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WAYNE YOUNG: The main event

Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee said it’s hard to think of specific highlights from a 15-year career as mayor. Lee announced Thursday he will not seek re-election in November.
Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee said it’s hard to think of specific highlights from a 15-year career as mayor. Lee announced recently he will not seek re-election in November. - Dave Stewart

Municipal elections should be top priority this fall, not afterthought

Since Clifford Lee announced he’s retiring from municipal politics, several candidates have come forward to contest the mayoralty of the province’s largest municipality.

Summerside, too, will be getting a new mayor when Bill Martin completes his first term in November. He announced in January he’d be keeping an election promise to be a one-term mayor.

These positions and dozens of others will be decided in province-wide municipal elections Nov. 5. It should rightly be the main election event this fall.

But there’s mounting speculation Premier Wade MacLauchlan will call a provincial election later this year. He did little to quell the speculation at the party’s annual meeting. While ruling out the possibility of a spring or summer election, he advised members to consider having their district nominations before the end of June.

If the premier does opt to go to the polls a full year earlier than the set election date of October 2019, it’s bound to overshadow the municipal election campaigns.

At least two municipal councillors – Melissa Hilton of Charlottetown and Cornwall’s Peter Meggs – are concerned. Meggs says it could affect turnout in municipal elections through voter fatigue, and Hilton said running the two elections close together this fall wouldn’t give municipal candidates enough time to campaign.

Lee would likely agree. He’s served 15 years as Charlottetown’s mayor and in an April interview, he said municipal elections can be all-consuming.

“The campaign for mayor is really four months straight, six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. It takes its toll on you.”

And Tory leader James Aylward, in arguing last winter for government to stick to the fixed election date, said fewer female candidates would nominate if the premier calls a snap election.

“ … in many cases it’s harder for those individuals to literally put their life on hold to run for office when you don’t have advance notice.”

These are all reasonable arguments. Granted, the Liberals may have reason to abandon the fixed election date as it coincides with a federal election campaign. But that still leaves two perfectly good options – setting the provincial election back six months to the spring of 2020, or moving it ahead six months to next spring.

If part of the rationale in moving away from the fixed election date is to avoid interfering with a federal campaign, how could the Liberals then justify doing basically the same thing by going to the polls this fall just before municipal elections?

Further complicating a fall vote is the rare second question on the ballot – the referendum on electoral reform. Voters will be asked if P.E.I. should change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system.

Before Islanders can make an informed decision, there should be a reasonable education period to ensure everyone understands a new system of electing MLAs based on the proportion of votes cast for each party. Can a few months during a busy summer and early fall be enough time, especially in the midst of a provincial election?

MacLauchlan should allow the municipal elections to be the main political event this fall, then give Islanders the winter to learn more about the options for electoral reform before casting their ballots in a provincial election and referendum next spring.

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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