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Why are there so few municipal candidates in Wellington County?

Departing mayors said the toxic environment councillors enter into can be a barrier to getting good candidates to run
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WELLINGTON COUNTY – The upcoming municipal election \appears to be light on candidates throughout the seven Wellington County municipalities as registrations trickle in at a snail's pace leaving few races ahead of the Aug. 19 deadline. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, the only mayoral race is in Centre Wellington between two candidates and a majority of council positions at both the local-tier and upper-tier government would be filled by acclamation. 

“I would have thought there would have been more people put their names in by this point,” said Kelly Linton, Centre Wellington mayor who is not running in the fall. 

Linton said it’s not a new concern and it is difficult to find people willing to put themselves in the local limelight in this way. 

The pay isn’t much for hard work that is rewarded with getting publicly slammed on social media, he said.

“I’ve talked to some people who I think would make excellent councillors and they say to me, ‘why would I bother running if I’m going to take this kind of flak from the people I’m trying to serve?’” Linton said. 

Erin’s mayor said he’s heard almost the exact same thing. 

Allan Alls, who also isn’t running in the fall, said he’s surprised there hasn’t been more interest but also lamented the “keyboard warriors” who can cause locally elected officials grief through personal attacks. 

He said widespread acclamation isn't normal although he said county councillors tend to return unopposed more often. 

In the 2018 election, five out of nine County of Wellington councillors were acclaimed.

“I don’t think most people understand what they do … they’re not front and centre like a local mayor or councillor is so it’s a little more often those positions get filled by acclamation,” Alls said. 

Linton said he doesn’t believe acclamation is a good thing because running an election means a politician has to be accountable for what they said they’ll run on.

Tim Mau, associate professor of political science at the University of Guelph, noted there can be a lot of barriers for people to overcome to put themselves forward for a local election including a high cost, huge time commitment and a lack of notoriety in the area. 

One of the biggest is the incumbent advantage, where those running for another term have good odds of winning again due to name recognition alone.

“A lot of people just won’t step forward and try to unseat them because they feel like it’s a bit of a futile exercise,” Mau said, although he added it does happen from time to time. 

Mau suspects more people will get into the race closer to the deadline, particularly incumbents. He said some incumbents wouldn’t declare their intentions to run again early to sway people from running for those positions. 

As an example, he pointed out some Guelph wards where councillors indicated they aren’t running again there are a fulsome slate of candidates. 

Linton also expected more incumbents to put their name forward in the coming weeks.

The most significant change he thought might help bring in more candidates is a province-wide councillor code of conduct that sets expectations and holds people accountable for how they treat fellow councillors and citizens. Mau said the province is looking at municipal codes of conduct and the “bad behaviour” exhibited by some councillors. 

Linton said he’s experienced the environment local councils operate in going beyond the realm of healthy debate and into toxic territory. 

“When people hear the stories about dysfunctional councils and councillors treating each other badly, that makes them want to run for the hills, they don’t want to be part of it,” Linton said. 

“As a result we don’t get good leaders stepping up into municipal politics and that hurts us all.” 

Linton said this is unfortunate because the right person can do a lot of good with local government. 

“I think there are people who want to make a difference in their community … but just getting past that hurdle of putting yourself out there and then if you win just kind of having your life seem like it’s an open book in a small town it’s a big decision.”

Those interested in running for local office have until Aug. 19 at 2 p.m. to file their paperwork.