Time and conflicts in mayoral politics

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No time?Being a mayor today, even in a small town like Collingwood, takes time. A lot of time. Time that working people are hard pressed to find in their busy days. I know from the experience of three terms that even councillors who work cannot attend every meeting, every event, every activity they are invited to.

Mayors have to be on call, doing town business and dealing with residents’ calls during every day, and many, many evenings. Even on weekends they have little to no free time outside their mayoral duties.

They have to attend meetings with staff, with residents, local associations, with developers and businesses, and be at the county and on county committees often several times a week. There are also the extras – meetings with school boards or provincial representatives and politicians, even ministers and their staff. Plus there are the additional boards and committees a committed mayor will join – such as the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative that our current mayor chairs.

And then there are the frequent social demands: visits to seniors’ homes, cutting ribbons at business openings, giving congratulations in person for fiftieth wedding anniversaries and 100th birthdays, the mayor’s levee, Legion events and so on. There are the regular media interviews, radio shows and TV broadcasts, too.

All in all, it adds up to more than a full-time job, even though it’s only paid as a part-time effort. It’s very demanding to be the mayor today. A part-time person cannot effectively fulfill that role nor fully represent the town or the council.

We need someone who can do the job without having to beg off from municipal duties to attend to work or to leave town hall to go skiing during budget meetings (yes, that did happen this term!). We need someone who can’t beg off their mayoral responsibilities because they’re “too busy” elsewhere. Someone who doesn’t have to choose between personal work (or play) and representing and attending to the community. Someone who can be called up at all hours and every day to perform those tasks.

We need someone who has the time to live up to the requirement in the Code of Conduct to educate himself by attending workshops and seminars. We need someone who can take off afternoons or sometimes several days to attend conferences like AMO (where municipal representative get to speak with ministers and their staff) without being pressured by employers not to attend, or to cut it short to get back to work.

One of the reasons retirees and seniors tend to get involved in municipal politics is because they have the time to dedicate to an increasingly-demanding job. But it’s also because we want to put a lifetime’s experience to use. We want to apply what we’ve learned in both careers and personal life. And we have the time to do so.

Even deputy mayors have demands on their time that are above and beyond any daily working role. When mayors cannot attend events or meetings, it is usually the deputy-mayor who gets called on to fill in.

Doesn’t Collingwood deserve a mayor and a deputy-mayor who are accessible, available and who can participate fully in the town’s business?

The other main issue when considering a mayoral candidate is conflict of interest. Anyone working who also gets elected faces a potential conflict when certain issues arise. It doesn’t have to be a direct pecuniary interest for a conflict to be present – at least an ethical one. In a small town like Collingwood, where many events and activities and people are connected and related, it is even harder to avoid some sort of relationship that has the potential to be a conflict of interest.

I believe real estate agents, for example, should (if they work for a local firm) step away from EVERY discussion regarding the purchase or sale of town property. Similarly, I believe lawyers employed locally should step away from EVERY discussion regarding legal issues. Not because these people personally have a pecuniary interest in the matter at that moment, but because these discussions may at some point involve companies that are competitors. And because these politicians may be privy to confidential information that could later affect their firms or their clients. And also because the optics of having them present in these discussions can bring up questions of ethics and credibility.

Perhaps my moral compass pulls too strongly towards ethics and public perception, but there are a lot of meetings and discussions about property and legal issues at council every term that have the potential to raise conflicts, both direct and indirect. This term alone, there were more than 50 closed-door meetings council about selling our public assets, and many about hiring (sole-sourced) lawyers.

Ask yourself if you think there might be an issue or conflict when a mayor or deputy mayor is asked to attend a meeting with developers about a proposed (but not yet public) subdivision. Isn’t it possible that a lawyer or a real estate agent may later be involved in property sales in that development, or whose firms could benefit from fore-knowledge of impending sales? Wouldn’t it be better to elect someone with no potential conflicts, beholden to no company or business, and with no potential conflict over sales? Someone who can participate in such meetings without the suggestion of ethical impropriety?

Would a lawyer or a real estate agent be able to look on development issues from the perspective of the greater good of the community? Or would they be biased towards potential profits from sales and transactions and corporate advantage?

And if, say, that lawyer or that real estate agent acted ethically and did not attend those meetings or any later council discussions about them – who WOULD represent the community in them? Again I ask: wouldn’t it be better to elect people with no conflicts who could do the town’s business and represent the community at large? Who CAN attend those meetings on your behalf?

After all, we taxpayers pay the mayor’s and deputy-mayor’s salaries – is it unreasonable to think they should be ABLE to do the job to its full and proper extent, for all the hours demanded of them, and not be paid to excuse themselves over any number of potential conflicts? Or should we pay them to stand aside and do nothing when the business of the town requires their presence?

Your choices this election are candidates with no time and potential conflicts or those with time and no conflicts. Who you rather elect: those who can put their full time and effort into the job or part-timers who must put their work ahead of their community?

~~~~~
PS. Seniors also good choices because, as Cicero wrote in De Senectute (On Old Age), we have gone past the hot-headed passions of youth but retain virtue and wisdom. In his book Cicero wrote:

…the most suitable defences of old age are the principles and practice of the virtues, which, if cultivated in every period of life, bring forth wonderful fruits at the close of a long and busy career, not only because they never fail you even at the very end of life — although that is a matter of highest moment — but also because it is most delightful to have the consciousness of a life well spent and the memory of many deeds worthily performed.

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