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ST. ALBERT, Alberta
Consider the unhappy plight of Bob Russell, 85, city councillor of St. Albert, who has been growing increasingly impatient with his extremely irritating constituents.
Everything would be great if only it weren't for those annoying, demanding, emailing voters!
However, Russell has found an innovative way to deal with this vexatious phenomenon, which I think will be of interest to politicians everywhere who are forced daily to confront the extremely aggravating conventions of democracy. To wit: find creative ways to fine them for bugging you about policies and spending priorities!
I'll get to the details of how this is supposed to work in a moment, but first the necessary backstory …
When voters are not refusing to vote for particular politicians -- and, over his many, many years in politics, Russell has experienced enough of this beyond the municipal level for the phrase "ballot box poison" to spring to mind -- constituents seem always to be asking them to do things they don't want to do.
The trouble is that, typically, if you're a politician and you want to get re-elected (and Russell always seems to want to get re-elected) you can't just act like a sensible person and tell these morons to [EXPLETIVE DELETED] off!
No! Can you believe it? You're expected to listen politely to these lunatics! Talk about inconvenient!
Things weren't so bad back in the 1950s when Russell got his start in politics on Vancouver Island, presumably because by the sound of it he didn't manage to actually get elected.
Whatever happened, something brought him to the green political fields of Alberta where, in 1966, he ran to be the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party … and lost to some guy from Calgary. But that turned out to be OK because, when the general election came around, the good people of St. Albert sent Russell packing and elected a Social Crediter anyway.
Even if he'd had to cope with constituents back in those days, a tablet was just a flat piece of stone, often with commandments written on it, not some electric gizmo you carry around with you so you can send annoying "electronic mail" to politicians whenever you feel like it. So even if the good people of St. Albert had wanted to send letters to Russell in those days, which they obviously didn't, it would have taken too long for most of them to chip out a message on their tablet, even if they could find their chisel, and even if the postage rates hadn't been ridiculously high to mail a block of stone!
Anyway, in 1969, Russell ran for the leadership of the Liberals again … and the Liberals elected some guy from Calgary again. But that didn't take either and, after a spell, the second guy from Calgary gave up and quit.
And that was when Russell finally got his chance at the big time. Before you knew it, he was the Liberals' leader and, in the next election, in 1971 … the Liberals still didn't elect any MLAs. Russell himself came third in St. Albert. (He tried again in a by-election in Calgary a couple years later and … came fourth.)
Sensibly, Russell then lowered his expectations managed to get elected to St. Albert City Council, where he was able to serve a few terms -- taking a break in 1992 to run for mayor and lose. He later ran for the federal Liberals in St. Albert … and lost to a member of the Canadian Alliance Party.
In 2013, city council beckoned again. No soap, alas. But last year there was a by-election for a seat on city council, and Russell sniffed the winds and ran as the kind of candidate who has no time for frivolous spending. A new generation of voters, apparently having forgotten all about Russell other than faintly remembering his name, gave him another kick at the council can.
Which brings us 'round to Russell's great idea for dealing with irritating constituents.
St. Albert’s little public library is the most popular facility in the city, but it's now far too small for the number of people who use it. (Full disclosure: I used to be chair of the St. Albert Public Library Board, so I have a dog in this hunt.) For some reason, though, this just doesn't ring city council’s bell. Accordingly, some bright spark on the current library board came up with the idea of encouraging voters to send emails to councillors asking them to please think about building a new branch.
Who knew that this harmless little effort to nudge the city toward a new branch library would afflict Russell with apoplexy?
But at the last city council meeting, Russell threw a public hissy fit and threatened to cut support for the library by $100 every time he received an annoying email from an uppity constituent asking for, please sir, more intellectual gruel!
"I will deduct the amount of money I would have voted for this provincial library by 100 bucks," Russell snarled, sounding, according to folks who were there, like he meant it.
Russell apparently had already grumped to the library staff to stop this nonsense and still the impertinent voters of St. Albert kept emailing him! What next? "Time to bring it to an end," he barked. "We have other things to do. We are busy people!" You know, things to do … places to go … budgets to cut!
Now, I imagine, elected officials all over the democratic world are perking up their ears as they learn about this. What a great way to reduce the flow of time-consuming communications from bothersome electors! I mean, if you don't live in Saudi Arabia, you can’t jail them all.
Indeed, this could work well with almost any issue that costs money, as long as you have a few allies on council. These Russell appears to have, there being a couple of additional councillors in this town who seem to think people who read books are eccentric at best and clearly a special interest. (Why have a library, they ask, when you have Google? Let me answer that question with a question: Why have a fire department when you have running water?)
I don't mean to imply, by the way, that Russell is not a reader. On the contrary, in 2012 he told the local paper he’d just finished a great book about … the Saudi Arabian Royal family. Which, uh, sort of figures.
Anyway, every time an email now lands in Russell's inbox (firstname.lastname@example.org) pleading for a new library, [EXPLETIVE DELETED] you, he'll fine you the cost of a couple of books! Which, we should all admit, isn't as bad as what the Saudi royal family would probably do in the same circumstances!
If Doug Ford had thought of this when he was exchanging Tweets with Margaret Atwood, he'd probably be mayor of Toronto today! Or, then again … maybe not. Russell, I'm pretty sure, doesn't Tweet.
Regardless, I think we St. Albertans -- especially those of us who use the library now and again -- should take the first possible opportunity to relieve Councillor Russell of the burden of having to read whining letters from his constituents ever again.
That, unfortunately, won't happen until Oct. 16, 2017. If you live in St. Albert, keep the date clear in your calendar.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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