We live in a city where 44% of the population is represented by 2.5% of the councilors; where 60% of the population don't exercise their civic franchise; where a councilor is nearly as likely to be acclaimed as to lose their seat; and where most people don't even know when the next election is. Dave Meslin wants to change all that. I sat down with him at Cafe Diplomatico to talk about City Idol, his new project to increase public involvement for city elections.
To municipal politics what Canadian Idol -or it's British original, Pop Idol- is to music, City Idol is looking for 100 Torontonians (you can sign up at the site) who want to make a difference. Emphatically non-partisan and anti-discriminatory, City Idol contestants run the gamut that is Toronto: from Etobicoke to Scarborough, young and old, anti-capitalists, right-wingers, literati, blue-collar; some contestants are long-time activists, others are dipping their toes in community involvement for the first time. The only thing that links them all together, beyond their desire to make a difference, is the prize for which they compete: the chance to run as one of eight candidates with an organization, volunteers, and fundraising behind them.
Anybody can run for city council - all it takes is a signature and $100 - but so many don't. Meslin suspects that this is for a variety of reasons, but a significant one is that people feel disenfranchised; they view City Hall as something that happens to them rather than with them. He hopes that City Idol will show people that they can engage City Hall, and make the city their own. To this end, he's set up City Idol as a sort of political proving ground - the contestants will be competing with each other in catagories such as public speaking, policy, and civic involvment. Instead of the three judges made famous by Canadian Idol, City Idol will allow the audience to vote; the top half of the vote getters will survive to the next round.
As well as the competition, City Idol will also be engaging the candidates in seminars to teach them about the issues facing the city - as well as the more practicable issues of public speaking, negotiations, and the like. Meslin has some real hopes for the effect of Idol, beyod just getting people running. He wants to raise the voter turnout by at least 20%, guarantee that nobody wins by acclaimation, and double the numbers of councillors who lose their jobs. He hopes the interest generated by Idol will be able to get non-participants thinking about the city as well.
So in the end, is City Idol hoping to capitalise on the desires of people who have been dreaming of the day they can be city councillors since they were a child? Dave Meslin doesn't think so. "The difference between City Idol and Canadian Idol is that while becoming a pop-star is fundamentally about yourself, and your ambitions, City Idol is about dreaming to make the city a better place". Well said.
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