09/11/12

Should you run for municipal council?


ContenderThere’s a poll online asking if a resident should run for council next election. I believe I understand the intent, but decision-making by poll is not effective leadership. Internet polls, in particular, are weak, inaccurate, easily manipulated, and ignore necessary demographic constraints – they are unacceptable as the foundation for any serious decision.

Sure, you want public input for major issues, and you are legislated to get it on some planning matters. Council tries very hard to be as open and transparent as possible. But in the end, you get elected to make decisions. You can’t keep deferring while you ask for polls, surveys, reports and hold public meetings. You have to make the decision. The buck, as they say, stops with you.

Council, working with staff, is privy to a different, often deeper and broader, picture that includes information about all departments, projects, staffing matters, costs, demographics, service delivery, facility use and most important of all: budget and taxes. We learn quickly what every decision will cost taxpayers, and how expensive some dreams really are when you need to borrow the money to achieve them (a $35 million loan, for example, translates to more than $49 million over a 20 year debenture and means a 10.12% increase on the average tax bill).

From the outside, it’s easy to second-guess council’s decision because most people only weigh their own interests in the matter, not all of the other things and all the different user groups and residents council has to consider.

I’ve been there: I was in the media covering local politics for a dozen years here. Before I ran for office, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the town ran. I knew the procedures, I knew the staff, I knew the politicians. I sat through hundreds of meetings, I conducted hundreds of interviews. I pontificated weekly on council’s decisions in the media because I thought I knew at least as much as they did, and often knew better.

I was deeply humbled in my first term to realize that I had not fully understood or appreciated how complicated, how demanding, how stressful and how difficult the role often is. I didn’t appreciate how much council has to consider when making a decision, how the interplay between staff and council affects decisions, how information and data can be interpreted or mis-interpreted. I didn’t realize that some decisions were often tough compromises. Later, I apologized to several former politicians for some comments I made in the media during their term.

Anyone who is a resident and meets the requirements of the provincial election act can run for municipal office. Usually about 20 people run for council here. Seven get elected, plus mayor and deputy mayor. These are nine local people – business owners, employees, teachers, retired people, real estate agents, parents, grandparents – they are your neighbours, your relatives, your family; people you will see in the grocery stores, in the bowling alleys, on the golf courses, walking their dogs on local sidewalks, people who went to local schools, or go local churches, have families, shop at the mall, exercise at the Y, donate to local charities. Sometimes people get angry at council and forget that councillors are ordinary, local people, just like they are.

Democracy is best served by a wide range of ideas, experiences, skills, opinions and attitudes. Debate is crucial, so is dissent. That can be emotional and trying. Few people are raised in a work or home environment where debate, argument and intellectual challenge are common. We tend to avoid confrontation. But council is often embroiled in it and it can be acrimonious. For many people, caustic debate is a stressful and anxiety-laden time. That’s why people often choose committee and board work where cooperation is more common than controversy. That’s also why an angry or loud voice can dominate the council table, even bully other council members, because most people don’t want to fight.

Every person on council, even those I disagreed with, or whom I personally disliked, I respect for running for office and accepting the burden that places on us. Every one of them cared passionately and deeply for the community and their causes. I didn’t have to like or agree with them to respect the challenges and stresses we shared. We all ran for office because we cared enough to accept the responsibilities that go with it.

If you want to run for council, as long as you meet the requirements, do so. Here are my caveats and considerations:

Penguin confrontationBe prepared to have your integrity questioned, your honesty assaulted, your best efforts at being fair and open ridiculed, your wisdom and experience deprecated, your credibility and reputation eroded.

Be prepared for you and your decisions to be publicly insulted, ridiculed, dismissed and your sanity questioned. Be prepared to be misunderstood, to have simple mistakes or innocent comments turned into public humiliations, to have off-the-cuff remarks hung around you like an albatross. Be prepared for misinformation and disinformation to be used against you, sometimes deliberately, sometimes maliciously.

And you will make mistakes, trust me. Humans naturally do, but when you are in politics, those mistakes will stay with you. Unlike in your personal life, you won’t be able to take your mistakes back or beg forgiveness. If you wake up the next day and realize you cast the wrong vote, too bad. Live with it. Few people will accept your apologies. The media will dredge out old comments, old quotes, old votes and remind people of your foolishness long after you had forgotten it.

Be prepared to be frustrated by process and procedural rules, to be disappointed that everyone else doesn’t share your enthusiasm for your ideas or initiatives, to be slowed by budgetary realities, and see even simple goals take years to achieve.

Be prepared to trim some of your election promises and your fondest, most fervently-held dreams in order to achieve more modest and more realistic compromises.

Be prepared to have your preconceptions publicly  refuted, your ideas and beliefs overturned, and your core values challenged – and then reported in the media for everyone to see or hear.

Be prepared to swallow your pride and vote for something you don’t like, something you don’t want or agree with, because it’s simply the only viable choice. You will be vilified if you change your stance, and vilified if you don’t.

Be prepared to be lobbied by both individual residents and groups, sometimes relentlessly. People will call you at home, at work, in the middle of the night to talk about issues, argue, denounce and confront you. And a few will also congratulate you.

Sometimes you get so many emails or calls on an issue that just can’t respond to all of them.

You will have to work at the job – reading, learning, asking questions, digging through books, files, records, agendas and minutes. You will have to learn the byzantine rules of procedure, codes of conduct, and read dense laws and bylaws governing your every action.

You will have to learn to be cool, calm and restrain your anger, even when you feel yourself under attack. And you have to learn to let your failures go.

Everything you say or do will become public. Casual jokes, off-hand remarks, personal habits, your dress and appearance, even simply not hearing a comment properly or losing your place in the agenda will be repeated in the media and the coffee shops.

No matter what decision you make, someone will disagree. Someone will be angry at you for it. Someone will think you a fool. Or worse. You will be accused of being underhanded, dishonest, disingenuous, secretive and manipulative. Even if you made the best decision you could, in the most open and transparent manner, even if you believed that your decision was the absolute best for the community and its residents, it will be questioned and attacked by those you failed to please.

Even more frustrating, things you ran on, things you were elected for, things you believed in when you made your decisions, will be challenged, discredited and ridiculed by both the public who elected you and the media when that decision does not meet their post-election expectations.

It will affect your work, your family, your friendships, your recreation time. You will lose friends and customers. You may gain others, but that won’t make the loss hurt any less.

If you have a thick enough skin for that, if you think you can still rise above the tribulations and give it your best effort every meeting, then by all means, run for office. If you win, and it doesn’t grind you down first, you may learn to become patiently philosophical about politics.