Whitehorse needs a ward system

Recently I wrote a column comparing property taxes paid in the Riverdale and Granger neighbourhoods. 

Recently I wrote a column comparing property taxes paid in the Riverdale and Granger neighbourhoods. My research revealed that the Granger residences I had investigated paid, on average, 25 per cent more property tax than similar residences in Riverdale. It also revealed that those individuals on the periphery of town, Wolf Creek and Cowley Creek area particularly, were paying twice as much property tax as homes located a few hundred feet away outside of city limits.

My opinion piece was followed up by a subsequent news report and editorial in the Yukon News. You would think this type of clear unfairness would raise some action from our elected city councillors.

Unfortunately, you would be wrong on that count. Council has been silent on the issue.

Where is the hastily called press conference of an outraged councillor promising to right the wrongs of an unfair tax regime? Or at least a lukewarm letter to the paper promising to look into the matter? There is political hay to be made, yet no one is making it.

The reason no one is making the hay is because, by virtue of our current municipal electoral system, there is really no connection between a given councillor and a specific neighbourhood.

Our current system allows every citizen six votes for councillors on election day. Whichever councillor obtains the most votes city-wide is elected. So each councillor represents the city as a whole, with none tasked with representing a specific area.

In short, no one councillor represents Granger, Copper Ridge or the periphery.

I would suggest a revamp of the city’s political system by introducing wards into the electoral equation. The Municipal Act allows for the city to be broken into separate electoral areas, each represented by their own councillor. Elections would be held much like at the territorial level, with individual vying to represent the constituents of a local ward.

Such a system would result in elected individuals who directly represent specific areas of the city and who would, hopefully, be taking strides to look into area specific problems, such as the ongoing Granger property tax mystery.

Tying individual elected representatives to a specific constituency gives them not only the incentive to deal with area problems, but identifies clearly the area for which the elected officials are responsible, clearly demarking the elected individual’s scope of duties.

Further, a ward system would encourage potential councillors to go door-to-door during city elections. Under the current system there is very little incentive for municipal candidates to go door-to-door at election time due to the sheer number of doors one would have to knock to make a numerical difference in the outcome.

Under the current system a councillor needed 1,534 votes in the last election to win the sixth seat. The time it would take to hit enough doors to get 1,534 votes would either take one person far more time than the 30 days allotted for the election or a massive organization, either of which is hard to justify when running for a part-time councillor position.

To put this in perspective, in order to get elected as a territorial MLA for Riverdale North in the last election the winner needed only 366 votes of 986 cast. Using that same ratio and assuming an individual must knock on roughly at least three times as many homes as votes received, a potential city councillor would have to knock on roughly 4,600 doors during the election to garner 1,530 votes. In a 30-day election cycle that amounts to 150 houses a day, a very difficult feat for an individual hoping to win a part-time councillor position.

Finally, a ward system would identify the individual whom a citizen contacts when faced with an issue within a given neighbourhood. Currently a citizen would simply spin a wheel and pick a councillor at random and hope he or she addresses his or her problem.

It would make more sense and be much more efficient to have one elected person fielding calls for one area, rather than each councillor randomly addressing issues across the city. By clearly identifying the lines of communication there then exists an individual to hold responsible at election time when an issue is not dealt with to a constituency’s satisfaction.

I would suggest breaking the town into six distinct areas, much along the same lines as territorial ridings. Riverdale, Porter Creek/Crestview/Arkell, Downtown/Marwell, Granger/Copper Ridge, Takhini/McIntyre and the periphery (being the country residential on both sides of the city). Our city is already broken into fairly homogenous areas by virtue of our city planning, the boundaries are already fairly evident. The result will be a more responsive and accountable city council.

In closing, I just did a quick spot check on local real-estate listings. Heads up 10 Tiger Eye in Granger, you are paying $2,480 in property tax while 37 Alsek in Riverdale, which is selling around your asking price, is only paying $1,850. This is a difference of $600 a year, for no discernible reason other than location.

I did not comb through properties looking for a situation that fits my theory – these are the first two properties I found. If I lived in Granger I’d be asking questions of my elected officials, with the first being, “Do any councillors even live in Granger?”

Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer and long-time Yukoner.