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Concerns over slow council race may be overblown

Only 30 candidates have so far filed in Thunder Bay’s city council races, but past elections have seen many declare in the final weeks.
Thunder Bay City Council stock
Thunder Bay's city council at a meeting on May 2, 2022. (Ian Kaufman, TBnewswatch)

THUNDER BAY – Local leaders are acknowledging public concerns about the relatively small number of candidates who have so far filed in Thunder Bay’s upcoming municipal election, but a look at past elections suggests the field could well end up within the historical average.

As of Friday, exactly two weeks before the nomination deadline of Aug. 19, there were four candidates for mayor, and a total of 26 candidates for the other 12 council seats.

That included freshly registered candidates Matthew Villella, running at-large, and David Tommasini, running in Westfort.

Villella chairs Thunder Bay's sister cities committee and been involved with local organizations including Leadership Thunder Bay. Tommasini was a candidate for the New Blue party in the recent provincial election in the Thunder Bay-Atikokan riding, placing fifth with 2 per cent of the vote.

Several sitting councillors reported hearing more concerns than usual over the current slate of candidates, while noting there’s typically a rush to file nominations in the final weeks before the deadline.

As of Friday, the city clerk’s office reported six more potential candidates had booked appointments to file nomination papers before Aug. 19.

In a recent interview, Mayor Bill Mauro – who has announced he won't seek a second term – said he’s heard concerns in the community over a lack of candidates – particularly experienced ones.

“I’m hearing it from a lot of people,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have come up to me and asked me to reconsider. They’re very concerned with the lack of people with experience to this point.”

“A lot of people have come up to me and are very worried about… the mayor, yes, but right across the spectrum, because there’s a lot of retirements.”

However, he himself sees little cause for worry.

“I think it’s a bit too early to draw any conclusions yet,” he said. “I would expect there’s going to be more people coming in, as is usually the case historically.”

The 2018 race, in which a historically high 61 candidates competed for council seats, is a case in point.

Three weeks prior to that nomination deadline, concerns were expressed over a low number of candidates, with just 28 registered in council races at the time.

In the seven municipal elections held between 1997 and 2018, Thunder Bay saw an average of 5.4 candidates for mayor, and an average of 51.9 candidates for all council seats including the mayoralty.

The total number of candidates in that period ranged from 36 in 2000, to 68 in 2003.

There’s no doubt the current slate of candidates features less council experience than in 2018, when 16 current and former members of city council ran for office, with 11 of 13 incumbents running.

To this point, only five incumbents have filed to run again in 2022, while five others have announced their departure.

Couns. Shelby Ch’ng, Kristen Oliver, and Trevor Giertuga have not yet publicly stated their intentions.

Longtime at-large Coun. Aldo Ruberto said he’s never heard so many concerns about the number and quality of candidates on the ballot.

“This is the first time that I’ve had people come up to me, ‘Oh my god, I’m worried about who’s running,’” he said.

Former city clerk John Hannam, who served in the role for 15 years, agreed concerns over a lack of candidates are likely overblown, citing a usual rush of nominations in the final weeks.

“I think it’s probably fair to categorize it as slow at this stage, and that’s not entirely unusual,” he said.

A change in nomination deadlines – the date was July 27 in 2018 – may have contributed to a public sense there are fewer candidates, Mauro suggested.

He said he’s not sensing less enthusiasm when he speaks with potential candidates – but some others on council disagreed, saying the rise of social media in particular has made running for office less attractive.

“Social media has definitely had a big impact on people who think about running, because they see the horrible, awful comments that get directed at us,” said Ruberto. “If you’re a councillor, you might be able to take that, you might not… I think that’s kind of restricted the number of people.”

Coun. Shelby Ch’ng has also pointed to concerns over the pressures put on councillors on and off social media, sometimes including inappropriate behaviour.

“The public sphere can be very unsafe, to be totally honest,” she said. “There are some valid criticisms of elected officials, but sometimes the space you find yourself in, especially if you’re a younger female – there are people who really want your attention, and they feel they’re deserving of your attention.”

Social media is among the factors that have likely made it “a bit more difficult” to be a councillor than in decades past, said Mauro, who was first elected to council in 1997 before serving in the provincial sphere.

“The social media piece is one more thing as a publicly elected person that you have to manage,” he said. “How you manage it is going to determine how difficult it is. My approach has been not to get involved with that chat stuff that happens on Facebook or whatever the other social media outlets are.”

Instead, he said he maintains a Facebook page but does not engage in online discussion, and directs residents to contact him by more traditional means.

Addressing the large turnover set to occur on council this year, Hannam called it significant but not unprecedented.

“[The departing councillors] have served for the better part of 20 years, so it’s not surprising that they’re stepping aside,” he said. “But whenever there’s a large turnover… it’s concerning in that there’s some loss of knowledge.”

He pointed to routine matters like understanding the financial model for water and wastewater services as an example.

“It takes a while for new members of council to get their feet under them and really be comfortable with procedures and how to get information, how decisions are made, relationships with administration,” he said.

Mauro agreed.

“I’m not suggesting somebody who has no experience can’t be good at this work, but I am suggesting there is a lot to be learned,” he said. “When you don’t have that experience, it’s just going to take you some time to get your feet under you.”

In practical terms, Hannam suggested the presence of more new faces around the council table could delay the ability to reach major decisions.

“In this term of council, there have been a few issues they struggled to get to an answer on,” he said. “When you have a large turnover on council, getting to that consensus can be a little more difficult until people are used to working with one another.”

Ruberto, echoing previous comments from departing Coun. Rebecca Johnson and others, said incumbents will be available for support.

“I know a lot of us will be willing to help out, do whatever we can to transition, be available for questions, whatever they want,” he said.

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