Running for Office in an Ethical Way

I gladly share the following article:

“Ever wonder what motivates a person to run for municipal council? It seems that, in many Alberta communities this year, there are a record number of candidates for Council, as well as many mayoral hopefuls. I’ve heard a lot of different reasons for why people choose to run, many of them misguided and some even mendacious. Here are my top five bad reasons to run:

public_sector

  • “People are ready for change!” Newsflash: everyone says that, every election. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s just perception. Often times, when voters go behind that screen, they get a bit scared of change (which is natural) and they go for the known quantity.

That aside, it is my opinion that you just plain need a better reason to run. If the best you can do is “Hey, I’m new!”… I mean, come on. You need to understand budgets, financial statements, water, sewer, garbage, road construction, residential/commercial/industrial development, the role of governance, Inter-municipal relations, by-laws, social and economic development and more.

Have you done your homework on this stuff? Do you have INFORMED positions? Do you have proven leadership experience? Have you ever even sat on a board? As a voter I need to know about what qualifies you for the job and what you stand for. Simply representing “change” is woefully inadequate.

Furthermore, as of the day you are sworn in, you officially cease being “change” and become part of the institution — it’s what you’re signing up for. And if you think that folks are magically going to like you better than the last group, think again. The moment you sit down to the council table, you officially become “them”. This I promise.

  • “I’m going to clean house!”: Uh, no you’re not. If you envision yourself walking into the municipal office and taking over operations, firing a bunch of people, and generally sticking your nose into administration’s business, you’re in for a rude awakening. If you want to manage your town or city, apply for the job.

The CAO’s job is management; your role as a Councillor is governance. You don’t get to direct the staff. You are not the bylaw officer, the public works foreman or the HR Director. In fact, you have only one employee – the CAO. And guess what? In many communities, the CAO has an employment contract. You can’t just ditch this guy so you can take over running the place. And even if you get a new guy, you still don’t have the right to manage the municipality. Besides, removal would take a majority vote of Council and would cost the rate payers a whole bunch of money.

You don’t have to like the Town Manager or any of the staff but as a councillor you are legally bound to do things properly (spoiler alert: you’re going to take an oath to that effect if you get elected).

  • “I’m going to fix the [insert pet peeve such as snow removal/pot holes/bike lanes] situation!” Another very misguided statement that reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how councils function.

It’s an interesting dichotomy, of course, since candidates run as individuals but then have to work as a team, once elected, in order to get anything accomplished.

The truth of the matter is that you have NO POWER outside of council chambers. Even around the council table, your power extends only to the amount of influence you can leverage during debate, and to your (ONE) vote. I would add that, while it’s true that you have no power outside of chambers, you are ALWAYS a representative of the municipality.

You ought never overstep your bounds or ram through your personal agenda. You have a responsibility to consider all matters related to the strategic and fiscal direction of your municipality, and your job, as one member of a team, is to find ways to work together to make wise, informed, responsible decisions for the benefit of all. You are one of a group of decision-makers; no more, no less.

You won’t have the ability to unilaterally wave a magic wand and fix all of the potholes (though people will think you can).

When you make promises you can’t keep, you perpetuate the stereotype of politician. So stop it.

  • “We have to get rid of the current corrupt/secretive/self-serving/incompetent bunch!” Ah, the ever popular “anti” campaign… this tactic, sadly, is often successful. It resonates with coffee klatches and angry people. The problem is that, while it may get you elected, it’s a poor foundation for being an effective mayor or member of council.

The day after you “get rid” of the last bunch, you have to actually do something. Any ideas on what that will be? No? Hmmm, that’s really sad. It’s sad because you have a whole bunch of really important decisions in front of you; stuff that was already in motion, that the previous council (that you thought was so useless) was working hard to deliberate over and consider that perhaps you should have put some time into understanding. An individual with a personal grievance who runs for office is not just in danger of being an ineffective Councillor — these folks can be downright destructive.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: anybody can tear down; tell me what you are going to build.

  • “I’m going to make lowering taxes my number one priority!” This may well be the most irresponsible thing I hear come from the mouths of candidates. If all you want to do is find ways to save people money, then let’s abolish property taxes right now and we can all go home. After all, what’s the point of even having taxes if the only thing we care about is not spending any money?

My point is this: yes, fiscal accountability and responsible spending are very, very important. And no one likes paying taxes, me included. But the number one responsibility of the councillor is NOT fiscal responsibility — it is rather to build community infrastructure for future generations.

Shame on you if in 5, 10 or 25 years there is no water or sewer capacity or the roads are falling to pieces or there are insufficient playgrounds and recreation opportunities because you were busy pinching pennies.

Council

Ultimately, there are good councillors and bad councillors in every community. Some mayors and councillors who should never be in office do get elected, and sometimes people are justifiably upset by actions and decisions. I get that. But I have yet to see a municipal council – at least in this province – that is a wholly evil empire. But, to the voter: can we at least agree to make informed decisions at the polls, instead of vilifying the entire group without, in many cases, even a basic understanding of the role, the decisions, the full story? How about those critical thinking skills, gang?

Why should you actually run for Council? You should run because you wish to serve your community, to provide good leadership, to plan and build for the future. You should run because you have a contribution to make, ideas to be shared, passion that won’t abate and a commitment to do the right thing no matter what. You should run if you understand that you will have to sacrifice popularity and family time, and that you will have to sometimes make decisions that benefit the community as a whole but don’t benefit you personally. You should run if you want a better future for your grandchildren, and your grandchildren’s grandchildren.

If any of the five terrible reasons I mentioned frame up your election campaign, take heart; it’s not too late. You can withdraw from the race now and free up a seat for people with the right motivation. Or you can reflect on your intentions and set a new course with a commitment to serve your community for the all the right reasons.

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Have We Lost Our Music?

In the last couple of years, it seems that society has become more unsettled and polarized. I am not sure of a specific reason – in fact, I can think of many reasons – why this is happening but thinking and pondering about this has taken me back to a novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1962.

Grapes of Wrath

Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they are trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they seek jobs, land, dignity, and a future. The book does not end well in modern terms. A rain storm wipes out the precarious dwelling of the family and the Joads’ young girl, Rose of Sharon, who is pregnant, gives birth to a stillborn child. However, the family finds refuge in a nearby barn, the only dry place they could find. In the barn they find a young boy and his starving father. They have nothing and the father is dying of starvation. At this moment, Rose of Sharon decides to give her own milk to the man, now that she cannot use it for her stillborn child. A fitting ending of hope in a marred-by-tragedy book.

Growing up, my parents always taught me about hope. They always told me there is hope even in the most difficult circumstances. But they also taught me and my brother to be honest, live with integrity, and respect others. And so, my brother and I have been teaching our children the same principles, knowing full well, like my parents knew, that in the end we make our own choices and find our own way through life. I can say that so far, both my brother’s children and mine have been pretty good. Not perfect or exempt from mistakes, trials, personal challenges and even tragedy. But good. They have stuck to those teachings and have lived within those good principles and values all this time. I wish they continue that way and be able to appreciate the sense of inner peace that this way of living brings. It is a way of living that I compare to an inner music – a harmony of sorts – that makes an individual find direction even in the most difficult circumstances. It is a music filled with faith (in oneself, in society, possibly in a God), hope (in a better world, better society, better people), and love (for others, for this life, for nature). This music has guided me all these years, even when I have made mistakes and have faced challenges. I have felt it and continue to feel it as I go along life towards whatever future is in store for me.

I have also learned that I need to be the writer of the music to feel it inside me. This would be no different than what a music composer would do. He would write a line, try it, maybe change it completely or just slightly, or even keep it as is and then start the next line. The process would start again. And again. And again. At times the composer would feel elated at the harmony he has created and feel that everything is just right and perfect. Other times he would feel frustrated at the inability to find that group of notes or even that one note that would make the line shine.
I certainly learned that I cannot write my music and even help others writing theirs if the noise is too much. Yelling and screaming – and not just physically – shuts down the music and invites cacophony and noise.

Hand with pen and music sheet - musical background

Well, there is too much noise today. The noise of “I am right so you must be wrong”. Or “if you are not with me then you are against me.” The reality is that the world today is in need of music like never before. By fostering cacophony and noise, we turn off the harmony of life. And there are too many that are unable to cope with that. Too many that do not have the means to live their own music because of challenges and circumstances. They say that when we are faced with death, we start turning off the noise and look for the music. By then it may be too late. We need to write our own music now.

Reflections on the Passing of Councillor Owen Dickie

Owen

I have to say that the passing of Owen and its circumstances have left me a bit tender in many ways. I think I’d like to say that, although I would not choose to end my life like he did, I find it courageous and very Owenish. He was definitely something else. And in a many ways, I found him refreshing. Indeed I am going to miss him, and with him his emails, his bluntness and daily interactions. I will also certainly miss his integrity and honesty. He truly walked the talk even when I may not have agreed with him. At least he was man enough to tell it in my face. And for this reason, I think, I liked him and came to respect him and appreciate him. He was not arrogant like some politicians I have known throughout my life. He truly cared and that is what makes the difference.

I am a man of strong beliefs and faith and yet I am a man indeed with faults and weaknesses. Although I have a sense within myself of where I think we go after this life is over, I am still sad and disappointed somewhat. To those who do not have a belief, and Owen may have been one of them, I say (and strongly encourage) to truly ponder on life and its purpose. Spirituality does not have to be organized (although there is a strong purpose in organized spirituality – one that I support wholeheartedly) but it is important. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl taught that those, like him, who lived in Nazi concentration camps, who had a sense of purpose in life were able to withstand the horrors of their condition and to survive better, and most of the time also successfully, through their ordeal.

Well, I think that Owen would like me to tell you that life is worth living to the fullest and that we need to look inside, outside and upside for answers that sometimes we do not wish to have and that may scare us. I hope to be as courageous as he was in the face of the ultimate challenge. I know at least I have hope. Don’t be afraid to search for answers, to doubt your doubts, to add meaning to your life. Owen made the world around him better because he believed in his own purpose.

“And ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due. And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they fight and quarrel one with another.But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another. And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 4:13-16 – The Book of Mormon).

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