It was a small thing to do but with a big upside.
In the past, once every three years during municipal election campaigns, the City of Kelowna provided space at a city facility—most often the Kelowna Community Theatre—free of charge for an all-candidates meeting.
But no longer.
The long-standing policy of providing space for another group to hold the meeting dated back to 1976, but was quietly scrapped by the current city council Monday morning.
The dumping of the small part the city has played in democracy for the last 39 years was contained in a policy review recommendation that lumped it in with figuring out a better way to invest city surplus funds.
Acting on the recommendation,which was surprisingly forwarded by deputy city clerk Karen Needham—the woman who runs the civic election for the city—council decided it no longer needs to participate in helping municipal voters hear directly from the men and women running for council.
Given the embarrassingly low turnout at municipal polls every three years—now every four years—forgoing the revenue from a couple of hours rental of the Kelowna Community Theatre doesn’t seem like a move that would strain on the city’s $477.3 million annual budget.
The loss may have been minimal but the bad optics are huge.
Every time a civic election rolls around we hear how the city wants to get more voters out to the polls. When one in three residents voting is considered a good turnout, anything that can be done to increase voter participation should be welcomed—even this.
It’s not like the city’s offer has to be taken up by some group planning to stage an all-candidates meeting. It’s just there if needed. It sends a message. The city is doing its part to help keep voters informed.
While suggestions of other ways the city can help improve voter turnout abound, they should not be considered reasons to dump one of the easiest and cheapest ways city hall can assist the election process. They should be thought of as additions.
Making space available for all candidates to speak wasn’t a conflict of interest or something that would help an individual. It simply provided a venue for all candidates running to be heard. And that is what the city said it wanted to promote—more interested and informed voters who would get out and cast their ballots.
Yes, there are plenty of other all-candidates meetings that take place in the city during municipal election campaigns, and yes, their venues are not subsidized.
But that does not mean the city should not do all it can to further voter turnout.
Falling back on its grant-in-aid program as an alternative seems like a cumbersome requirement for something that happens so infrequently but is part of a process that means so much to the city.
Kelowna city hall says it wants to do all it can to encourage voters to participate in the civic elections. What council just tossed out was one of the ways of helping to do that.
Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.