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What My Councillor Did Last Summer…

I am fortunate to have worked with hundreds of municipal councils and thousands of local elected officials over the years. Regardless of where they live and which municipality they serve, there are some strong traits that the ‘best’ of them exhibit, regardless of their political persuasion.


I see the questions that come up during election campaigns as often somewhat transactional – will you fix my pothole, will you be giving yourself a raise, will you allow a casino in our community – that sort of thing. I understand why these questions get asked and why the answers resonate with people. They are ‘real’ questions about real and current topics, but they also provide insight into how that council member will act in the future. I’d like to take this brief exploration a step further.


No elected official, regardless of order of government, was elected three or more years ago to have to deal with a global pandemic, but they have had to deal with it, nonetheless. The test of character, mettle, ethics, insight, and collegiality comes when councils and individual members of those bodies are challenged to deal with huge monoliths that could not have been reasonably anticipated.


There’s an adage that how one acts in the past is a good indicator of how one will act in the future. Suppose a person falls back on their own strong foundations of values and exercises thoughtful discourse and debate with colleagues, and more broadly with the community. In that case, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will continue with that trait into the future. If someone tells people what they want to hear so they’ll get elected, I assume that too will continue into the future. If I know they are being disingenuous in making those statements; it frustrates me greatly.


All in all, I much prefer the genuine and authentic leadership provided by the person in that first example. However, if I know what my councillor metaphorically did last summer, I am reasonably confident that they will do something similar next summer when new and previously unknown issues and challenging times arise.


I am a strong advocate for ongoing team building and professional development for members of local councils. There is value in knowing one’s colleagues as real people with families and jobs and tribulations, rather than just as a sparring partner across a council bench. This is multiplied severalfold when virtual meetings are the norm, and body language results in inferred attributions.


Does the councillor who sits back and looks up to the sky during a zoom meeting intend to show that they are listening intently to the speaker, or are they showing that they are disregarding that same speaker? Without knowing each other as people, who’s to say?

All elected officials are ostensibly in place to solve current and future challenges and issues, whether they are the one-off of the constituent trying to wade through a frustratingly arcane process or whether they are the community-wide issues of dealing with a sudden crisis. In all these cases, I want to know that my own local leader is an authentic public servant.


There is another topic here about dealing with the tough issues head-on. I want my mayor and council to represent me and my community first, to advance local issues even when that is difficult or may offend another order of government. As a voter, I choose my candidates for office based not on what they say they will do about the issues of yesterday, but about how they will deal with the complex issues of tomorrow.


I get frustrated with the pedantic, pejorative politician who chooses to avoid difficult topics, who equivocates depending on who’s asking, and who represents the government to me rather than representing me to the government. I have huge faith in local government, and I know it is a complex role that requires thoughtful discourse from people who rely on their own strong foundation of ethics and values.


What do you think is illustrative of the best local government leaders you’ve seen? How do you decide who to vote for in the next election? Please feel free to reach out by email at ian@strategicsteps.ca

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