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.

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  2. kbj

    I feel strongly that any one who has lived in Collingwood for more then 20 years should not be on council. The old Collingwood…if you don’t have a family member in the cemetery…Club, needs to end as they are stagnant, have no vision and are trying too hard to please to many friends and families. Bring in change, vision and business or your town will die, again. Do you remember what it was like when the ship yards closed it took years to turn this town around and make it a destination for people who want to remain active though out their lives. You have only just started this journey, don’t fall now.

    • First, anyone who remembers the shipyards has been here much more than 20 years.
      Second, do you really think people who have lived here more than 20 years should not be allowed to serve this community through council? Why not? Just because they’re been here that long?
      These are people who have their homes here, their families here, they work here and have businesses here.Their kids go to local schools, play in the local arena, swim at the Y. They attend local churches, eat in local restaurants. They belong to local clubs and associations. You see them downtown, at the mall, on the trails and fairways, at the library.They participate in local events, they surf the local garage sales and ski ther local hills.
      These are people who have spent a good part of their life in Collingwood, investing in it, sharing its ups and downs.
      They know its history and they’ve been here long enough to care about it. They may have sat on boards and committees over the years, so they got to know a bit about how the town works.
      They have experience with the town, and a vested interest in seeing it grow, seeing it be the best it can be, but they also know about taxes because they’ve paid them for the last 20 years.
      They understand that the high-paying jobs of the shipyards and other industries are mostly gone. Their kids have to look elsewhere or settle for lower-paying work. They know that housing prices have risen outside the reach of the salaries here for many people.
      They know their senior neighbours don’t have the money to pay a lot more in taxes, and sometimes struggle to make ends meet on their fixed pensions. A quarter of our population is 65 or older.
      Instead who would you have run the town? Newcomers who moved here last year? People who have a summer or winter place? People who decided to sell their city home and retire here? People who come with money and who don’t care how much their taxes go up?
      Five of us at the table this term are not natives – we moved here, weren’t born here. We’re not the “old Collingwood” but we’ve been here long enough to appreciate and understand the town. We all care passionately and we’re far from stagnant.
      Just look at the rec facilities decision – that was very forward-thinking to consider alternate forms of construction and find a tax-neutral solution to an otherwise impossible problem. And that was the result of creative thinking on the part of people who have for the most part lived here 20 years or more.
      Experience matters. Don’t discard it.

  3. Russ Schick

    Thanks for the post. It should remind us all that our town council is made up of people just like us, doing the best for our town. I’m saddened that you feel constantly under attack, you certainly don’t deserve that.

    Just because there is a protest about the town’s decisions shouldn’t dissuade you from running for council. Try not to take it personally, separate the crude personal attacks, which nobody should condone, from the valid concerns of your electorate.

    You get to make decisions on our behalf, yes. But you need to be able to justify them. Not everyone will agree with your reasoning, or the end decision. But you need to at least be capable of explaining your reasoning.

    Try not to take it personally. Focus on the reasoned debate, address reasonable concerns, and justify your decisions.

  4. Actually, Russ, I don’t feel “constantly under attack.” Merely warning others to be prepared for criticism that is sometimes deep, sometimes angry and sometimes malicious. I have thick skin – calloused from years in the media I suppose – and don’t take it personally. I always try to talk, to explain and to engage people (I’ve been posting my comments and writing blog posts about my political activities online for many years now).

    Most people enter politics because they want to contribute, they want to do good for the community, they want to help bring about positive change. That’s often the same reason people get into the media. Some of them come up through the board and committee process where they are used to working cooperatively towards common goals.

    Representational politics, however, is the place of debate, where discussions can be acrimonious and loud. People take your decisions personally and are often very vocal about their feelings. For some newcomers, this can be unsettling. no one told them that other people would be angry or upset, no one told them that they would be accused of all sorts of malfeasance for doing what they believed was the right thing.

    I’m just trying to help prepare potential candidates. People need to know that no matter what you do or say, no matter what decision you make, someone will not only not like it, but will take some unimagined offence and will express it to you. You can never, ever please everyone. That’s all I was trying to say.

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