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  • Ian McCormack

Being the Sponge: Taking on a New or Renewed Role on Your Council

We are now about a month after the Alberta municipal election, where hundreds of new councillors took on the mantle of leadership for the first time. Hundreds more were re-elected to continue with their leadership roles. The third group of incumbents ran for re-election but were – in the words of a colleague – democratically retired with the full support of their communities.


For those who will be representing your communities for the next four years, congratulations on your election. Those of us at Strategic Steps wish you much success as you lead your communities during a time of uncertain environment and recovering economy.


We have had the privilege of providing council orientations for nearly 30 newly elected councils since the election, and there are some insights that we have gained from that experience.


The first observation is quite basic - that all members of councils are just people like you and me. They are invested in their communities; they have families and jobs and passion. They don’t have any official piece of paper that says they are ‘qualified’ to serve as councillors, mayors, and reeves. This means that orientation and ongoing training are critical, as is the advice that their municipal managers can provide to them.


These elected people are truly the grassroots of democracy – people who want to make their communities better over the time they choose to serve. Those who were elected in October hold the role in a transitory, almost ephemeral, way. Councillors inherit the role from their predecessors, provide value while they can for a few years, and then pass on the role to their successors. There should be no need for rules like term limits if elected officials realize they are there to serve, not for a job or a career.


My second observation is more of an instruction. The thread that runs through all the orientations we provide is that councillors need to govern, and they need to let the experts they hire manage the municipality and provide excellent services to the people who need them. This is the ‘separation of church and state’ that the most functional municipalities seem to do well. But, on the flip side, a lack of clarity in this area appears to be what gets a lot of councils into trouble over the course of a term.


This trouble is not all at the feet of the council members. If the orientation does not provide an overview of what good governance looks like in action and principle, the brand new councillor may not even really know their role before they begin to muddy the water.


I believe that people who become local council members are there to serve their community, and if we can help in that regard, we will. We provide orientations, and we suggest regular and ongoing refreshers for councils who have been drinking from that firehose over the past month and who won’t remember everything. At one of our early orientations, I asked a new councillor what she hoped to get out of the session. She replied that she wanted to be a sponge. At the end of the day, I came back to her and asked how she was doing. Her reply “I’m leaking water.” That occurrence is widespread and is one of the reasons we suggest ongoing, regular training around topics of interest to members of councils and their colleagues.


What do you think are the most important things that the brand new councillor needs to know? How do you begin to turn around the municipality culture that has a council that doesn’t really know the difference between governance and management?

Please let me know. You can find me at ian@strategicsteps.ca.


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