'A dangerous sign:' More than a dozen school trustee and council candidates could be elected by default
Candidates in more than a dozen councillor and school trustee races in Toronto could be formally elected in a week’s time, unless some last-minute challengers step forward.
It’s an unusual phenomenon in a city where municipal elections typically bring crowded fields and lengthy ballots.
But with an Aug. 19 registration deadline fast approaching after a three-month nomination period, there are still two council races with only one candidate running, as well as 14 school trustee races in which that is the case.
The total number of candidates also seems poised to be much lower than in 2018.
As of Friday afternoon there were a total of 197 candidates registered, including 17 for mayor, 92 for city council and 88 for school trustee.
In 2018, a total of 501 candidates registered, including 35 for mayor, 242 for councillor and 224 for school trustee.
“I think local democracy is in a pretty sorry state in the City of Toronto,” Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University, told CP24.com this week.
“This sets a new bar at the wrong end of the continuum. There is the large number of incumbents who are not running for re-election and don't want to continue to do the job, the few numbers of new applicants interested in the positions and the general kind of disconnection and even disinterest that it would appear many residents are showing for the city. This is a totally distinct kind of like constellation of symptoms coming together but they combine to tell us the patient is getting pretty sick and the patient unfortunately is local democracy.”
Under the rules for municipal elections in Ontario, if there is only one certified candidate running for a particular office as of 4 p.m. on Aug. 22 that candidate will be formally declared elected by acclamation, meaning that their names will not even appear on ballots.
Siemiatycki said that the prospect of numerous candidates being acclaimed on Aug .22 would be a “dangerous sign for the governance of the City of Toronto.”
While it has happened from time to time in French-language school boards, the last time that candidates were acclaimed as councillors or trustees with either of the city’s two English-language school boards was 2003.
Back then two councillors and five trustees were ultimately acclaimed.
Speaking with CP24.com, Siemiatycki acknowledged that there are lower levels of political engagement across the country right now and that the situation is not unique to Toronto.
But he said that the issue of finding candidates willing to seek local office appears to have been further exacerbated locally, following Premier Doug Ford’s decision to slash the size of council in 2018 and create massive wards with more than 100,000 constituents.
Already seven current incumbents on council have either resigned to pursue other opportunities or announced that they will not seek re-election in the fall, an incredibly rare occurrence.
“In a lot of ways the job is just much more onerous. You're taking on twice the work as a councillor in terms of how many people you've got to represent and how much work is going to be on your plate and it has made it a much less enjoyable job and position for some councillors because in the past what many local politicians liked about being elected municipally was you were really grassroots, you were street-level, you were neighbourhood-based,” Siemiatycki said.
“Now with the huge constituencies I think a lot of local politicians don’t feel that they are connected to neighbourhoods and issues the way they were in the past. You add all that up and there are too many reasons why it makes sense not to run for municipal office.”
Nearly one-third of races at the TDSB and TCDSB could result in acclamations
Right now there are two municipal wards in the City of Toronto where incumbent councillors are running unopposed – Etobicoke Centre (Stephen Holyday) and Don Valley North (Shelley Carroll).
But at the school trustee level the situation is more stark.
As of Friday afternoon, approximately one-third of the school trustee races at both the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) involved candidates who were running unopposed.
Meanwhile, there were only a combined four candidates seeking to fill the five school trustee positions with the French-language boards.
Shelley Laskin is one of the unopposed candidates. She is seeking re-election as a TDSB trustee in Ward 8, after handily defeating six other candidates in the ward during the last municipal election.
She told CP24.com that she is still planning as if she will be launching a campaign later this month and has a date for a fundraiser set but will be prepared to carry on the conversation about the future of public education in other ways should a challenger not register.
“Simply because you don’t have to run an election doesn’t mean you stop wanting to get your messages out,” she said. “There are lots of opportunities to continue to engage parents and part of the role is that engagement with parents and caregivers at the local level. Obviously you are one of 22 trustees that make decisions at the board level but local engagement and parent and caregiver involvement is so critical to kids’ achievement and well-being.”
Laskin, who has served five terms as a trustee, said that she can’t recall being unopposed so late in the nomination period but she said that there have been times when a flurry of candidates signed up at the last-minute.
She is hopeful that will be the case this time around but acknowledged that there are challenges in getting people to run at the trustee level, where costly campaigns can be a barrier to entry for some and compensation is such that most trustees still need to have a full-time job.
Trustees earn $25,507 per year and have a discretionary budget of $11,780.
“Most of us get support from our friends and family. It's not as if there's a secret pot of money that that people can go into and because donations are not tax-deductible at the school board level it is a bit of a hard sell for just somebody that you don't know, getting their support,” she said. “So the campaign itself is challenging. And it is tricky too to get people to fully engage themselves in a 24/7 occupation that has little remuneration.”
A few dozen additional candidates have registered over last week
About 30 additional candidates for municipal office in Toronto have registered over the last seven days but there has not, at least so far, been a deluge of candidates eager to throw their hats into the rings ahead of the Aug. 19 deadline.
Education advocate Annie Kidder, who is the executive director of the group People for Education, told CP24.com that she was “horrified” upon learning about the low number of candidates who have registered to run in trustee races so far.
While she is hoping that the situation could change between now and the nomination deadline, she said that the apparent lack of interest is “concerning” because it suggests that “not enough people understand what happens at school boards in terms of all the choices made by school trustees.”
Boards, she said, make important decisions about school programming, staffing, class sizes and even whether to open new schools or close aging underutilized ones.
“It is worrying that people don’t necessarily connect the dots between those local levels of government and what actually happens on the ground,” she said. “Overall, the health and strength of public education will suffer without really great candidates running for school trustees.”
Toronto residents are set to head to the polls on Oct. 24.
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