In 2012 Graeme Stewart-Robertson campaigned for a spot on Saint John common council. It was a run partly sparked by frustration and fueled by a passion for his community.
“I was always a little disillusioned by the reputation that Saint John common council had for infighting and a lot of other things. … It had a negative reputation and the low voter turnout that went along with that,” he said.
“I thought it was a great time for me to take what I had learned in my work here in the city professionally and apply to a run for common council to basically further the idea that we could have positive discourse, that we could have engaged young people … and possibly inspire others to do the same.”
Stewart-Robertson’s run was ultimately unsuccessful but it’s an experience that he values and that informs his work as the executive director of ACAP Saint John.
“What I found really valuable about that whole experience was the opportunity to talk to people in our community as to what they saw as important in municipal politics, … to interact with people individually at their doors, or at debates or at public forums is something I still carry with me to this day,” he said.
“It gives you the ability to hold conversation better with members of our community as well and to think more holistically about decision making in our community.”
But convincing people to put themselves out there as Stewart-Robertson did eight years ago is not easy.
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In the 2016 local government elections there were 1,100 candidates for 730 positions on municipal councils, district education councils (DECs) and regional health authority boards (RHAs). Six council positions were left vacant, and 160 were acclaimed meaning they ran for positions unopposed, including 49 of the province’s 105 mayors.
The numbers are even worse for DECs where only 29 of the 68 positions available were even contested. Seven more were left vacant.
New Brunswick’s chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth is currently touring the province sharing information about what’s involved in running for these positions and hopefully encouraging people to consider it. She says the low number of candidates for local government positions is concerning.
“Every year there’s a number of vacancies at the end of the elections meaning a position that no one has run for and a significant number … where there was no election, where only one individual ran,” said Poffenroth.
“It’s not good for the health of democracy if electors don’t have the opportunity to go in and make a choice for who they want to make these important decisions on programs and services that affect their day to day lives.”
Municipal councils are often considered to be the most direct levels of government, that has the most impact on citizens’ daily lives. Decisions are made within the community, rather than in a house of government in far away cities or provinces.
Yet it’s something many take for granted and seldom notice for positive reasons.
“A lot of people don’t go out and vote because it’s not something that they notice until they’re mad about something. They don’t notice local government until there’s a pothole or a street light that’s out,” said Margot Cragg, the executive director of the New Brunswick Union of Municipalities.
And when it comes time to vote a dearth of options often means many opt to stay home. In 2016 voter turnout for local government elections was a dismal 34.5 per cent, down one per cent from 2012.
Cragg says the lack of candidates is likely due, in part, to the demanding nature and low pay of the job.
“We really depend on and assume that good people are going to be willing to step up and do these jobs, but increasingly there’s a lot of folks who are taking a look at what the job entails and are deciding it’s not really for them,” she said.
There is also the public profile that comes with public office and the social media attacks that follow.
“If you’re someone who is considering running, or someone who has been on council for a while, you’ve got people coming at you on Twitter to tell you that you’re a baby eating Nazi simply because you were trying to put a park somewhere, you might think maybe I could do other things with my time,” Cragg said.
“We all play our own role. So if you’re thinking about going and retweeting something horrible someone said on Twitter, think about your life choices and ask yourself if there’s a more constructive way of saying it.”
Poffenroth says Elections NB is hoping that more people will be interested if they understand the roles themselves.
“It’s not about having to understand how to run a municipality. You’re not involved in the day-to-day operations, but I believe that everybody has something to contribute. They have an opinion on what the direction of their community should be.”
Even if you’re not prepared to throw your own hat into the ring, every New Brunswicker has a chance to help increase engagement in local governance. Cragg says people should encourage others to run, particularly those from under-served and under-represented communities.
“Something we can do to break down barriers is to encourage people to run. So if you see somebody who loves their community who you think would make a great contribution, encourage them. Tell them you think they’re great, encourage them to put their name forward and help them when they do,” she said.
Stewart-Robertson says part of the reason he ran in the first place was to encourage others to be more engaged.
As somebody who went through the process himself, Stewart-Robertson knows just how taxing and difficult running can be, but he says more people should consider throwing their hat into the ring, particularly if you don’t see yourself represented around the council horseshoe.
“It’s an incredibly valuable piece of learning that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. So if you have the time, if you have the passion to put your name out there and run for politics, I encourage people to do so,” he said.