Rebecca Johnson was part of a panel assembled Tuesday night to debate whether Sudbury should change its 12-ward system. Unlike ward councillors, who are elected by people in specific areas, at-large councillors are elected by voters everywhere in a city.
And as an at-large councillor, Johnson said she doesn't have to worry about road, snow plowing or or other “boring” complaints that Thunder Bay's seven ward councillors have to deal with. Instead, she and the four other at-large councillors can focus on bigger issues. It offers a strong mix she said serves residents well.
“I love it and it's lots of fun,” she told the 100 or so people gathered at Steelworkers Hall. “I have no regrets about (becoming) an at-large councillor.”
Johnson was joined by Jim Gordon, the first mayor of Greater Sudbury, Bob Segsworth, a local government expert from Laurentian University, and Mac Bain, a councillor from North Bay.
David Boyce, president of the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber organized the event to “test the appetite for change” in the city. Should we have full-time councillors? At-large councillors? A mix of both?
While it's too late for the October municipal vote, Boyce said now is the time to start the discussion.
“The city's needs are changing,” Boyce said. “The chamber wonders whether it is time to consider modifying the structure of our municipal council.”
Gordon disagreed with Johnson, saying dealing with everyday complaints from residents gives ward councillors an education about how politics really works and what matters to people.
“So I'm a ward person,” Gordon says. “Our councillors are really plugged in.”
In a thinly veiled reference to current Mayor Marianne Matichuk and her battles this term with city council, Gordon said local government relies on having a mayor both with a vision for the city and the skills to make the vision a reality.
“I would love to comment on the (current) council, but I'm not,” Gordon said. “But I will say this: it is very important that the mayor of this city be someone who has the expertise to develop policies and goals for the council that the council and the mayor can consensually work at bringing to fruition.”
The crowd at the meeting included four current councillors – Ward 5 Coun. Ron Dupuis, Ward 7 Coun. Dave Kilgour, Ward 8 Coun. Fabio Belli and Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann – as well as a host of candidates for the Oct. 27 vote.
In North Bay, Bain said not only are all councillors elected at-large, but the person with the most votes automatically becomes the deputy mayor. And other posts are given to councillors depending on where they finish. Like Johnson, he likes the fact he can focus on issues city-wide.
“What I love about the at-large system is I represent everyone in the city of North Bay,” Bain said. “Whether they like it or not.”
Problems do arise, he said, when some councillors turn out to be less industrious than others, with some just showing up the night of a meeting. It's harder to police that sort of thing in an at-large system, since they don't have ward residents to answer to directly.
Regardless of structure, all agreed that name recognition is a critical factor in municipal elections. Johnson said at-large campaigns are about three times more expensive, since you have to reach out to a much broader audience. But once you become known, campaigns are much cheaper.
She cited the case of a novice candidate in Thunder Bay in 2010 who spent $14,000 on his campaign, only to lose.
“It's a really tough go” when people don't know your name, she said. “It's really a tough go.”