Hamilton city council’s long-term incumbents

The clichéd definition of insanity, often applied to politics, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Notwithstanding legal and psychological accuracies, but considering the municipal political landscape in Hamilton and the expectations we have for it, we may very well be insane.

Of the 10 incumbent councillors out of 15 total who ran in the last municipal election and remain in office (Scott Duvall vacated his seat), all won. Of this “long-term 10,” (see list at end of article) the councillors with the shortest time in office will this year have been in for two terms (three councillors), and the longest for nine (one councillor).

If these Long-term 10 run again, which at the moment looks likely for the majority, this will mean that upwards of two-thirds of Hamilton’s city council will have been in for a minimum of eight years, a maximum of 30 and an impressive average of 14. This doesn’t take into account instances where family members preceded two councillors in their position.

For nearly a decade and a half, and over three political terms, if we as voters in this city expected different results from our municipal politics, we have not given ourselves the opportunity to see them. Now this isn’t to downplay the work these councillors have done, their dedication to public office, the service they’ve provided to the community, or the gratitude that we should and do have for their work, but at what point do we call time?

When will the decision be made that this is simply too long to be any sort of transformative, visionary, or perhaps even effective elected official?

Whether formal or informal, there should be term-limits, but realistically, there’s no point in definitively proposing an official limit here. I think two should be enough, some may think more, some may even think less. Regardless, the question of official term-limits is moot. Determining any would require provincial legislation, and opening a can of worms, that likely no career politician in this province, out of their own self-interest, has the stomach to approach in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, the primary considerations are how long does it take to get a good handle on the role? And how long does it take to accomplish what needs to be accomplished?

Regarding the first, it’s baffling that there should be an expectation of an extended period of time to grasp the role. Like any job, there is a constant and complex learning process, with an expected learning curve and both the patience and tolerance for missteps across the early days in the job. However, it would be irresponsible of an employer to hire, let alone consider, an applicant who doesn’t show competency, insight, and relevant experience for a role. We are the employer.

In regards to the second, there are probably not many people in the world right now who would argue that the US President should be entitled to more than two terms, or maybe even one, but this is a good standard to start with. If the most powerful person in the world in eight years is expected to accomplish their mandate amidst the quagmire of global politics, why should we expect any less of elected officials in a mid-sized Canadian city?

Ultimately, no learning curve accounts for incompetency, weak leadership, or the complacency brought with time. As such, it is either up to the voting public, or the politicians themselves, to recognize when enough is enough. In essence, this is about effective, transformative, visionary political leadership, something that is sparsely seen from Hamilton’s incumbents on council and the mayor. And the real question is one of quality versus quantity in Hamilton’s municipal politics. Currently, we see quantity, both in the number of incumbents and in their collective time in office. So where is the quality?

One of the most inevitable effects of quantity is its loss of quality. The law of diminishing returns applies as much to politics as to anything else.

Yet, worse than their diminishing performance, is the chilling effect that long-term incumbency has on political engagement, particularly from the perspective of candidacy, dialogue, and voting results.

Of the five council spots (including mayor) open in the last election, there was an average of 10 candidates. Of the 11 spots with incumbents in the race, there was an average of three.

Across the 2014-2018 term we have seen just a rehashing of the same issues that have now spanned three terms or more; LRT, ward boundaries, waterfront redevelopment, shockingly, the stadium, still, and others. For more than 12 years, the same people have been discussing the same things, complex no doubt, but still the same, and in some cases, barely moving forward.

Voter turnout in the last three elections have seen abysmally low numbers, from 38% in 2003, to 37% in 2006, a slight increase to 40% in 2010 (likely related to the stadium debate), and dropping to a sad 34% in 2014.

Altogether, this demonstrates a stagnant, if not unhealthy, political environment in Hamilton. When we’ve come to a point that new voices, of any background, are discouraged from stepping forward as candidates, councillors become career politicians, and a mayor gets elected by 13% of eligible voters, things need to change.

One of the most important and honest thoughts about running for any position, that was imparted to me in my brief career in student politics, was to only run for a position if you know truly, and selflessly, that you are the best candidate for the job.

If you’ve been in so long that you’re now a force of complacency upholding status quo, don’t do the job. If you’re not sure if you can do the job well within a reasonable amount of time or even see an end date, don’t do the job. If you’re not the best person for the job, whether in the race or in general, then don’t do the job.

Otherwise, all you’re doing is wasting the time and money of not just your constituents, but over 500,000 Hamiltonians.

Which makes it even more important to stress that these aren’t simply jobs they’re roles. Aggregated accomplishments across a large quantity of time are no accomplishment, that’s just work. And nothing that has been accomplished in the last four years should have necessitated 30, let alone in most cases eight. Roles speak to vision, direction, accomplishment, and ambition. Sadly, not words I currently associate with council.

With all due respect, it’s well past time that most of these people get new jobs, if not by their own initiative, then it is certainly something that we as voters can give them.

Come November, let’s not be a cliché of insanity, and vote for someone new.

Hamilton City Council’s “Long-Term 10”:

Jason Farr
Ward 2, first elected 2010, two terms, eight years

Sam Merulla
Ward 4, first elected 2000, five terms, 18 years

Chad Collins
Ward 5, first elected 1994, seven terms, 24 years

Tom Jackson
Ward 6, first elected 1988, nine terms, 30 years

Terry Whitehead
Ward 8, first elected 2003, four terms, 15 years

Maria Pearson
Ward 10, first elected 2003, four terms, 15 years

Brenda Johnson
Ward 11, first elected 2010, two terms, eight years

Lloyd Ferguson
Ward 12, first elected 2006, three terms, 12 years

Robert Pasuta
Ward 14, first elected 2006, three terms, 12 years

Judi Partridge
Ward 15, first elected 2010, two terms, eight years