In November, people in BC will be called to vote in a province-wide municipal election. Elections used to be held every three years, until now, but with this year’s election, a new chapter of local government history opens in BC as terms will be held for four years. In addition, all financial matters for candidates will be looked after by Elections BC. This is probably a good thing as Election BC has the structure and the resources to handle the many regulations that have been introduced in the area of municipal elections in the last few years.
In my many years in local government, I have come to notice a few things and I hope to help both voters and future candidates with some feedback and comments from someone that has seen much and dealt with much in this field.
There are three main issues that I see mounting when dealing with politics at all levels: electorate apathy, ethical behaviour of both elected and appointed officials, and reasons to run for municipal office.
Democracy, we know, has its strengths in its weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is the freedom to exercise the right to vote. In many parts of the world, people consider this right very highly and political participation and debate is an almost daily occurrence. Outside of North America, voter turnout at local government elections is higher than 50%. Here in BC, with some rare exceptions, turn out is usually low-averaging in the mid to high 20%. It is not my place to speculate on the reasons why this happens. It is a shame to say that the majority of people do not take a keener interest in the fate of the government that will affect them most closely.
I heard once someone complaining about a damaged road and how much taxes he was paying as opposed to service received. His final comment was: “this is why I don’t vote.” I replied that change occurs only when rights are exercised and sometimes we deserve what we get when we relinquish that right. So my first advice to all is: go out and vote and exercise your democratic right.
The Rob Ford saga, which I believe and hope to be just an exception to political life in Canada, shows how much need there is for ethical leadership. Ethical leadership means having a true all-encompassing vision for the community. It is not confined to the lobby of one group versus another one, or a neighbourhood against another one, or an individual pet peeve. It is about what is best for the community at large and walking with integrity to accomplish that vision. This needs to be demonstrated and communicated upfront, prior to being elected. People need to know before they go to the polls what each candidate stands for on behalf of the whole community. Research the candidates and platforms and make sure they have a true vision for the community. Beware of the one-agenda-item platform. Those one-issue agendas are short-lived and narrow and do not help the community in its effort to secure the best quality of life they can afford. As a voter I always try to find out if candidates have done their homework, or have an informed position, if they have proven leadership experience and have ever sat on a board.
Finally, beware of the following reasons that candidates provide for their motives to run:
- “People are ready for change”: George Cuff, former Mayor and estimated advisor to numberless Mayors and Councils in Canada, warns that change occurs no matter what. Most of the time the need for change is a perception because most of the new candidates do not know what they will have to deal with: they need to understand budgets, taxation, financial statements, law and local government legislation, road construction, water and sewer, land use development (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.), governance and how meetings must be conducted, intermunicipal relations, social and economic development, bylaws and procedures, and much more. Often, when voters go behind the screen, they get a bit scared of change and they go for the known rather than the unknown. As I mentioned before, people need to know what qualifies a candidate for the job and that he or she “gets it”. Simply representing “change” is woefully inadequate.
- “I’m going to clean house”: in the words of Danielle Klooster, a Penhold, Alberta town councillor and businesswoman: “If you envision yourself walking into the municipal office 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. Get a new guy and you still don’t have the right to manage the municipality. Besides, removal would take a two thirds majority vote of council and would cost the ratepayers 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 affect if you get elected).”
- “I’m going to fix [insert pet peeve] situation”: this is a very misguided statement that reveals once more a fundamental lack of understanding of how councils function. Individual councillors, according to the law, do not have any powers. The BC Community Charter defines local government as the “council” (as a whole) of the municipality. It goes even further in saying that authority to deal with issues is the prerogative of the whole Council only. If the majority in Council decided that the situation needs no fixing, it won’t be. In other words, the truth of the matter is that a councillor has no power outside of council chambers. Even around the council table, his or her power extends only to the amount of influence he or she can leverage during debate and to his or her (one) vote. A councillor won’t have the ability to unilaterally wave a magic wand and fix all of the potholes (although people will think he or she can). If he or she makes promises they can’t keep, they perpetuate the stereotype of politician.
- “We have to get rid of the current corrupt/secretive/self-serving/incompetent bunch!”: Councillor Klooster has some excellent points on this: “Ah, the ever popular “anti” campaign … this tactic, sadly, is often successful. It resonates with coffee clatches 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. You will have a whole bunch of really important decisions in front of you; stuff that is already in process, that the previous council that you thought was so useless was working hard to deliberate over and consider and 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.”
There are more bad reasons to run for Council and I will explore those another time. But there is a responsibility on the voter as well and that is to make informed decisions at the polls, even gain a basic understanding of the role, the decisions and the process of a local government.
Finally, why should one actually run for Council? To serve the community, to provide good leadership, to plan and build for the future. One should run because he or she has a contribution to make knowing that this will require the sacrifice of popularity and family time, and that sometimes decisions will be made that will benefit the community but not the individual councillor. One should run to have a better future for our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren.