2 min

Should Toronto city councillors max out at eight years?

Ward 27 candidates endorse shorter stays in office

If those making the pitch for electoral reform needed a case study, the gaybourhood riding of Ward 27 would be ideal.

After all, Councillor Kyle Rae represented the ward for 19 years. Political foes — and some constituents — grumbled that, as an incumbent, he was impossible to unseat.

Rae himself never unseated an incumbent, inheriting the chair left vacant by Jack Layton after his decade in office. (Layton, on the other hand, did unseat an incumbent, in a rare 1982 upset over one-term councillor Gordon Chong.)

Despite Rae’s sometimes laissez faire attitude toward campaigning, he was handily reelected six times. In 2000, he was even acclaimed.

So if you ask those vying to replace him whether anyone should be allowed to hold a seat for that long, answers skew toward term limits.

Proponents of term limits include Enza Anderson, Susan Gapka and Kristyn Wong-Tam.

“With a budget, with a newsletter, with staff, incumbents are really favoured,” says Gapka.

Anderson agrees.

“Councillors become a little too comfortable. Not just Kyle Rae, but councillors who have been on council for years,” says Anderson. “They know how to manipulate the system; they know how to use taxpayer dollars to their advantage.”

Fellow candidate Chris Tindal agrees that something needs to be done about what he calls the “entrenched nature of incumbency” but thinks term limits should only be the last resort.

Like most of the candidates, he favours reform that would make it harder for councillors to use public money to promote themselves, but he also supports a change in the way we vote: a ranked, preferential ballot.

Sometimes known as “instant runoff,” this system tends to avoid vote-splitting among left- or right-leaning candidates and effectively ends the practice of strategic voting.

“We’ve got a race with 13 of us running. Quite frankly, one of us is going to be elected with around 25 percent of the vote. And so I’m hoping that’ll be me, but I won’t be happy with the fact that it wasn’t a plurality, and I don’t think anyone should be satisfied with that.”

Ken Chan — who has been endorsed formally by Rae — says he doesn’t support term limits. Even so, he agrees that 19 years is too long and pledges to run for reelection only once if he becomes a councillor this fall.

“It should be for the voters to decide. If there’s a person who represents the area really well, it shouldn’t be a piece of legislation [that stops them],” he says.

With electoral reform getting a lot of play this year — in large part due to citizen groups like Better Ballots and I Vote Toronto — candidates in Ward 27 are eager to weigh in on all kinds of proposed changes.

Chan, for instance, favours a hybrid model, with some councillors representing wards and some representing either the city as a whole or a few mega-wards.

Gapka would prefer a ward or borough model using proportional representation, where several councillors would represent a constituency, not just the first-past-the-post candidate.

I Vote Toronto is pressing the province to extend the municipal vote to permanent residents (rather than just Canadian citizens). It’s a movement that’s gaining support from politicians of all political stripes, including most of the Ward 27 candidates.

Wong-Tam would go one step further. She advocates lowering the voting age to 16.

“And it’s not that difficult to do. Because I can tell you, after knocking on thousands of doors, people just want to be heard,” she says.

That proposal — like most municipal reform — requires legislation from the province. But carrying electoral reform from idea to reality will require a council dedicated to raising the issue with the province. Given the area’s history, the next councillor for Ward 27 may well be one of the loudest voices for reform.

Calls to Kyle Rae were not returned by press time.