How one Lethbridge city clerk is fighting for democracy
When your city's voter turnout is lower than 30 per cent, you better hope you have a Bonnie Hilford on staff
Bonnie Hilford knew that Lethbridge couldn’t afford a repeat. “I could not bear another 27 percent voter turnout, as we had in 2017,” she says, over email.
So, Hilford has decided to do something. She’s the city clerk and returning officer in Lethbridge, a job that ordinarily sees her work behind the scenes to help people engage with their city government. But as this year’s election drew closer, Hilford reflected. Voter turnout was abysmal in 2017 and that suggested engagement was, too. She and her three-person team see their jobs as engaging people with municipal government and specifically elections. So, she pitched an idea: city-produced, two-minute long candidate videos.
And it’s a hit.
Every one of the six candidates running for mayor, 32 running for council, 16 running for public school board and 12 running for the separate school board in Lethbridge was offered a 30-minute slot with a local video production company. The rules were simple: You get one rehearsal and two takes for a two-minute video; you can’t have anyone but yourself in the video; you can’t swear or talk others down, and no campaign paraphernalia is allowed.
Costs? Covered by Lethbridge from a budget to drive voter engagement.
Four mayoral candidates, 27 council candidates, 16 public school board candidates and seven of the separate trustee candidates have taken the offer — or as Hilford brags, 86 per cent of the candidate pool (you can watch them all here)
“The ones that contacted me or my office thought it was a great idea — ‘An amazing opportunity,’ one said — and informative for the public,” Hilford says. “Some could not afford or do not have the technical knowledge to create videos like this, so they appreciated it a lot. Some have put the videos on their social media and websites. Some did acknowledge it was tough to do, summarizing their message into two minutes with two tries in front of a camera.”
Hilford says just prior to the advance poll on October 1, the videos had 15,000 views in the previous 48 hours and almost 22,000 views since they were posted on September 28.
What’s loveliest about this story is that it’s driven by Hilford and her principles.
“I love municipal government and find it fascinating and exciting, as it literally affects every aspect of our daily lives from access to clean drinking water, parks, law enforcement, fire protection, garbage collection, new housing and transportation,” she says. “Voting in an election is important as it only occurs once every four years and the people that are elected will be making important decisions on the previously noted services and more. This election is also very important as there will be a new mayor, four current councillors have chosen not to run again so at least four councillors (of eight) will be new, there are two municipal questions on the ballot (ward system and third bridge), two provincial questions (daylight savings and equalization), plus the senate nominees, which is a lot.”
Hilford says the low turnout in 2017 suggested barriers voters perceived needed to be addressed. Some worried about the time commitment, some about having the voter registration form, while others had to care for children or their designated voting station was too far away from where they were during the day at work. .
Her big idea has been to flip messaging from the vote is on October 18 to one that the voting begins October 1 — highlighting the advance polls that can allow people to avoid some of the turn-offs that push them away from voting. They’ve also set up voting stations at a park’n’ride transit station for those who use public transit.
She has worked as Lethbridge’s clerk since 2019. Before that, Hilford worked in the city clerk’s office in Calgary, and was the city clerk in Okotoks before that.
“I love to teach governance and my next initiative is to implement sessions for the public to understand local government, why it exists, the role of council, how decisions get made and how the public can participate,” Hilford says.
“As you can see I can go on and on about my profession.”
Given the stakes in Lethbridge, with a police service that has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its highly questionable alleged behaviour (here’s just the latest scandal), as well as what’s happening in the province, Rage can’t help but feel the world needs a lot more Bonnie Hilford.