Have you ever thought about how you could serve your local community more thoughtfully and meaningfully? There are many ways to do this – whether through your kids’ activities, your church, school, volunteering at the food bank, social service organizations or service clubs like Rotary or the Lions Club. There is no doubt that these are, for the most part, uplifting ways to serve the community and give back. But have you ever thought about serving on your local municipal Council or school board? If you have but have thought twice – why? What’s stopping you?
The job of being in local politics is an interesting one and, as they say, requires thick skin. For sure, you’re not in it for the money…. sigh. It’s a great way to get your name out there, show some leadership skills, and learn a lot along the way. Much like most “volunteer” jobs, there is no pre-requisite for becoming a Trustee or Councillor; you only must have lived in your jurisdiction for 6 months. You can be 18 years old or in your late retired years; it’s a job up for grabs for anyone. Yet it does require some level of courage, confidence, and the ability to be well-read (yes, you must read a lot in a short time every week).
The difference between community giving back and local government “giving back” boils down to how much criticism you want to take from people who don’t know you. And unless you are made of armour with no heart, it can be thankless and hurtful because, despite your good intentions, people want to bring you down (even if they know nothing about you). It doesn’t sound like fun work, does it? So how would you prepare for such a role?
First, don’t be a one-issue candidate – fix the traffic lights so that they sync – or bring the school bus closer to my house. These people quickly discover that issues are much more complex than they thought and only one issue out of a myriad of things you will face in a four-year term.
For the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on municipal councils. There are a few things that are not well understood by those running for office; they include:
Conflict of Interest” – when to personally know when you are in a conflict of interest and when to point out when one of your colleagues may be in a conflict of interest.
Keeping in-camera discussions in-camera – you are ethically breaching your code of conduct if you talk outside an in-camera discussion. In-camera discussions are not secret meetings; they require some confidentiality that could be seriously compromised if the discussion is in the public realm. Understanding what constitutes an in-camera item is another issue but know that you cannot disclose in-camera discussion items. You might be sanctioned.
Dialogue with staff: Asking staff questions in a council meeting is a wonderful way to understand the issues more deeply than you are debating. However, too often, staff are berated or spoken to in condescending ways because a Council member disagrees with the staff recommendation. Staff have no recourse when a Council member is bullying them. It puts your staff in an incredibly unfair situation, not to mention shining a light on the dysfunction of your Council. In my opinion, this behaviour is cause for sanctions. However, it usually never comes to this.
There are things your municipality can do that help your success:
Orientation: There is a lack of practical orientation for councillors. This should be an ongoing process in the first year, but it almost never is. Training in the area of budgets (first thing facing a Council), public hearings and the required three readings, how to diplomatically debate, understanding and actioning your code of conduct policy, conflict of interest and the difference between governance vs administrative practices. Usually, Councils are given a half-day or, if you’re lucky, one full day of orientation and then we wish you luck. It’s not enough because, in the municipal world, the environment is constantly changing. There is so much time spent every year with Councillors just learning the ropes; it could be much better.
Develop a strategic plan as a team. This way, your Council can be pulling in the same direction and focus intentionally on your collective priorities.
Work with your Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). The CAO turnover is very high in the municipal world, and the fire and hire costs are skyrocketing. Imagine if you worked with your CAO and had diplomatic conversations about the direction of the Council and respected staff. Think of what you could accomplish.
Call your colleagues out when they are not living up to the agreed-upon code of conduct. It’s important that everyone plays by the rules.
Finally, don’t debate your colleague. Debate the issue. Respect perspective and don’t bash people for their opinion. Do not FIGHT – your team won’t get anything done. Show up for community events, cut ribbons, phone residents back, promote your community, read your agenda packages, prepare for meetings and don’t be afraid to be curious for the whole term. It is a privilege to be there FOR your community, not against it.
If you are ready to take the leap, do it with integrity, energy, enthusiasm, and ethics. These are the qualities that hold up to the negativity you will no doubt encounter in this work. Leave your ego at the door, be diplomatic, have some fun, respect your colleagues, and support your community to become better than you ever imagined. If you’re not ready to take this leap, look for these attributes in your elected officials. It is up to all of us to positively impact local government.