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The TDG in My Home Town

Here is my conjecture of how Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG) will work in my hometown of Brooks, Alberta.

Before I get into the TDG details, there’s just a few caveats I should put forth:

First, I believe Brooks is fairly well governed with our current municipal system. While I have questioned the quality of a few people holding the mayor or councilor positions, we really haven’t had corruption or silly partisan decisions since I moved into this town 21 years ago. I believe that with our electoral system coupled with a population of only 15,000, many voters do know something about the people they are voting for—or not voting for.

Second, 10 years ago, I quit telling my family, friends, and colleagues that I’m still working on my TDG project. Everyone I know thinks I’m insane for continuing. I got tired of seeing eyeballs roll back in their heads. I have little credibility with my own people.

Third, each TDG is going to design itself. When Brooks does go in a TDG way, the early TDG builders in Brooks will be designing the TDG, not me. So whatever I have concocted in this essay might not happen in the future.

Brooks has a population of 15,000 people. Legally, it is a city. But practically, it is still a town. The legal change came 15 years ago because two main streets in Brooks were actually provincial highways—and the province was not doing enough to maintain those streets. By becoming a city, the “city” became responsible for those two streets. The two streets are better managed. Getting the municipal designation changed was a strange way to solve a problem, but it seems to have worked.

With 15,000 people and the TDG calling for electoral units of about 200 residents, that means Brooks would have about 75 neighborhood representatives.

I live in a condominium complex of 59 townhouse units. The first 27 are small one-level units with a garage, suitable for a retired couple or single. The other 32 are townhouse units, with basements and second floors, good for families. We hire lawn and snow shoveling services, so residents don’t have to do those tasks. Repairs to the exterior are the responsibility of the condo association. Owners all pay condo fees to that board. Including the children, there would be about 200 residents in this complex. Most of us own our units. This complex would be one of those 75 electoral units in Brooks. It has a natural boundary for a neighborhood.

My mother lives in a seniors’ home in Brooks. Last civic election, most seniors did not vote because they didn’t know the candidates. Yes, some candidates did come to campaign (within COVID limits). But my mother and her friends did not know them well enough to cast any kind of wise vote. The candidates are 30 to 40 years younger than the seniors. But with a TDG, seniors in this facility could have sent one of their own people into the world of municipal governance to represent them. This seniors’ home would have been another natural electoral unit in Brooks.

When Brooks changes from its municipal election system to a TDG, the first big difference is that there will be no campaigning. No signs, no ads in the newspaper, no candidate forums. Maybe some notices to remind people to vote and when and where.

When voters get to the polling station of their TDG neighborhood, they will be given a list of all the residents in their neighborhood. As they read the list, they can write, on their ballot, the name of the neighbor that best exemplifies good character and capacity for governance. That is how the 75 people will be elected as neighborhood representatives into the first tier of the Brooks TDG.

The representatives’ function would be to attend committee meetings. For example, on Monday evenings would be time for the zoning committee to meet, Tuesday for policing, Wednesday for recreation, Thursday for traffic, etc. There might be 15 committees in all, most meeting about once a month. These committees should have one representative from the council as well as a senior employee of the city staff. These neighborhood representatives would select the committees based on their interests and their time availability. Some committees might have a representative from Newell County, which surround Brooks.

Six months after the election of the neighborhood representatives, there will be an election for the council. This council will comprise seven representatives. These seven must be neighborhood representatives. Only the 75 neighborhood representatives can vote in this election.

The TDG council of seven would be the ultimate decision maker in the City of Brooks, just like the six councilors and one major are today.

This is actually a two-tier TDG structure. The residents elect their neighborhood representative. The neighborhood representatives elect the council.

There are three advantages to this structure. First, the committees with first-tier representatives serve as an overseer of the council. They are more connected than the voters. Second, first-tier members are getting good experience in governance. If they are elected into the second tier, they will have that experience already under them. Third, by working together, the neighborhood representatives are in a better position to decide which of them should be elevated to the council.

Anticipating the Critics

In my TDG book, I have put in several sections called “Anticipating the Critics.” I try to address those criticisms before they vocalized. I believe that approach has a useful purpose. I will do that here.

Too Many Representatives

Under the current system in Brooks, six councilors and the mayor are paid on a “per diem” basis, which basically means they are paid for attending meetings and public events. Councilors earn about $25,000 a year; the mayor earns about $50,000 a year. The total payroll for elected officials comes to $200,000 a year. I don’t have a problem with this remuneration.

I would extend the per diem to the first-tier representatives, maybe $50 per committee meeting. I estimate that these first-tier people would earn about $2,000 a year, which is 40 meetings. If all 75 attend 40 meetings, this would add $150,000 to the city’s payroll. I think this extra cost will pay dividends later with the higher quality council the two-tier structure will create.

Ineffective Elected Representatives

We should not be surprised if some of the 75 neighborhood representatives do little with their elected position. They may have little interest in the job or maybe their occupation/family life is not suitable for public service. So they don’t attend those committee meetings (and won’t get paid). In these cases, their neighbors will have misplaced their votes. But they can vote for someone else next year.

But I’m sure at least 30 neighborhood representatives will take their neighborhood role seriously and attend committee meetings. That will be enough people to get the important first-tier work done.

Lower Voter Turnout

Currently, municipal elections in Brooks have about 30% of the eligible voters casting a vote. Some would say this is too low, but seldom can they explain why. The truth is that Brooks is reasonably well governed with just a 30% turnout. If we had a 70% turnout, that might be because of divisiveness between two or more ideologies, which creates a disunified governance. In my opinion, there is little correlation between turnout and better governance. Maybe a lack of civil unrest is a sign that things are running well.

I can see the two-tier TDG structure for Brooks having a lower turnout or a higher turnout. Without an election campaign, the TDG election could have lower interest from the citizenry. But the elections are annual, so voting might develop into a tradition. And maybe some citizens would prefer voting for a neighbor than for the people on the ballot who they don’t know—like at my mother’s seniors’ home. We won’t know about the turnout until we try the TDG out.

Even if the Brooks TDG has a 20% turnout, it may still be well governed. The 20% who do vote will be casting a wise, thoughtful vote. Which of their neighbors deserves to be in government?

More Tiers

I hope readers see how the TDG can work in a town for municipal governance.

Later the Brooks TDG can be expanded into county (Newell), regional (Southeast Alberta), provincial (Alberta) and federal (Canada) governance. We Canadians need an overhaul at those two higher levels as well. But this TDG will start local. When local is running well, then it will look to expanding higher and wider. 

Published on Medium 2021

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