How to tell if a politician will be accountable

During the 2010 municipal election, DurhamCLEAR conducted an extensive - 36 question - environmental questionnaire of all the candidates - - it took most candidates 1/2 hour or longer to complete it. Some agonized over it for hours, even days trying to find the perfect answer.

While more than 130 candidates completed it, it became clear as we read the answers that only some candidates provided sincere answers -  far more provided the answers that they thought we wanted to hear - the ones that would get them the most "brownie points".

One question that we didn't answer was "Would you be accountable to your constituents?" because of course they would all answer "Yes". Most would actually have meant it even if they had, quite possibly, a very different idea of accountability than their constituents. Politicians generally have pretty strong egos and most can't imagine that their constituents would not be in general agreement with them on the main issues.

Well, after the last election, we were blidsided when a few of the candidates that we specifically set out to elect turned their backs on us. Since then I have spent considerable time trying to figure out how to make candidates more accountable.

RECALL

The long-term answer is RECALL which is a process, generally enshrined in electoral law which permits voters to petition for the removal of an elected official.

Recall is little known in Canada although British Columbia has a recall law. Also, in the last municipal election, Toronto Mayoral candidate, Rocco Rossi, put it into his election platform. Unfortunately he withdrew from the race before election day. However, it got quite a bit of press coverage at the time - most of it positive.

Recall is quite common in the United States and is enshrined in several State constitutions. Click here for more detail.

Recall gives ordinarry citizens a cudgell to hold over their representatives in order to ensure that they do in fact represent views that conform with most of their constituents - or they will be removed.

I think it would be a fair assumption that if Durham Region had recall that Mayor Adrian Foster and Regional Councillor Willie Woo would have been petitioned out of office shortly after the election when they turned their backs on the voters of Clarington and voted to support the garbage incinerator in Courtice.

But this long-term solution would require a Municipal Act amendment through the provincial legistature, and this would be opposed by most municipal politicans and their various associations. Needless to say the provincial government wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.

So, clearly we won't have legally binding Recall anytime soon but maybe we can get something close to it.

RECALL WITHOUT LEGISLATION

Download a single sheet draft flyer which explains the concept in point form

This idea is far from foolproof but is intended to create a moral obligation which could accomplish the same thing.

Candidates need to be asked a series of 3 questions.

The first question is "Do you believe in/support Recall?" Once the concept is explained to candidates most will readily say "YES" (for many, simply because they know that's the answer you want.)

The second question is "Would you introduce a motion at Council (and support such a motion) to ask the Province to implement a recall law for municipal politicians?" Most candidates would probably answer "Yes" to that one too but with a little more hesitation as they see where this is leading.

The third question is "In the absence of such legislation, would you agree to resign your seat if 25% of the electors for your position petitioned for your removal?" This is where we get to the crux of accountability. Any candidate who truly believes that he/she will honestly represent their constituents should have no difficulty answering "Yes" to this one too. Even some of the candidate that know their platform is a big fat lie will also answer "Yes" believing it could never happen, or at least that it would have no legal basis.

Many politicians - for legitimate reasons or not - will find excuses and objection. Some will object to the 25% number (see below). 25% of what - some would argue that only people who have voted in the election the elected them should be able to sign such a petition - but this would violate privacy laws because who voted and not is not considered public information.

THE PLEDGE

Any candidate who has answered "Yes" to all three questions would then be asked to sign a pledge which embodies the 3 questions above. click to see DRAFT PLEDGE FORM

While quite true that the legal standing of such a pledge would be weak, it would nevertheless embody a powerful moral obligation. If a candidate has signed such a pledge and subsequently 25% of their constituents sign a petition to remove them, the credibility of a councillor that refused to resign would be reduced to zero, and hopefully would find himself/herself shunned by other members of their Council.

Recall petitions are not - and should not - be easy. Assembling lists and systematically collecting signatures door-to-door takes a great deal of organization and just plain work. A recall petitions has many of the characteristics of an election where voters need to be carefully identified and recorded in order to prevent fraud.

There are some issues about recall that would need to be addressed in legislation. For our purposes, the detail is unlikely to be an issue except for the percentage:

  • The percentage. Most places in the US where they have recall the percentage used is 25% - a few use 30 and some 20. When the BC government created its recall legislation, they made the threshold 40% in order to make successful Recall petitions virtually impossible. This, of course, defeats the purpose of the legislation - which was exactly what the government intended. While no petition has been completely successfully in BC, one member of the BC legistlature resigned when it became clear that a petition against him would likely succeed
  • Percentage of what. In some states it is a percentage of the total voters of the district, in others it is a percentage of the number of voters that actually cast ballots.
  • Should a candidate petitioned from office be allowed to run in the subsequent election to fill the vacancy.
  • Should there be a grace period for newly elected officials before petitions can be started