As communities across Ontario gear up for municipal elections later this month, a growing number of candidates face no competition at all.
Figures from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario indicate an uptick in the number of councillors acclaimed in their positions, meaning they’re named as winners because no one chose to run against them
The association says the number of acclaimed heads of council, such as mayors or reeves, stands at 120 this year compared to 103 during the last province-wide municipal campaign in 2014.
In 26 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities, residents won’t have to cast ballots at all on Oct. 22 as entire councils in those communities have been acclaimed — up from 18 municipalities four years ago.
The association says the total number of council candidates acclaimed this year stands at 477, up from 390 during the last election cycle.
Observers say the increase in acclamations is not a sign of weakening civic engagement, but rather reflects the difficult conditions at play in the smaller communities where uncontested candidacies are most common.
AMO Executive Director Pat Vanini said the bulk of municipal council positions are part time, poorly compensated roles that must be juggled on top of full-time work.
Municipal duties, moreover, must be carried out in an increasingly emotionally fraught climate made more complex by social media.
While acclamations can indicate that residents are largely satisfied with the status quo, the emerging trend suggests there may be other factors at play, Vanini said.
“There’s a real sense of civic responsibility and giving back to the community,” she said of those who choose to run. “But it’ll be interesting to see over time whether some of these other influences really dampen that interest. The acclamations could be simply because there is no one that wants to do that job.”
Vanini said the average council salary in small communities sits between $12,000 and $15,000 a year, a figure that would put councillors well below the poverty line if they relied solely on their political positions for a living.
Despite the modest compensation, Vanini said many councillors have to conduct town business off-hours in order to slot the job around their other commitments.
Kevin Marriott, the soon-to-be three-time mayor of the Township of Enniskillen, Ont., is familiar with the balancing act.
He has served on the township’s council since 1994 on top of working as a full-time farmer and occasional financial adviser.
Marriott said he consistently had to run campaigns to hold on to his position as a councillor, but has been unopposed as mayor for the past seven years.
That is set to be repeated again this year as Enniskillen prepares to join the ranks of municipalities where all council positions are acclaimed, a rarity in Marriott’s experience.
Marriott said the consequences of losing a race can be magnified in small communities where residents are tightly interconnected. Those consequences, he said, can make unsuccessful candidates less likely to mount repeat campaigns, unlike in urban centres where perennial candidates are not uncommon.
He said he’s also noticed a shift in the tone of municipal discourse in many locales, saying people seem more likely to level sharp critiques than they were in his days as a rookie councillor. He theorized that the emotionally charged nature of most political debate on social media does little to cool flaring tempers.
Candidates are usually driven to seek office by contentious issues that galvanize the population, Marriott said. The current lack of political drama in Enniskillen, he said, can be seen as a sign of comparative contentment in the municipality of roughly 2,700 residents.
“People, when they’re happy, they tend not to want to try,” he said. “It’s human nature to want to get involved when they see problems out there.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried an incorrect spelling for the Township of Enniskillen, Ont.