Stirling introduces popular mayor vote in local government elections amid bitter campaign fight





Updated

September 27, 2019 13:14:11

For the first time in its history, the seat of power in Western Australia’s biggest local council will be chosen directly by residents and not fellow councillors, but the campaign has already been marred by allegations of criminal damage and online abuse.

Key points:

  • The City of Stirling has 220,000 residents and low voter turnout at 32 per cent
  • Candidates running for mayor say they have had signs defaced, stolen and broken
  • Some hope direct mayoral elections will stamp out back-room “dirty” deals

With more than 220,000 residents, the City of Stirling in Perth’s inner-north has previously seen its mayor chosen by other councillors, an anomaly compared with other large councils across the state.

But some candidates say the campaign for the top job has already descended into “disgusting” tactics and mudslinging, with electoral signs being stolen and vandalised, and insults flying on social media.

City of Stirling mayoral candidates:

  • Adam Spagnolo: Focused on reducing rates, cutting red tape, increasing security and giving power back to the community.
  • Elizabeth Re: Focused on increasing transparency within council and holding the city to account.
  • Mark Irwin: Current mayor, focused on balancing development with maintaining the current lifestyle.
  • David Lagan: Wants to see a leaner city spending less on staff and more on the community.
  • Terry Tyzack: Focused on protecting residential amenity and retaining Stirling’s debt-free status.
  • Sanjeev Gupta: Wants to promote an innovative, responsible and sustainable approach to community safety.

(Names are in ballot order)

Stirling councillor Elizabeth Re recently entered the race for the top job, but said some of the signs she had erected to promote her candidacy had been crudely defaced.

“It’s actually been quite disgusting,” she said.

“Years ago we didn’t have the disrespect that we have today, people could put up a sign without fear or favour.

“People could put up a sign in their front yard without feeling intimidated by people trespassing, taking signs and doing inappropriate things.

“I personally have had my signs taken, graffitied, abused, cut to pieces, strangled onto trees, taken from where they should be, with other signs put in the exact same spot.”

She said her stolen signs had been left in illegal areas, which meant she could be fined by the city.

“This is very disappointing … whether it’s the culture of the candidates, whether it’s the changing society, it’s just not on.”

She has reported the damage to police.

Voting done by a fraction of ratepayers

Ms Re said she had been calling for a directly-elected mayoral position for several years.

“When you look at it, some of the people around the table only get 1,000 votes out of [220,000] people to be elected, and then they can be representing the people,” she said.

“So we just felt that was unfair.”

“We have [220,000] people, we have 110,000 people on the roll which is less than half, and of those 110,000 people we only have about 30,000 vote and out of those 30,000 votes, about 3,000 are informal.

“So roughly 27,000 people decide actually who are the councillors around the table.”

Ms Re said she hoped the new process would clean up “dirty deals” made around the table.

‘Skulduggery’ rife in campaign

Former mayor and longtime councillor Adam Spagnolo said 45 of his signs had been stolen and seven graffitied or spoiled in some way.

He said some of the behaviour during the current campaign had been disappointing.

“Generally speaking, from our point of view we’ve been focused on the issues, we’ve tried not to participate in any of the skulduggery, the pinching of signs, the sabotaging of signs, some of the mudslinging that has been occurring on Facebook,” he said.

“Surely instead of playing the man or the woman, one should be playing the issues.”

He also welcomed the move to direct elections for mayor.

Mr Spagnolo said there had been five genuine attempts to change the way the mayor was elected over the past 48 years.

“There are 14 councillors, as long as eight of them put their hand up they say, ‘OK, you’ve got the job’,” he said.

“The benefits are that the mayor belongs to the people, the mayor is beholden to the people, not to those people around the table who say, ‘Look, I’ll vote for you but I want to be chairman of finance’, or, ‘I’ll vote for you but I want to be deputy mayor’. Those sort of deals are not on anymore.”

No more ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’

John Curtin Institute of Public Policy executive director Professor John Phillimore said the practice of councillors electing the mayor was much more common for smaller cities, towns and shires.

“Stirling was a bit of an oddity, so that’s sort of joined the club now … and they are the biggest council in Western Australia,” he said.

“In fact only about two-thirds of metropolitan councils have a directly-elected mayor and only eight non-metropolitan councils out of about 100, so in total we don’t have that many — it’s probably about a fifth of all local councils.”

Professor Phillimore said there were both positives and negatives to Stirling’s new electoral process.

“I think it gives people some sense of control, they get to choose,” he said.

“It gives you a more visible leader and it does tend to increase turnout at elections if you have a directly-elected mayor, … people can identify with the individuals, a lot more it seems, who are going for mayor.”

But he said direct elections did not necessarily mean the back-door deals between councillors would stop.

“The directly-elected mayor certainly increases transparency in terms of the appointment of that position, as apposed to the old ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’,” he said.

“But for a directly-elected mayor to be effective they often still do have to do some of those deals with councillors, but the point is they do that from a position of much greater strength knowing they can’t be dismissed by the councillors.

“Whereas if the council chooses the mayor, the incumbent or a potential challenger might be inclined do some deals to try and get that position.”

The City of Stirling said it hoped the process change would encourage more people to vote.

Postal ballots will begin entering letterboxes across the state in the coming days, ahead of the October 19 poll.

Topics:

local-government,

government-and-politics,

perth-6000,

stirling-6021,

wa

First posted

September 27, 2019 07:40:17



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