’s race there is a larger voter turn out,” said Dr. Boswell, who teaches a course in municipal politics at Memorial. “But that’s not the case this year.”
Earlier this month, Mayor Andy Wells shut down his re-election campaign because he said he was confident he will be returned as mayor. Former St. John’s Deputy Mayor Ray O’Neill Mr. Wells’ only competitor in the race is not considered by many political observers to be a serious contender for the mayor’s seat. He has admitted to vandalizing campaign signs belonging to deputy mayoral candidate Dennis O’Keefe by spray-painting the word “Liar” on some signs, although he misspelled the word.
“To the degree that Ray O’Neill is making himself look like an idiot then there’s not going to be a tight mayor’s race,” said Dr. Boswell. “It’s likely to result in a decrease in voter turn out. That’s my prediction. I hope I’m wrong.”
Judging by the number of placards and signs city council candidates have put up around the city including dozens near Memorial’s campus Dr. Boswell said there seems to be a lot of interest in this year’s municipal campaign. But he said “outrageous antics” by some candidates will likely turn off voters. Some signs have been defaced, torn down and destroyed in the past number of weeks. Dr. Boswell said municipal elections are generally not a dirty race in Newfoundland and Labrador but this year especially in the City of St. John’s things have gotten worse. “You always expect that there is going to be political exchange especially when you get somebody as forthright as Andy Wells. But this one seems a little dirtier than any other one than I can recall,” said Dr. Boswell. “I’ve never experienced this in St. John’s before.
“To the degree that advertising attracts people’s attention, maybe it means there’ll be a higher voter turn out this time around but I’m not convinced of that because of everything else that has happened.”
Dr. Boswell isn’t convinced either that mail-in ballots are the best method for voters to cast their ballots. Of the approximately 39,000 votes cast during the 2001 election, about 32,000 or 82 per cent were received through the mail. Dr. Boswell wonders how many of those ballots were cast by somebody other than the person they were sent to.
“I guess I’m just old-fashioned. I just don’t like the idea of a mail-in ballot. When you go to vote in a federal or provincial election you go down to the polling station and get your name crossed off the list and go and make your vote. There is something about a civic duty,” he said. “A mail-in ballot is sort of like here’s another Visa bill to pay. It just takes away from the aura of an election. It’s like you just fill it in arbitrarily and send it in. It just seems not to be the right way. You never quite know who filled in the ballot.
Despite how he feels about particular election issues, Dr. Boswell is encouraged to see former and current Memorial students running. Over the years he has tried to foster a passion for politics in students who take his Local Government in Canada course which zeroes in on municipal politics. “It’s important to do what I can to encourage my students to take an interest in municipal government and get out there and run,” he said with a smile. “I’m always delighted when I see former students running. In Conception Bay South, Scott Andrews is running and he is a graduate of that class. Mike Evoy, who is running in St. John’s, is a former student. And Patrick Hanlon, a current student here at Memorial, took the local government class last fall. He is now running this year.”
Municipal politics can be a daunting job for rookie councillors who have to learn new rules and regulations. That task has become easier in recent years, though, thanks to a book Dr. Boswell wrote which has become the bible for new members of council. The Municipal Councillor’s Handbook is a valuable tool for the community leaders and includes information about conduct, rules and responsibilities of municipal government.
“It takes the Municipalities Act and turns it into terminology that the average councillor can understand and hopefully find a bit more interesting,” said Dr. Boswell. “Some of the stuff it covers is not in the Act.
“It’s very important that councillors know how to deal with issues,” he added. “Municipal politics is a very important job and decisions made by councillors end up affecting us all.”