Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Ongoing Quest for Diversity

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Maclean's magazine - I assume my colleagues did as well.  The magazine is working on something about diversity, or the lack of it, on city councils, and wanted to confirm that Prince Albert City Council is like most other city councils - largely made up of white males.  They identified me as a white male, asked me to correct this if it was wrong, and asked if I had any thoughts on how to correct the imbalance.

They weren't wrong, obviously; I am a white male.  And so are most of the other members of council.  And I'm not sure how to fix the visible imbalances, or even if that should be the only objective - to be able to look at a picture of council and say that, yes, it contains the correct proportion of gender and race balance.

To me, it's also important to ensure that council has a diversity of perspectives.  It's not really diverse if everyone at the table represents the same viewpoint, and votes as one.  There are some members of council who think that's how it should be - at least one councillor thinks that council should vote the same way that the mayor does, since he's supposedly the boss (he's not, of course), and another councillor who believes that if everyone votes the same way, then nobody can be blamed for bad decisions.  That's not diversity; that's behaving as if council was just a big rubber stamp.

I believe one of the factors that has led to more diversity on council is the ward system.  When council was elected city-wide, most councillors and mayors came from the higher income areas of the city.  Not surprising - it takes a lot of money to run a campaign across the city, and to get the name recognition that is essential to getting elected.  It's much easier and more affordable to get your message out across a ward.  And while it isn't required that you actually be a resident in the ward in which you run, I believe that it's most effective to be represented by someone who lives in the ward, who can truly appreciate the issues that residents of a ward have to deal with every day.  And for the most part, that is the case in Prince Albert.

Of course, there are other roadblocks to achieving council diversity.  One is that many people just aren't interested in the job, for a number of reasons.  One of the reasons that I hear most often is the level of public abuse that seems to go along with the job - people just aren't prepared to have their decisions, and often their motives, subject to all sorts of insults and insinuations from people who don't even bother to call to get your side of the story.

The time required to do a good job is also a factor for many people - if you have a full-time job, a family, and other commitments or interests, finding the appropriate balance is difficult.  I'm betting you could ask any member of council and get good examples of times when council commitments meant that they had to miss something else important.

And, like most governments, council decisions are not made as fast as some people would like, which can be seen as frustrating to those watching.  We have processes that have to be followed, budgets that limit how much we can do, and we have to work with others - not nearly as fast as working alone, but I believe that it leads to better decisions.

A few years ago I was at a housing committee meeting when one of the members said to me "You need to understand; there are two Prince Alberts - a rich one and a poor one.  And the rich one gets to make most of the decisions."  That's where we need to ensure diversity - to ensure that our decisions lessen the differences between low and high income areas.  But we don't have that diversity of perspectives on council now.  We have members of council who think that it's quite reasonable to budget $2 million for golf course irrigation rather than replacing lead water service connections.

I don't know a fast way to get that diversity of perspectives on council while maintaining the principles of democracy (we can't tell people how to vote), but I try - by asking questions, by pointing out the ways that we spend money subsidizing facilities that are used by only a small proportion of city residents, and by advocating for more equitable distribution of amenities like green spaces.  I may be a white male, but I try to represent the diversity of my constituents the best I can.

"One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak." - Gloria Steinem

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