As the line-up of candidates looking to replace Gordon Wyant on Saskatoon’s City Council continues to lengthen, there are growing questions about what impact the by-election will have on Council — and therefore, the city as a whole.
Wyant, who represented the ward for the past six years, officially resigned his seat the day after defeating the NDP's Jan Dyky in a landslide victory as the Sask. Party candidate in the Saskatoon Northwest provincial by-election.
So far, five candidates have announced their intentions to run for thenorth end’s Ward 5 district (which includes Lawson Heights, River Heights, Silverwood Heights and a number of north industrial and business areas). Nominations close on November 9th, and voters will choose their new councillor on November 29th.
Civic elections in Saskatoon have notoriously low voter turnouts. Only 29.1 per cent of voters cast ballots in the last Ward 5 election in 2009 — higher than the citywide average of 27.32 per cent, but still dismal compared to the 55 per cent voter turnout that launched Wyant into a Saskatchewan Party seat for Saskatoon Northwest in October. Nonetheless, voters in this case might have a chance to have a serious impact on the power balance on council.
“The question is, will the people of that ward select a councillor who will tip the balance one way or another, or will the candidate balance out the imbalance that exists there already,” says Joe Garcea, department head of political studies at the U of S. “It’s quite significant when you have a person who could tip the balance.”
Garcea says that while there were times when past councils were split right down the middle, with councillors voting consistently as blocs on almost all major issues, this has been less true of the current council. Still, for any regular observer of council, it’s easy to see certain trends.
City councils aren’t usually the domain of partisan politics, but even though most councillors tend not to vote along defined party lines, most observers do recognize certain alliances, or “blocs,” that develop. Outspoken conservative StarPhoenix columnist and talk radio host John Gormley, for example, has consistently labelled progressive councillors Clark, Hill, Pringle and Lorje as the “Gang of Four.” If we’re in the business of making broad generalizations, one could also point out a more conservative “Gang of Four,” which includes Mayor Atchison and Councillors Heidt, Neault, and Dubois. (As far as overall voting patterns go, it wouldn’t be unfair to include Wyant in this “gang” as well.
To be fair, this brand of American-style political pigeonholing is more the domain of pundits and may not necessarily reflect the true nature of Saskatoon’s city council.
“I don't know if you could assign a generalized bloc on council,” says Sean Shaw, a former Ward 4 candidate and blogger who writes regularly about municipal politics. “When you get to issues like recycling, then maybe yes you can, but I don't think across the board you can.”
Garcea points to Wyant as an example of the fact that, while councillors may show definite voting trends, many of them can also be willing to stray from ideology.
“He was definitely more a development candidate rather than a social democratic candidate,” he says, “[but] Gordon tried not to adopt an ideological stance or angle. He stayed more in the background in the debate.”
Recycling was one issue where Wyant most certainly strayed from his traditional voting bloc. While councillors like Charlie Clark, Pat Lorje, Darren Hill and Tiffany Paulsen are in favour ofa citywide curbside program, Mayor Atchison and Councillors Heidt and Neault seem opposed to such a system. But on his way out, Wyant said that not getting a stronger recycling program in place is one of his major regrets.
“Without Wyant’s vote there, it’s almost a split decision [on curbside recycling] so it could come down to whoever is elected in Ward 5,” says Shaw.
Declared candidates so far include Tad Cherkewich, areal estate agent and former Ward 1 school board trustee; Ainsley Robinson, a young Commerce grad from the U of S and co-founder of The Princess Shop; Ken Winton-Grey, a former provincial NDP candidate who lost to Serge LeClerc in the 2007 provincial election in Saskatoon Northwest; Randy Donauer, who ran for Ward 4 in 2003; and Rob Johnston, a local business owner.
There’s only one obvious party politician in the bunch, but Garcea says that even a person like former NDP candidate Winton-Grey isn’t likely to run his campaign along “party” lines. Garcea also says that voters tend to like to think of their councillors as being outside of the normal political partisanship that characterizes federal and provincial elections, and candidates tend to oblige their voters by playing down their party involvement.
“Voters seem to be much more comfortable with non-partisan councils,” he says. “They’re likely to lose more votes than they’re likely to gain by running on a partisan platform.”
But that doesn’t mean councillors don’t hold political views — or align themselves with political parties at times, for that matter. Wyant, for example, served as business manager for the now-disgraced Serge LeClerc before being voted in as member of the Sask Party, while Darren Hill has declared his intention of running as a Liberal in the next federal election.
Overall, Garcea says the importance of the by-election is less about drawing party lines from the outside and more about seeing where the new councillor will fit in terms of some of the lines that have already been drawn on council.
“The real question is, are they going to be passive or are they going be active right from the get-go,” says Garcea. “Are they going to be proactive in aligning themselves with certain councillors, or are they going to run their own show?”