Moose FM’s Ollie Williams sits down with Dane Mason, a candidate in Yellowknife’s 2015 municipal election.
Other candidates: Find more Moose FM Q&As
OW: You’re a candidate for city council but you’re also the man behind much of the momentum for the IServeU online platform. Let’s start with IServeU. How have you felt about the way that people and the media have reacted to this over the past few months?
DM: I think the media has been very balanced, which is great. The people have also been very excited. I’ve been doing a lot of door-to-door, as have many of our volunteers, and we’re averaging between 70 percent and 80 percent in different neighbourhoods in Yellowknife. People are very excited to be able to have their say in municipal government and with decisions that affect them. They’re excited and we’re excited to provide that to them.
How distinct is your personal campaign for city council from IServeU’s campaign to introduce its online direct democracy system?
Very separate. I have my own issues that I want to bring up with city council. The one thing that unifies everyone using IServeU is that they want to use it as an additional method to get input from Yellowknifers. It’s a way to add on to interactions that councillors already have and to go from having a couple hundred people engaged to possibly thousands.
You have specific issues that you want to focus on. What are they?
A big one for me is core services and the ability of the city to provide effective customer or client services. This all started for me a couple years ago when I had a water issue in my backyard after the city installed part of a pipe that broke and ended up flooding my basement. I wrote to council and administration but kept getting bounced around for months while my basement was flooding every day, so I ended up taking matters into my own hands and fixed it myself. After that, I thought no one should have to do this. This is a beautiful city, we’ve got a lot of projects on the go and there’s no reason we can’t provide core services so let’s focus on that.
That implies to me an ambition to see the city forgo larger projects in favour of focusing on the smaller, everyday things.
I wouldn’t count out larger projects but I think we have to be able to take care of our core services first. Things like water are going to be a big issue. Right now there’s the option to draw water either from the bay, which is a potential contamination risk, or from the old site on the Yellowknife River which would be a $20 million project to reconstruct the pipeline.
What would you do?
I think there are two answers to that. My master’s degree is in public administration and my thesis is on risk management so I look at that as a way to say, ‘What’s the potential risk, the impact and the likelihood?’ It’s a very low likelihood and potentially a very high impact, so I’d want to look at the city’s plans to create a $5 million plant in Yellowknife Bay to see if there are enough redundancies in place. I think that water is pretty much the definition of a public resource and that that’s a very important issue for people to have their say on. Water coming out of your tap is coming from one of two sources. What are your feelings on that? That shouldn’t be decided by a group of eight people.
Following on from what you’ve just been talking about, I imagine a Dane Mason city council would never have bought the 50-50 lot.
Having bought it, what would you like to see happen?
I think there are a few options. One, I’m very apprehensive to see us putting more money into it after already getting into buying multi-million dollar lots downtown. On a related note, just down the street on the two other empty lots that the city bought – which used to have active businesses on them – there’s a plan right now where they’re proposing to put a library as a new capital cost. Another journalist brought this up, and it’s an excellent idea: instead of the cost of a brand new library and the capital cost of the city incurring that, we’ve also got the Bellanca Building downtown that’s currently searching for a lead tenant. Why not rent it out? If you want to make downtown a more vibrant place, you need people and you don’t need aesthetics as much as you need traffic. We could get street access to a library and arts space, we could improve traffic and increase the attractiveness of the building as an office space and bring more business downtown.
There are three candidates standing who intend to use IServeU, and IServeU says it’s been talking to other candidates to get more. How’s that going?
Right now, we’re at a solid three. It’s not so much a platform as it is an additional tool for councillors to use. Councillors using it are expected to have their own platforms, ideas and opinions. The only thing they need to have is an ability or a want to hear from more Yellowknifers and to take that into account in their decisions. I’m so excited about IServeU and about the option for Yellowknifers to have more of a say. I’m offering to only do one council term, I won’t be going for re-election or higher office and I will donate every cheque I receive as a councillor to Yellowknife charities decided by people on IServeU.
Does that mean you’re not the long-term choice, then, if someone wants a councillor that’s going to see projects through beyond three years?
My biggest plan is to get in here, get the process rolling, leave things better than I found them and pass the torch to the next person. Continuity doesn’t come from a single person alone, it comes from the wider group. IServeU will be able to bring that wider group to the table.
How many people do you have signed up?
I believe we have about 1,600 signed up right now.
What are they signed up for, since the system isn’t live yet?
They’ll receive email confirmation once the site goes live in the next week or two, and then they’ll be able to set up an account so they’re following developments and have asked to be provided with information to sign in.
Conversion rates on mailing lists can be quite grim. Out of 1,600, what do you think is a realistic target?
We want to have more people involved in council decisions than there are currently. Currently there are eight, so if we get nine I’d be a happy man. Given that we’ve had 1,600 sign up already and ask to be a part of it, I think we’ll have well above the mark of eight that we currently have.
Some councillors would say it’s unfair to characterize them as being in a vacuum making decisions. They’ve consistently said to us through this process that they speak to hundreds of people for the decisions they make.
They do and that’s an excellent quality for them. If I was a councillor without IServeU, I might talk to 100 colleagues at work in any given week, I might talk to 100 friends and I might talk to 100 people I see in the same social circles. But these 300 people are not a very representative sample because I’m talking to people I already know or who know me and approach me. With IServeU, it’s going to be open to so many more people. We’re hoping that people will engage in conversation with each other and identify new policy alternatives. Instead of having councillors trying to decide between voting yes or no, we want an engaged community asking if they’ve thought about a third option.
Many council motions are not yes or no. They’re complex beasts that can be amended, say, six times in a span of 15 minutes. How does IServeU cope with that?
Although the majority of amendments will be minor, on issues like 50-50 where amendments change the character of it, myself and other IServeU candidates would be pushing for deferring that to the next council meeting. I would much rather take two weeks to get good information, fact-check and cross-reference my sources and then make a decision rather than change at the last second based on a current discussion.
There are people who would say that they’re already frustrated with the length of time it takes the wheels to grind at City Hall and this process could slow things down even more.
In the few instances where a motion changes significantly, I would much rather see a decision that takes two more weeks and is much more referenced and ends up benefiting more Yellowknifers than make a decision in a split-second and come to regret it later.
How will councillors working to IServeU’s platform ensure that every demographic in Yellowknife is represented?
Voter turnout here during the last three elections was 29 percent, 49 percent and 49 percent – so it’s an issue that we’re already dealing with. IServeU hopes to improve that because internet access here is higher than almost anywhere else in the country (92 percent). Beyond that, I had a colleague who did her thesis on involving youth in municipal politics and one of the outcomes of that was that youth – and especially marginalized youth – were less likely to participate in municipal politics in almost any means, except online polling or voting. They blew every other demographic out of the water. A lot of people with mobility issues are also excited to take part from the comfort of their own homes. We’re also in the process of translating IServeU into French and Aboriginal languages which we hope will improve the demographic as well.
What would you have to say to people who think this should have been tested first?
First and foremost, the binding feature of it – when people engage in large enough numbers and with large polarity of the vote to say strongly yes or no – that’s what makes people excited about it. It’s no longer a suggestion box. The difference with IServeU is that people will listen to your opinion if it’s strong enough and if it’s represented by enough people. It’s also important to remember, for those of us that want to try it out, that we’re running three candidates out of eight seats. If you want to look at it as a pilot project, where there’s citizen representation at the table with a maximum of three seats out of a total of eight…
But you’re only running three councillors because you couldn’t get more! You wanted five. It’s difficult to then sell that as a cunning plan for a pilot project…
It’s not a cunning plan, it’s the way things worked out. We would have been very happy with five candidates. At the same time, if you want to look at that as a pilot project – the citizen vote is never going to be a majority with three out of eight councillors but it will give them more of a say at the table.
Is it actually legally binding?
It’s not. But the people we have running on it don’t need it to be. We have our separate platforms but although we have strong opinions, the strongest one is that we respect other folk’s opinions and we’re running for council based on trying to bring Yellowknife voices to the table.
Is it the city’s place to do something to assist the plight of Syrian refugees and bring them to the Northwest Territories?
I think people should be welcome anywhere. I have no problem with the city opening up if we have money to spare. Take care of our core services first, don’t impact tax rates and mill rates and have a surplus, absolutely. If there’s a global problem, we’re part of a global community.
Where does homelessness fit into your core service model?
One of the places I hope my salary goes to is the new Hope’s Haven. I live downtown and sometimes, walking back at night, I’ll walk by it and see people watching movies and playing games. Solutions like that are having a huge impact. In addition to the day shelter, it would also be nice to have transitional programming and support networks.
Sum up the Dane Mason campaign. It’s a crowded list of 15 names, so why you?
I believe that public service is a duty and that’s why I’m willing to volunteer my time. That’s why I’m going to be donating my money to charity in Yellowknife. I really want to help people and I want to make sure that core services and client services. If you have an issue with any core services while I’m on council, let me know and I will stay with you till the end. That’s my biggest priority.