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Neal Hall, The Vancouver Sun

27th November, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
Citizens swept up in assembly

The Vancouver Sun , 27 November 2004

After spending about 50 days together over the course of almost a year, there will be tearful farewells this weekend as the 160-member Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform finishes its work and prepares to disband.

At least one romance flourished between assembly members (both are single and in their 20s) but there was some hardship for others, who had to give up many weekends usually spent with family and friends, especially those living in the far north, who had to travel long distances to Vancouver for weekend sessions.

Wilf Chelle, for example. The 72-year-old cattle rancher from the tiny town of Buick, north of Fort St. John, had to drive 90 minutes to the airport, arriving an hour early for security checks, then take a two-hour flight to Vancouver. It took him another 40 minutes in a cab to the hotel.

But he said of his assembly experience: "It was absolutely excellent. I've been on many boards and councils, but this was the best."

He credits assembly staff -- and Premier Gordon Campbell -- for remaining remarkably neutral and not trying to influence the assembly's final decision to recommend that British Columbia replace its current voting system with the single transferable vote (STV), a proportional representation system.

Being an assembly member was especially difficult for parents with young children, who had to travel to Vancouver for two-day sessions, often every second weekend.

"I couldn't have done it without my husband, who was very supportive," said assembly member Thea Melvin, 33, who has two sons, aged six and eight.

Her husband Sam, an electrical engineer, would come home from work early on Fridays to look after the kids so Thea could leave her home in Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, to travel to Vancouver.

"There's a lot of us who have kids," Melvin said. "The majority of us were married with families."

The workload of the assembly was heavier than expected, she said.

"I did the weekend sessions, three public hearings -- in Nanaimo, Duncan and Smithers -- and I did a lot of public speaking and a lot of reading. We owed that to the people -- to make sure all the public submissions were read."

Although the reading material was a bit dry, "that was OK because I really believed in what we were doing," Melvin said. "It was time-consuming and tiring, but it was never a burden."

During the week Melvin worked two jobs -- running a day-care centre and working at a video store at night.

In the end she is proud of the assembly's final decision to recommend the STV system, which has been used in Ireland since 1922.

Melvin said she was really "choked" by Adriane Carr, leader of the Green Party of B.C., when she suggested assembly staff somehow influenced assembly members to choose STV over the mixed member proportional system, which Carr had spent years campaigning for in B.C.

"What she said was ludicrous," she said. "We were not led whatsoever. Some of our breakout sessions were really heated and this was the people's decision."

Melvin also dismissed the criticism that STV, which involves voting on preferential ballots by placing "1, 2, 3" beside names to rank favoured candidates, has a complicated counting process because of the transfer of surplus votes.

"It's like driving," Melvin explained. "We drive along and use our air conditioning and wipers and never think about how it all works. It doesn't matter how hard it [STV] is to count. I'm half Irish, and the Irish are obviously smart enough to understand it."

Melvin said she'll be glad to get back to her regular life and not have to make weekend treks to Vancouver. But she'll miss the friendships she made.

"The majority of us got very close," she said. "I've met some new, permanent friends. It was pretty amazing. It's going to be pretty sad to say goodbye."

Like many assembly members, she spent a good deal of time discussing various voting system options on a section of the assembly's Internet website that could only be accessed by assembly members -- the website is expected to remain in place until the referendum next May 17 but it won't be interactive or updated, as it is now.

"We're trying to get our own website together," Melvin said. "Assembly members are also organizing to get together on referendum day, May 17. There's already an Island group, a Vancouver group and one in Kelowna."

Assembly members also would like to have a list of potential speakers kept on the official citizens' assembly website, in case someone wants to learn more about why the assembly chose STV as the best system for B.C., she said.

Assembly member David Wills is among a group trying to organize a website for the assembly to keep in touch after it disbands on Dec. 15 .

"Some of us feel it would be irresponsible to walk away from our recommendation," he said. He is convinced that if another group of 160 people were chosen to look at the same issue, they would pick STV as well.

"I feel good about the recommendation. If the citizens of B.C. want a change, this is a good system," said Wills, a vice-president of an information technology company, Sierra Systems Group.

He did a lot of research on the Internet, looking at election results in Ireland, New Zealand and Germany, then created simulated computer models to show what the effects would be under various proportional representation systems.

"It was a lot of work," he said, adding he found the assembly decision-making phase exhausting during the final weekends leading up to choosing STV.

"It's been a remarkable experience," he said. "We got there [to the decision] in a remarkable way."

Politicians should take note: the assembly reached its decision by avoiding an adversarial approach, finding consensus and showing respect to the viewpoints of all members.

Most assembly members felt honoured to take part in the historic move to have direct input in reforming B.C.'s electoral system. Still, most are looking forward to returning to their pre-assembly lives.

One member, Cliff Garbutt, played bass in a garage band with buddies before joining the citizens' assembly. For months, his band-mates grumbled about him not showing up.

"I lost my job in the garage band," said Garbutt, 48, who is looking forward to spending more time with his 12-year-old daughter.

He admits he learned a lot about voting systems -- something he didn't know much about before he joined.

He's among the assembly members who remain committed to writing letters to the editor and publicly speaking out to convince British Columbians to approve the new voting system that was custom-designed for B.C.

Garbutt, director of Dimension-X Entertainment, which develops animated film and video game material -- he won an Emmy award in 1990 for the graphics used in the Super Bowl TV broadcast -- is even considering doing an animation segment to help people understand how the STV system works.

"It's a possibility," he said. "Normally I would charge $10,000 to $20,000."

After the assembly disbands, the government plans to establish an information office to inform the public about the STV system before the referendum next May.

Today, during the assembly's final weekend session, Premier Gordon Campbell is expected to attend to personally thank members for their participation.

"I think the job they have done exceeded everyone's expectations," assembly chair Jack Blaney, a former president of Simon Fraser University, said of assembly members.

"I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the debate and the non-partisanship," he added.

Initially, before the assembly was formed, people were skeptical about having such a large group trying to reach consensus on such a potentially divisive issue.

"People said, 'This is going to be a zoo.'," Blaney recalled.

He credits assembly staff for their talent, integrity and neutrality, which instilled the trust of assembly members in the process and allowed them to do their work.

"We had absolutely 100 per cent independence," Blaney said of the process, which had never been tried before -- giving non-elected citizens from across B.C. the power to decide such an important public policy issue.

In the end, he was amazed at the respect assembly members showed each other and the degree of cohesiveness during the final sessions.

"I have never witnessed this kind of commitment and dedication in my life," said Blaney, 67.

"It was probably the best year of my life."

[© Copyright 2004, The Vancouver Sun . Reproduced here by permission of The Vancouver Sun.]
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