Legal Brief for October, 2017

Civic Election Terms

Although they often take a back seat to the federal and provincial elections in terms of publicity, our civic or municipal elections are an important element of our democratic system by which our laws are made and enforced.  And with the election signs sprouting around the city like daisies after a spring rain shower, it is clear that we are quickly approaching our next civic election, which is scheduled for Monday, October 16th.  The offices that we will be voting for consist of mayor, councillors and school board trustees.  Like so many of the laws that we have in place today, the positions of mayor and councillors come to us from many centuries of development in England.  Here is brief look at some of the history of the common terms that apply to our municipal governments:

  • Mayor: this position appears to have first developed in London in the first century after the Norman conquest in 1066, with the establishment of an office known as "the portreeve".  By the 1200's the office became known as that of "mayor", which developed from the Latin word, maior, meaning "bigger".  In rural areas the person who acted as the representative of the local feudal lord became known as a "bailiff" or "reeve" and gradually came to have the same status as a mayor in an urban setting.

  • Councillors: not long ago persons filling this office were known as an alderman or aldermen in the plural.  The name of the office was changed to that of "councillor" with the advent of greater numbers of women becoming elected.  The title "alderman" was derived from the Old English title of ealdorman, literally meaning "elder man".  It was a position to which the local nobles would select respected members of the community to serve as a council of sorts for the area.

  • Reeve: it was not long ago that the head official of a county government in Alberta was known as a "reeve".  That terminology has fallen into disuse now, and county heads are now called mayors to match their urban counterparts.  The position of a reeve developed in feudal times in medieval England.  Its function was to act on behalf of the feudal lord to oversee the work of the peasants, to ensure that they were taking proper care of their lands and to collect payments and taxes owing to the lord.  The position later took on more official administrative duties, including that of the chief magistrate of a town or district.

  • County: this is the level of government for the large rural areas outside of the boundaries of a city.  In the Edmonton area for example, the most well known counties around the City are Strathcona County, Parkland County and Sturgeon County.  In England the rural areas were originally known as "shires", which comes from the Old English scir, meaning “care” or “official charge”.  The person in charge of a shire was known as a "shire reeve", which eventually became "sheriff" in the way that multiple words often evolve into shorter combined words as people speak them quickly.  The term shire is still in common use in modern day England for their rural land areas, such as Befordshire, Oxfordshire and so on, which in Canada would be known as Bedford County or Oxford County.

Many of the most practical day to day matters that affect our lives are decided by the officials that we elect to our municipal governments.  It is a shame that the voter turnout numbers are so low for these elections.  A healthy democracy depends on the willingness of all of its citizens to stay informed and to exercise their right to choose the people who are responsible to make these decisions.  And so, as my father used to say, "Get out and vote.  It's your duty!”

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