27.3% voter turnout leaves Mayor Don Atchison with weak mandate; StarPhoenix coverage of mayoral forums pathetic; Mendel travesty swept under carpet
Saskatoon’s 2009 civic election was barely in the books when Don Atchison, who had just won his third term as mayor and for the first time in the city’s history every incumbent was returned to city council, said that voters were happy with the way things are going.
“The people of Saskatoon believe we are going in the right direction, that the city is doing fine the way it is,” he said.
“If you can think about a city of this size and every person is able to come back together again that’s truly amazing,” Atchison said. “It says that people are satisfied with what’s occurring in our community today.” [‘People are satisfied’ (StarPhoenix, October 29, 2009)]
Atchison seemed completely oblivious to the fact that voter turnout was an embarrassing 27.3 per cent and that his own vote total had suffered a dramatic drop from the 2006 civic election.
The unofficial results for the mayoral candidates were:
Don Atchison – 26,676
Roger M. Chernoff – 709
Steve Lawrence – 407
Johnny Melenchuk – 736
Lenore Swystun – 17,678
Total votes: 46,206
Atchison received 57.7 per cent of the total votes cast for mayor.
Of the more than 218,000 city residents, 170,272 were eligible to vote. [Saskatoon voters head to the polls (StarPhoenix, October 28, 2009)]
This means Atchison’s support from the total number of eligible voters in Saskatoon was just 15.6 per cent. This is in no way a vote of confidence. It is instead a very weak mandate.
Atchison’s vote total was down 11,702 from 2006 when he garnered 38,378 votes – or 63.8 per cent. Lenore Swystun, on the other hand, had an excellent campaign that saw her vote total go up 4,139 from 2006. In that election she received 13,539 votes – or 22.5 per cent.
The voter turnout in the 2009 election was the lowest since 2000:
2009 – 27%
2006 – 37%
2003 – 52% (Casino vote)
2000 – 26%
1997 – 20%
1994 – 46% (Casino vote)
The StarPhoenix’s coverage of the mayoralty forums was pathetic with stories buried and averaging about 367 words. In fact, two forums held October 20, 2009: the Business and Professional Women Saskatoon Mayoralty Forum at 200-120 Sonnenschein Way and the Saskatoon and Region Home Builders Association at the Willows Golf Course, received no coverage at all.
The newspaper seemed more interested in reporting on the visit it co-sponsored by former U.S. President George W. Bush, a war criminal, to Saskatoon on October 21, 2009.
The following is a breakdown of the StarPhoenix’s lousy job:
Atchison, Swystun spar over planning
October 15, 2009, Page A8, 370 words
Swystun tries to broaden public’s perception of her
October 16, 2009, Page A4, 287 words
Swystun, Atchison joust over project
October 20, 2009, Page A6, 422 words
Candidates tackle library future
October 23, 2009, Page A9, 418 words
Swystun backs taxi commission
October 27, 2009, Page A5, 338 words
As for Atchison’s six-year record as mayor it was virtually ignored.
The StarPhoenix blamed the poor voter turnout on the lack of contentious issues. On the contrary, those issues are there it’s just that the newspaper chooses not to treat them as such. This includes things like the poor decisions and reckless spending on River Landing or the plan to move the Mendel Art Gallery. Rather than hold city council to account the newspaper instead takes every opportunity to protect it by supporting the projects.
In the post-election editorial Sustaining growth in tough economy council’s challenge (StarPhoenix, October 29, 2009) the newspaper brass stated the following:
“The destination centre steering committee that was to present council with options for River Landing has been overtaken by events. When it became clear that the feds had no desire to put in money to revamp the Mendel Art Gallery, if for no other reason than because there are too many art galleries and museums across the country for Ottawa to get into that game, Saskatoon’s senior administration and council had to act quickly on their own to adjust the city’s strategy. This left many Mendel supporters feeling betrayed.
“Council now has to make sure it opens the process as much as possible, assuages those who were wounded by the shift and bring into the process as many citizens as it can to secure public support.”
Unfortunately, it’s too late for that. The integrity of the process has been damaged beyond repair. The city, the Mendel board, and the provincial and federal governments simply have no credibility.
Furthermore, it’s incredible that the StarPhoenix would even suggest such a thing. The newspaper is failing its readers by abdicating its responsibility to investigate the debacle and get to the bottom of the closed door meetings and backroom dealing. To date the newspaper has let all parties off the hook.
The aforementioned destination centre steering committee meets in secret and has issued no reports. At least two of its members – Mendel board chair Art Knight and Meewasin Valley Authority CEO Susan Lamb – appear to in conflict since both their organizations have an interest in the outcome. So what has the StarPhoenix done about this? The answer is nothing.
Finally, the low voter turnout would seem to suggest that political lobby group LEAD Saskatoon had little impact on the election. Interestingly, the group ran no advertisements in the StarPhoenix nor did it ask candidates to fill out a questionnaire like it did for the 2003 and 2006 elections. Why this wasn’t done has not been explained.
In an October 19, 2009, news release LEAD director Don Ravis said the group was concerned that in this election the lack of contentious issues and, in some wards, the lack of candidates will result in a poor voter turnout.
“[W]hen you get a strong turnout of voters, you make it much more definite as to what direction you want your Mayor and City Council to follow, and you give those elected a much stronger mandate. We don’t want people standing up at Council meetings claiming that they represent a majority of citizens, when in fact their claims cannot be substantiated. That’s why we hold elections. Make your views known, run for office, and truly let the citizens decide. Without question, the more people who vote, the clearer the voice of Saskatoon will be heard,” Ravis said.
Given the 27.3 per cent turnout, Ravis’s standard should apply to Atchison and city council as well. They clearly do not represent the majority of citizens. What we have shaping up here is three more years of controversy and divisiveness.