The 2018 Municipal Election in London, Ontario

Written by Andrew Sancton

London’s last municipal election in 2014 was notable in that a new mayor was elected (who was an incumbent councillor) along with eleven new councillors (out of fourteen in total).  Four incumbent councillors were defeated; three did not run for re-election; and a fourth ran for mayor but garnered only 4.2 percent of the total vote.  I outline the reasons for this massive political turnover (by municipal standards) in a recently published book chapter.

There is a possibility that the 2018 election will be similar.  For one thing, the incumbent one-term mayor is not running for re-election.  His reputation suffered a serious blow when he admitted in 2016 to an extra-marital affair with another member of city council (see this article for details). This year there are fourteen mayoral candidates, four of them considered serious.  One is an incumbent councillor (Tanya Park) and one is a former Conservative federal cabinet minister (Ed Holder).  The second-place finisher in the mayoral election in 2014 (Paul Cheng) and a former chair of the local police services board (Paul Paolatto) are the other serious contenders. 

As the result of changes to the Ontario Municipal Elections Act in 2016, city council decided in 2017 that London would be the first Ontario municipality to use a ranked ballot for its municipal elections. Because of the four apparently strong candidates in the mayoral race, this new system could be of great significance, especially because there is one polarizing issue that could play a key role in determining voters’ choices and rankings.

The issue is Buss Rapid Transit (BRT). The current London city council has committed $130 million to the project and the province has approved $170 million.  A federal commitment of $200 million is not expected until after the municipal election. Three of the serious mayoral candidates are to varying degrees opposed to the BRT plan.  Among the serious mayoral candidates, only Councillor Tanya Park is fully committed supporter.  If the BRT becomes the dominant issue in the mayoral race, then presumably her opponents will benefit from receiving more second- and-third-place votes than she will.

In almost all ward races there is at least one candidate who is opposed to the current BRT plans.  It is conceivable therefore that an anti-BRT mayor could be elected, along with a majority of councillors who oppose the BRT, either because of a pre-election commitment or because of persuasion from an anti-BRT mayor. (In 2010, Mayor Rob Ford in Toronto convinced a majority of re-elected incumbents to abandon their prior commitment to Mayor David Miller’s LRT Transit City plan.)

There appears to be much passion on both sides of the BRT issue.  For proponents, implementing BRT would prove that London is a major Canadian city capable of attracting innovative millenials who choose not to rely on automobiles in their day-to-day life.  Opponents see the BRT as removing automobile lanes from already congested arteries and as a costly commitment to a soon-to-be obsolete form of transit infrastructure.

I previously expected that at this stage in the election there would already be clear pro- and anti-BRT factions.  So far they have not emerged in any overt or public way.  If they never appear, London’s 2018 election will be less than exciting, even though people like readers of this blog will no doubt want to analyze all the apparent effects of ranked ballots.  But, if clear factions do emerge, and if the anti-BRT faction prevails, then the 2018 election could see as much council turnover as the city experienced in 2014. 

Andrew Sancton is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Western University.  

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