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Councillors and Trustees Shouldn't Appoint Themselves
May 29 2023, Regarding Trustee Vacancies
In the space of just a few days, two vacancies emerged on the Waterloo District School Board (WRDS). On May 8th Marie Snyder resigned (Press Release here) from her role as a Trustee for Waterloo/Wilmot, and then on May 9th Fred Meissner (Obituary here) passed away suddenly. With little time, a looming summer slowdown, and a few options, the WRDSB board had to determine how to fill the positions. It is offensive from a democratic perspective, to see elected officials choose who will serve beside them. And so I made my first delegation to the board. There were four of us that chose to speak to the issue, and I was up third after some drama provided by the angry and unhinged man that came immediately before me. This is how it went:
WRDSB - May 29, 2023 (YouTube)
Through you, the Chair…
As we continue to navigate a messy democracy, we find ourselves with vacancies in some of our elected bodies in Waterloo Region. Beyond the ones we know about (two on this board and one on the Catholic Board) there is always the possibility for another to happen at any time. I hope all councils and boards are paying attention so that they are not forced to develop a process in a very short time as we are seeing here. And so we should ask how to fill a vacancy while maintaining our values, especially that of participatory democracy.
The legislation appears to allow for two paths in filling the school board vacancies - through a by-election or through an appointment.
All things being equal, a byelection with a typical call for nominations gives the best democratic engagement. However, I’m aware of the cost barriers and also of recent voter turnout which has been poor. We might expect turnout to be even worse in a by-election during the summer.
What about an appointment, then? I have read the proposed method to fill the vacancies in tonight’s meeting material and I have three specific comments, but I’ll telegraph them by saying I’m very uncomfortable with it. My reasons…
Number One. Despite the best of intentions, I can see no way to carry out this plan without triggering accusations of bending the process by those charged with carrying it out, and that is to say the entire board. Accusations of cronyism, of choosing a replacement who is not in the best interests of the two constituencies but who is rather in the best interests of the trustees, would be hard to dispel.
Number Two. Again, despite the best of intentions, most board members would not normally be eligible to vote for trustees outside of their own constituency. By a quick survey, trustees Woodcock Snyder and Piatkowsky could vote in an election for Waterloo/Wilmot and no remaining trustee could vote in an election for Woolwich/Wellesley.
Number Three. To the idea that runner-up candidates in the 2022 election should be given special priority in the nomination and appointment process, I worry that this opens a disturbing path. Consider a bad actor who would like to replace a winning candidate from last year with one that more closely aligns with their own positions. That bad actor could mount a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation against the winning candidate, hoping to force them into resignation. This would open the door to the possible appointment of their preferred candidate.
As a brief aside, I ran in the municipal elections for Kitchener City Council this past October. I finished second in that contest, and I fully realize that this last comment would take away an advantage that I might have should a vacancy in my ward happen during this term of office.
Considering all that I’ve said so far, I propose an alternative that I believe meets legislative requirements, keeps costs low, and has a robust democratic foundation. The Waterloo Regional District School Board must contract an external organization to mount two citizens’ assemblies. These assemblies will be formed through sortition (the same process as used in choosing a jury in a criminal court) and will sit for a short time to consider candidates with no preference given to former candidates. At the end of deliberations, the assembly would recommend who should fill the vacancies
The Trustees in turn would commit at the beginning of this process to appoint the recommendation of the citizens assembly. This process would use some elements of the proposed process but would remove, as much as possible, the appearance of trustees selecting their own colleagues.
Citizens assemblies have been used many times and in many places around the world, including in Canada and in Ontario. Electoral reform has been a frequent subject of assemblies, but so have questions around climate change in the UK, how to respond to an ageing population in Ireland, and national direction in Scotland.
To finish, it is not lost on me that the vacant positions need to be filled quickly. But filling them with transparency, impartiality, and basing the process on sound democratic principles, is just as important. Please support the formation of a citizens' assembly to achieve these goals. Thank you for your time.