What is a councillor’s role?


A question was asked of me recently about the appropriateness of the Deputy Mayor being at a meeting last summer to discuss the possible purchase of the new recreational facility structures. From the question I inferred that the asker did not approve of a politician being there.

I disagree, and made my point that it was appropriate. It was hardly a secret meeting – it included numerous staff, plus the acting CAO. And the DM was invited to attend by staff, not the other way around.

First,  the DM is both chair of the budget process and council’s liaison with the Works Department. Who on council would be more appropriate to have at that meeting?

The DM would know and understand the fiscal challenges and opportunities better than any other member because of his history guiding the budget process every year. Plus as Works liaison, he knows what other projects are underway and being contemplated – and how they have to be coordinated with staff in planning and parks, recreation and culture, what services and resources are necessary and available.

The DM alone can’t direct staff – it takes a majority (usually at least at least five members) of council to do that. The proposal as staff determined it had to come to council for approval and confirmation. The DM could hear the arguments pro and con, and raise questions and concerns so that at least the presenters might be able to prepare for possible questions or objections from the table. Staff can make sure these salient points get included in any presentation.

In that way, council might avoid the sort of hour-long round-robin discussion we had about the proposed dog park (much of which seemed to revolve around questions about the choice of base material in the park). That meandering debate ended up going nowhere because staff were unprepared to answer the questions raised at the table.

Having someone to suggest possible objections or questions can streamline the process and make it more efficient. We have no need to return to the often indecisive and divisive five- and six-hour meetings of last term.

Second, as the council member who asked staff to look into the structures, the DM would be the one to present any motion to the table. Isn’t it appropriate that he learn all the sides, all the issues, understand the costs and the complexities, before presenting it to the table? You can’t defend what you don’t understand (or at least you shouldn’t try to). See the notes from the Municipal Act, below.

Third, politicians are elected to lead. Not to rubber stamp staff’s ideas or proposals. We should be meeting with staff, with the private sector, with residents, looking for ideas, opportunities and challenges trying to uncover solutions, partnerships and innovations. We have a larger role outside the table than is seen in our Monday night meetings. Our work at the table is only the tip of the iceberg of work we do. Or should do.

We are not elected to sit at home, in some cocoon, avoiding any contact with the outside world. We need to be active and engaged, if we are to champion or challenge issues. A good politician is one who is actively engaged, not just passive.  We are part of the process, not separate from it.  We are expected to use our own judgment in these situations.

To be able to do our job properly and effectively, we need to get all the input we can garner, to hear people’s ideas and concerns, discuss their projects, discuss the implications with staff. As long as there is no overriding legal issue – such as a potential breach of confidentiality or a liability concern – not to meet with our constituents and with staff is a failure to perform our roles.

Politicians have to get involved, get their feet wet. We can’t sit on the sidelines. But we are not dictators who rule by autocratic decree. We need input from the people who have to implement our decisions in order to accomplish our goals – and the way to get that input is to meet with them.

So, yes, it was appropriate. It’s almost always appropriate that council meet with staff and the public to discuss upcoming issues, motions, initiatives and projects because we were elected to represent the populace and we can’t do it without being engaged.


Ontario’s Municipal Act says:

224. It is the role of council,

  • to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality
  • to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality
  • to determine which services the municipality provides
  • to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council
  • (d.1) to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality
  • to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality and
  • to carry out the duties of council under this or any other act.”

The provincial guide for this section goes on  (emphasis added):

On the one hand, you were elected by your constituents to represent their views as closely as possible when dealing with issues that come before council. However, your constituents have many views and opinions, and you cannot represent all of them all of the time.

On the other hand, election to office requires you to have a broader understanding of the issues. With many issues you will have to consider a variety of conflicting interests and make decisions that will not be popular with everyone.

You should use your judgment and decide based on the best interests of the municipality as a whole. In practice, there is no single, correct approach to the representative role and on most issues you may find that you fall somewhere between the two opposing viewpoints. You will quickly develop a case-load of citizen inquiries that will need to be investigated and, if possible, resolved. You may attract these inquiries because of your background and interests, or because of the issues in your particular ward if your municipality operates with a ward structure.

Understandably, you will want to try to help your constituents. However, be sure to familiarize yourself with any policies or protocols that your municipality may have in place regarding the handling of complaints and citizen inquiries. Although you may want to find some way of helping, remember to consult municipal staff.

and (emphasis added)…

To assist staff in meeting council’s expectations, council could:

  • Have a policy requiring comprehensive job descriptions for all staff that specify individual duties and responsibilities.
  • Provide clear policy decisions and directions.
  • Develop policies in an open and consistent manner.
  • Adopt policies that complement and reinforce staff efforts to improve administrative operations.
  • Consult with staff before deciding on policies and programs.
  • Direct that orientation be provided to new staff.
  • Establish a staff training and development policy.

As a councillor, you can also assist staff by:

  • Making yourself aware of the full range of duties and responsibilities of staff.
  • Preparing for council meetings (reviewing the agenda, talking to staff about the history and background of issues, and knowing your constituents’ situations and concerns).

Saskatchewan’s provincial government site says this about the role of municipal councillors. It applies equally in Ontario :

Council members’ individual responsibilities can be broken as follows:

  • Representation and Accountability. A councillor’s responsibility is to serve the people who elected them to office. A councillor should engage regularly with the public to take into account the views and concerns of all members of a community when voting on matters of concern.
  • Governance. Municipal council is responsible for shaping the future of the municipality by implementing new policy, by-laws and community goals. Many decisions that council makes are the result of extensive community consultation, research and advice from community members and groups. It is important for council to remember that they must represent the people who voted them to office. Failure to do so may result in a limited term in office.
  • Management. Members of council are generally responsible for ensuring that municipal staff follows through on the policies, priorities and direction that council has set forth. Council members should also expect to be active members of committees and boards in the community to ensure that they possess the required knowledge to pass on to council.

Alberta includes this:

  • To consider the welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole and, to bring to council’s attention anything that would promote the welfare or interests of the municipality
  • To participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality
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  1. Pingback: What we have here is a failure to communicate… | MorganIanAdams.com

  2. Mr. Adams points to the Bellamy report in his blog, but it is irrelevant here.
    That report was about council involvement in the procurement process (specifically in Toronto).
    However, since there was no procurement approved when the meeting in question took place, and there was no way to predict whether the proposal would be approved, it does not apply here.
    This was simply an information meeting to determine what should/must be presented to council for its debate and decision. This was after the DM had made a request (and council approved by vote) for staff to investigate Sprung buildings.
    The procurement decision did not come for another month.

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