In more or less one year from today, Guelph residents (and indeed most residents in towns and cities across Ontario), will go to the polls to choose their local government for the next four years. Now a lot can happen in a year, so making predictions this far out seems rather counter-intuitive. Instead, let's consider some of the questions Royal City voters might have concerning the state of politics in town as we roll into an election year: Who will run? Who will run again? Who might be looking for a promotion? And what issues will be the deciding factor on who gets a seat around the horseshoe in 2015? Below are nine things to consider as we gear up for the 2014 campaign trail.
1) Will Karen Farbridge run again?
Good question. Karen Farbridge has been Mayor of Guelph for 11 out of the last 14 years, that's three terms, so is she going to roll the dice on getting a fourth term in office? Farbridge herself doesn't show any signs of retirement planning, remaining as active as ever on the council and in the community, so I think it more likely than not that she'll decide to run again unless something truly scandalous happens in the next couple of months that would absolutely decimate any chance she has for re-election. In other words, look for Farbridge to appear on the ballot next fall, likely on the basis of wanting to finish the work she began seven years ago.
2) Will Cam Guthrie run for mayor?
If there's a single name that keeps coming up in relation to the mayor's race, it's Cam Guthrie. The first-term Ward 4 councillor was a rumored candidate in 2010 before eventually deciding to run for a seat as a councillor, but there seems to be an expectation that Guthrie's got his eye on bigger races to come. Last year, a blogger supposed that Guthrie's candidacy was a done deal, but in a comment to the Guelph Mercury's 59 Carden St blog, Guthrie issued a non-denial denial that said he's focusing right now being a city councillor and he won't make a move till having a conversation with his family. Also, he wants Guelphites to "think very carefully of what type of Guelph they wish to wake up to in the fall of 2014." Guthrie is likely taking his own advice.
3) If not Guthrie, than who else might run for mayor?
If you're looking for specific names, I have none to give you, but I think it's unlikely that Farbridge will face the same rather limp slate as she did in 2010 should she decide to run for re-election. The likely scenario is that the anti-Farbridge caucus may wait to see if Guthrie's all in for the mayor's race before putting another name forward, but no matter the name, one things is certain, the person that runs against Farbridge is going to have to lay out a vision that can't be summed up in four words: "I'm not Karen Farbridge." That was the core problem with David Birtwistle's campaign in '10. At the same time though, despite the perception that she's ambassador for the looney left, Farbridge isn't that popular either with local progressives, many of whom cast protest votes for Ray Mitchell and Scott Nightingale in 2010. With all sides sensing vulnerability, look for at least two worthy challengers for Farbridge for the mayor's office.
4) Who will be running (or re-running) for a council seat?
So far we know that Maggie Laidlaw will be retiring from city council at the end of this term, but to my knowledge, no one else has vocalized their intention to either step down or re-up. After Laidlaw, the next most veteran member of council is Gloria Kovach, and she might have good cause to decide to step away now, and not run for re-election, but she hasn't spoke on the subject. As for the other 10 members of council, incumbancy is no guarantee of re-election on the municipal level, ask Vicki Beard and Mark Salisbury (or Dan Schnurr, Peter Hamtak, David Birtwistle, Dan Moziar, Ray Ferraro and Rocco J. Furfaro in the election before). If anyone's not interested in running, they will either announce early or wait till very late, and until they say otherwise, there will be a presumption that that person is running for re-election. Either way, nominations are open January 2.
5) What will the important issues be?
This is probably the easiest question because the debate will likely come down to a question of value for tax dollars, what those running will do in order to keep taxes low, and what will they cut in order to insure that becomes reality? A difficult question since every agrees that taxes should be low, but no one agrees on what specific city services should be cut. How the candidates propose to balance these two diametrically opposite instincts will determine whether or not they're elected. In other issues, look for waste collection to come up, the cost and implementation of the new plant, the roll-out of the new cart system and trucks, etc; incumbents will be called to account and challengers will be on the attack. Transit will likely be an issue, the implementation of the new schedule and routes and bad publicity of the service on social media. There's also been a lot of turnover in senior levels of government that might be disconcerting for some, a symptom of bigger problems with the management at city hall.
6) Will voter turnout go up?
Well it can't go too much further down. In 2010, 33.91 per cent of eligible voters came out, which translates to barely 28,000 out of nearly 83,000 people able to vote for Guelph's city council. That was a 20 per cent drop from the 2006 election, which, if you're keeping count, is still barely half of all voters, but more in keeping with the average turnout of elections at other levels of government. So will more people vote this time? It's paradoxical that so many sit out the municipal election, since 9 out 10 of the things affect us everyday are decided on the local level. It may depend on the slate, if it's a competitive mayoral race, then getting out the vote efforts will be key, which is why voter turnout in 2006 was so strong by comparison. If it's Farbridge versus an unnamed candidate with some name cache, it should be a good race. If it's a complete new slate of candidates, it might be even stronger.
7) What will the impact of online voting be?
Council approved online voting for advanced polls earlier this year, with an eye for rolling it out further in the 2018 election if successful. My own opinions on online voting notwithstanding, there is some evidence to say that it gets more people who haven't voted before to vote; in Markham it was as high as 20 per cent. Also, in surveys, many respondents said that they were more likely to vote if casting their ballot through the internet at home as an option. Of course, "likely to vote" doesn't necessarily translate into actual voting, and really we won't know how successful online voting is until it actually happens. My prediction is that there will be an uptick in turnout, but given that we're living in the home of Pierre Poutine, there's going to be more than a little trepidation about the process.
8) Will the Guelph Civic League and GrassRoots Guelph have an impact?
That's tough to say, but again, it will likely depend on who's running. In 2006, when the GCL led civic engagement for the first time, they backed a slate of progressive candidates led by then former-Mayor Karen Farbridge. In 2014, it will be a thoroughly non-partisan GCL that will be working to promote issues and discussion as opposed to specific candidates with a certain political point of view, but with Farbridge in power, it maybe the other side that works hard to push a partisan agenda. GRG meanwhile has already begun it's push back against the current council, and while it also claims to be non-partisan, it's clear from posts so far that the group is thoroughly anti-Farbridge. If the right group of candidates step up, will GRG be able to resist the urge for advocacy? That's the question.
9) Will the Toronto circus be a distraction?
Despite the fact that it's technically illegal to campaign before the opening of nominations, that hasn't stopped some people in Toronto, up to an including it's current mayor, from getting the campaign going. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the never ending drama around Rob Ford - the drug talk, the staff shaming, the subway chanting - and despite the controversies, Ford hasn't been shy stating his intention to run for re-election. With the ongoing matter of the alleged crack video, his seeming willingness to bend the rules to suit him, Ford's presence on the ballot will guarantee a circus like atmosphere for the politics held within Toronto's city limits, a much more engaging story than the mere discussion of tax bills and budgetary discretion that, by comparison, is rather dry. Also, there's a book about Ford coming out in the spring by no less than the Toronto Star's Robyn Doolittle, and it promises some "shocking" new revelations. No matter who else is running, Toronto politics will be anything but dull in 2014. Hopefully, our attentions in the Royal City won't suffer as a result.