Tofino’s councillor candidates, back row from left, Ali Sawyer, Sarah Sloman, Al Anderson and John Enns, front row from left, Tom Stere, Kat Thomas and Duncan McMaster at an Oct. 4 forum hosted by the Tofino Chamber of Commerce. Thomas beat out Enns by just two votes to secure the final spot in Saturday’s election. (Westerly file photo)

Tofino’s councillor candidates, back row from left, Ali Sawyer, Sarah Sloman, Al Anderson and John Enns, front row from left, Tom Stere, Kat Thomas and Duncan McMaster at an Oct. 4 forum hosted by the Tofino Chamber of Commerce. Thomas beat out Enns by just two votes to secure the final spot in Saturday’s election. (Westerly file photo)

Tofino elects new council with historically low voter turnout

“I would suspect that is a record low turnout,” said Tofino’s acclaimed mayor Dan Law

Tofino has a new council following Saturday’s municipal election.

Seven candidates ran for the town’s six councillor seats with all three incumbents, Tom Stere, 301 votes, Al Anderson, 263 votes, and Duncan McMaster, 210 votes, earning back their spots and joining newcomers Sarah Sloman, 292 votes, Ali Sawyer, 223 votes, and Kat Thomas, 178 votes, who narrowly bested John Enns, 176 votes, for the final spot.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to work alongside my fellow councillors over the next four years. This election was a good example of ‘every vote counts’ and we appreciate everyone who took the time to cast their ballots,” new councillor Kat Thomas told the Westerly News.

Ali Sawyer suggested the close vote totals showed the strength of the candidates running and she was delighted to earn a spot.

“The two main things that come to mind about the results are that it was clearly a great group of candidates running, which you can see by how close the votes were. That same narrow margin of two votes determining council also really shows just how important every vote is,” Sawyer said via email. “I’m overwhelmed by the support I received from people in town while I was running, and it’s an honour to be voted in.”

Mayor Dan Law, who ran for re-election unopposed and was acclaimed, said he is excited to work with his new team.

“Congratulations to all who ran. It was a great slate. It was a tight race certainly for two of the candidates,” he said. “It’s a great council. We’ve got three excellent incumbents and three fresh new voices. It’s going to be a great term.”

He suggested the new council offers a balanced blend of experience and fresh perspectives.

“We’ve got three councillors who have been there for some time and can speak to the history of issues and, at the same time, it’s great to have fresh new voices. We need new perspectives. Times change and the beauty of democracy is that the government changes with the times,” he said.

Tofino cast 359 ballots out of 2,081 estimated eligible voters in 2022’s election for a 17 per cent turnout, a significant decline in participation from 2018’s general municipal election that saw 929 ballots cast out of 1,411 registered voters for a 66 per cent turnout.

“I would suspect that is a record low turnout,” Law said. “Maybe that speaks to some sort of contentment and that we did have a great slate of people also speaks to a fairly healthy community.”

He added this was Tofino’s fourth municipal election in four years as two byelections were sandwiched between the 2018 and 2022 general elections, so the town may have had voter fatigue, adding residents might have looked at the impressive roster of candidates and felt comfortable with any of them at the table.

“There’s numerous ways of looking at why we had such low turnout, but I think those are two good ones to start with..I think council’s done what the community has asked and certainly turned Tofino toward dealing with some major issues and successfully so, so I think that definitely plays into it…I don’t see this particularly remarkable low turnout as an indication of voter apathy.”

Incumbent Al Anderson said he was grateful for the community’s support and agreed with Law about the benefits of balance, adding he was happy to see three women elected.

“I’m glad there’s a gender balance. I think it’s more difficult for women to participate in politics, there’s more barriers to women participating,” he said. “It’s always good to have a few experienced voices at the table and it revitalizes council to have new ideas brought to the table as well.”

Incumbent Duncan McMaster agreed, noting that the three councillors who did not run for re-election were women and the three new candidates elected to take their place are women.

“We lost three women off council and we replaced them with another three women, so I think that’s good for gender balance,” he said, adding the experience balance is also strong as the new councillors will take time to get up to speed.

“I know from experience myself and watching other new councillors in the past, the first six months to a year you’re floundering. You’ve got so much to learn, like the Official Community Plan, Community Charter, what you can and can’t do; it’s a real learning experience,” he said.

He added he was grateful to his supporters for re-electing him, but frustrated by the lack of participation, suggesting more must be done to get the community engaged in the process.

“The voter turnout I wouldn’t say was weak, I’d say it was pathetic. I think we tend to forget all the work that the previous mayor Josie Osborne did in promoting the election. I think she did a stellar job in 2018 and we really noticed it this year because you wouldn’t have known there was an election in Tofino,” he said. “I think we’ve got to have more controversial subjects discussed, people have got to be fully engaged and voting on specifics, not just voting for their friends. Maybe if we did reduce the size of council to four that may make it a bit more competitive, but then you run the risk of having less diverse views.”

Incumbent Tom Stere topped the vote count with 301 votes (83.8 per cent).

“I’m very, very excited to be back on council and to be working with the returning and new faces and with our mayor to address the issues, challenges and opportunities that Tofino has in the next four years,” he said.

He added he was “extremely disappointed” with the voter turnout, noting Tofino is usually in the province’s upper tier of voter participation.

“I suspect there are a variety of reasons for that, but it is disappointing because I would very much like to have seen a larger candidate pool and also much larger community engagement in the process,” he said.

He also spoke to the benefits of a balanced council.

“Continuity is excellent because a lot of the work that does go on as you learn when you become a new councillor as I did last term, is continuing the work of the previous council, so having some historical background is super important and the relationships that one builds as an incumbent are really important. It’s also really nice to have that fresh lens and fresh approach to looking at some of the issues,” he said. “It’s really important to have that diversity of lenses so that we can make better decisions.”

He added he hopes to see council continue an open, civil dialogue while maintaining a diversity of opinions.

Sarah Sloman received the most votes of the newcomers with 292 (81.3 per cent).

“I had heard that a lot of people were going to vote for me, but you always have a little bit of self-doubt so I was glad that people meant what they said…I thank them for supporting me and believing in me,” she said. “I’m excited. I hope I get to do some great things.”

She added one of her first priorities will be sorting out the baseball and softball players who look set to be displaced as their field is currently slated to be the site of a new daycare facility.

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