City issues affect our daily lives, and having a voice is easier than any other level of government

Why municipal politics matter

In the 2013 Calgary municipal election, only 36% of eligible voters turned out to have themselves heard.

Compared with the last provincial (58%) and federal (69%) elections, this is a really low number. We are middle-of-the-pack in terms of municipal voter turnout, though there are efforts afoot to increase turnout in this fall’s election.

It appears that very few people want to make the effort to make their voice heard on a city level. So why is this?

Existential Issues vs. Hands-on Results

My theory is that a large number of Calgarians aren’t fully aware of how much the decisions made at City Hall affect their daily lives. There is, perhaps, a perception that city hall is responsible for collecting property taxes, running transit, paving potholes, and not much more.

With higher levels of government, the main election issues that people talk about are more existential in nature: The economy in general, social issues that have to do with rights and privileges, discussions about the entire voting system. These issues are bigger than all of us (in some cases there’s often not much any level of government can do about them), and so we might find it easy to form opinions about topics that we only have to talk about once every 4 years.

With municipal politics, things are a bit more hands on. The decisions that get made in council translate directly into the layout and operation of the city, and affect the future of Calgary for many years to come. The decision to run the LRT on 7th avenue instead of tunneling it? That was, ultimately, a council decision. The decision to build an airport tunnel when the choice was “now or never”? A council decision. The decision to offer a low-income transit pass? A council decision.

The last example is probably the most important. This was a city decision that will positively affect the lives of many hard-done-by Calgarians. To me it is a tangible manifestation of a social policy. You can see it working, just like you can drive under the airport tunnel and see the tunnel on your way into downtown on the Red Line. A higher minimum wage, for example is not something that is quite as visible. Yes, provincial and federal decisions affect people, but city decisions are the most tangible. So why not make your voice heard? I would argue that of the three levels of government that we participate in through elections city politics affects the day to day living experience of Calgarians the most.

Smaller Scale Begets Involvement

The beauty of city politics comes from the scale of the political machine. There is a certain directness with which you can communicate with councillors that you cannot get with your MLA or MP. If you are passionate, kind, and understanding you can become a part of shaping the future of Calgary in a way that can never happen at a provincial or federal level. I can speak from experience that if you want to feel truly listened to by a politician, go talk to your city councillor. Some listen more than others, of course, but that’s true of any group of people.

Probably the most symbolic and important example of the ability for citizens to make sure that their passion for an issue is heard is the five minutes that every Calgarian gets to speak on pretty much any issue in council. It can make for long meetings, yes, but the information that gets presented can often be valuable and can sometimes lead to people changing their minds, or new motions and changes being introduced to the city. I’ve seen it happen.

You can engage your councillor on Twitter. You can set up a meeting with them and pitch your idea. You can help them understand issues in your neighbourhood. If you do it with a smile and an enthusiasm for making the city better, chances are they will listen.

If you have a representative that won’t listen, maybe think about getting passionate, getting involved, and voting in the next municipal election.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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