Many area mayors are facing no opponents. The question is: Why?

·4 min read

It's not just regular jobs going begging for applicants in the London area, where the labour shortage has left more than 6,000 jobs unfilled.

The top political jobs in a raft of small towns and townships also have few takers, so much so that nine places in a three-county area around London will get mayors this fall without any need for a civic election.

The question is: Why so little competition for the top jobs?

Nine mayors in Middlesex, Oxford and Elgin counties will be acclaimed this fall, including two who have never held that office before, because they're the only ones running for the top jobs.

Two of the incoming mayors — in Malahide Township and Adelaide Metcalfe — will luck into their jobs for the first time without ever having to stake a single lawn sign or go knocking at a single voter's door.

Zorra Township incumbent Marcus Ryan described winning by acclamation as a “strange feeling,” especially after preparing for his mayoral campaign.

“You have a campaign plan, you have policy propositions, a whole platform, strategies for door-to-door and signs, and then all of a sudden on Friday at 2 p.m., none of that happens," he said, referencing last week's cutoff date for candidates to file to run in Ontario's October civic elections.

Political experts say less competition in smaller communities is nothing new, but what does that say about the health of civic government?

“Well, there are two ways of looking at it,” said Andrew Sancton, a political scientist and former head of the local government studies program at Western University.

“One is people don't care very much. They're sort of alienated, so nobody runs.”

The other possibility, he said, is that people may be satisfied with their incumbent mayor “and nobody sees any reason to run against him or her.”

In some cases, he added, smaller governments may also have less political conflict to generate interest in running for office.

“People generally agree about what the municipality should be doing, so the political temperature is much lower than in a place like London or Kitchener, Hamilton or Toronto," he said.

In Middlesex, a largely rural county that wraps around London, half of its eight municipalities have candidates running unopposed for the top job, including Diane Brewer, who has served as village reeve of Newbury since 1986.

Acclamations in Ontario civic elections appear to be on the rise, and have been more apparent in recent election cycles, said Peter Woolstencroft, a retired political science professor at the University of Waterloo and longtime observer of politics in Southwestern Ontario.

“There seems to be an increase every election cycle. I suspect it will be an increase this year,” he said.

In Ontario's last civic elections four years ago, 120 of the 477 candidates acclaimed were heads of council — mayors or reeves — according to data from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, an umbrella group for municipalities

Among Ontario's 444 municipalities, 26 had their entire council acclaimed, up from 18 in the 2014 elections, figures show.

Candidates miss out on “important dialogue” with the community when they run uncontested, said Woolstencroft.

“I think it's bad for democracy as a high-level abstraction. It’s also bad for the person who is acclaimed because a simple all-candidates meeting, meeting people on the street, door knocking, gives you an opportunity to find out what people are really thinking about, what they're fearing or wondering about the future and what kinds of things they think the city should be doing.”

Ryan, who will enter his second term as mayor of Zorra, an Oxford County township of about 8,600 people, believes residents miss out on democratic engagement when candidates run uncontested.

“The system depends on multiple people putting themselves forward and offering to do that, and residents having choices about how that can be done,” he said.

Neither the pay nor the work involved in small-town politics is everyone's cup of tea, but many politicians who begin their careers at that level eventually make the jump to provincial or federal politics.

One reason for the reduced competition in smaller centres is their dwindling population, as more people move to bigger cities like London, Woolstencroft said.

Heightened tensions and threats toward local politicians in recent years, along with pressures posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have also made entering civic politics less attractive.

“There's no doubt that the last four years have been lousy,” Woolstencroft said. “If you were in politics, you were hit with a constant tide of problems and bad news and worries. And it was far beyond anything that you would have anticipated four years ago.”

cleon@postmedia.com

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Middlesex County

Elgin County

Oxford County:

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press