Six Awesome Reasons to Run for Municipal Office
By: Danielle Klooster of Danikloo Consulting
After the astonishing readership given to my last blog post, Five Terrible Reasons to Run for Municipal Office, I feel compelled to spend some time discussing what I believe to be the right reasons to step up to the plate.
Here are my top six awesome reasons to run for municipal office:
1) You care deeply about your community and want to make a positive impact.
Perhaps this sounds cheesy and a wee bit Pollyanna, but I really and truly believe that this ought to be a candidate’s number one motivator. To be honest, I know far too many elected officials who run with more of a “Pinky and The Brain” plan (world domination) than consuming passion and appreciation for their community.
It ought to go without saying, but you are not elected to gain (and then maintain) personal power; you are elected to serve. Your love for your community and your commitment to do your part to improve it will see you through many tough times.
And trust me,.. there WILL be tough times.
2) You have proven leadership experience.
Yes, it’s true that democracy is (ostensibly) structured so that any person, regardless of educational or socio-economic status, can run or office. I support this concept. But – and it’s a big but – serving on municipal council is not tic tac toe. As a Member of Council you are tasked with some enormous responsibility, even in a small community. This responsibility is not to be entered into lightly.
Before you choose to run for an elected position, I suggest you serve on a community board, and do some volunteer work. Build your network and your credibility. As Henry Ford said, “You cannot build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” If you haven’t served your community as a volunteer, you haven’t earned the right to ask it to elect you to a paid position. Prove what kind of leader you are in advance of asking for the job.
3) You’ve done your homework.
I’ll never forget the day I attended my first Council orientation, a few days after being elected. George Cuff was doing his regular brilliant job of candidly informing Councillors of what they’d signed on for, and many of the newly elected were unable to hide their “deer in the headlights” expression. One person actually took me aside and said, “Danielle! Do you think it’s true? Does being on Council really involve so much time??”
Oy. This is why you’re given a nomination package before you make your decision. It tells you these sorts of things. Read it. Like, ahead of nomination day.
But don’t stop there. Read minutes, reports, newspaper editorials, blog posts, public commentaries, and, most importantly, the Municipal Government Act! Attend council meetings, public hearings and open houses. Ask current and former Councillors if you can interview them. And or goodness’ sake, before you take a position on an issue, get as much background information (from as many points of view) as possible. Don’t make yourself look silly and/or perpetuate misinformation and ignorance by opining without the facts.
If you’re going to be an effective Councillor, you’re going to do everything in your power to make informed, constructive decisions.
If you’re a good citizen, you want voters to be properly informed too.
4) You are prepared to be part of a team.
This is a biggie. Whether you intend to become Mayor or Councillor, you are asking to join a team. You are there to make a contribution, and you should definitely do that. But you have one vote and a duty to make decisions.
At the Council table, you have five basic functions:
– Inform yourself
– Carefully consider the information, opinions, and positions of your fellow Councillors and administration
– Accept the decision of the group
You’re not there to be the official opposition – there’s no such thing in municipal politics. If you are there for the right reasons, you care more about making good progress for your community than you do about the public’s perception, your voting record, or grandstanding to score popularity points. Councils have to make some tough decisions at times that people may not understand or like. You have a responsibility to engage citizens and consider their input, absolutely. But you still need to do the right thing, even if it’s not popular. A note to voters: just say no to seat-warmers and lone rangers.
5) You’re a long-term thinker, prepared to build for the future.
Perhaps as many as half of your decisions on Council will be to lay the foundations for things you won’t be around to see come to fruition. Even the immediate and seemingly short-term decisions you make can have lasting consequences. If you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and live-for-the-moment type of person, it’s unlikely that Council is the place for you. It’s not so much about action-packed excitement; it’s more about developing good policy and keeping the poop flowing through the pipes.
6) You can remain committed to serving the community and doing what you believe is best, no matter what.
We end where we began. In fact, you may have noticed that it’s kind of a running theme through this post: be fully committed. Love your community. Never forget that you are a steward of the public trust, and that you took an oath to act in the public interest.
Good leaders – as opposed to good politicians – are willing to sacrifice personal gain for the good of the community.
It’s entirely likely that you will be criticized and perhaps even maligned. For some reason, some people have this odd belief that as soon as a person becomes a public figure, it’s okay to heap upon them personal insults and engage in sometimes vicious character assassination. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you need to be prepared — it could happen to you. If you can’t speak to people in a respectful manner when they’re being completely ill-mannered toward you… if you can’t stay the course in the face of conflict and criticism… you should reconsider your candidacy.
Don’t get me wrong: most people are really decent. They are thinking people, reasonable people, supportive people. Their engagement and encouragement, along with your personal satisfaction in a job well done, makes it all worthwhile. But if you think it’s all going to be sunshine and roses and everyone is just going to love you all the time, you’re going to have a very difficult time.
Don’t be discouraged by the challenges I mention. If you reflect on this list and can honestly say that all, or even most, of this list accurately represents your motives for throwing your hat into the ring, you’re on the right track. You’re going to be a good Councillor.
Five Terrible Reasons to Run for Municipal Office
By: Danielle Klooster of Danikloo Consulting
Ever wonder what motivates a person to run for municipal council? It seems that, in many Alberta communities this year, there are a record number of candidates for Council, as well as many mayoral hopefuls. I’ve heard a lot of different reasons for why people choose to run, many of them misguided and some even mendacious. Here are my top five bad reasons to run:
1) “People are ready for change!”
Newsflash: everyone says that, every election. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s just perception. Often times, when voters go behind that screen, they get a bit scared of change (which is natural) and they go for the known quantity.
That aside, it is my opinion that you just plain need a better reason to run. If the best you can do is “Hey, I’m new!”… I mean, come on. You need to understand budgets, financial statements, water, sewer, garbage, road construction, residential/commercial/industrial development, the role of governance, Inter-municipal relations, by-laws, social and economic development and more.
Have you done your homework on this stuff? Do you have INFORMED positions? Do you have proven leadership experience? Have you ever even sat on a board? As a voter I need to know about what qualifies you for the job and what you stand for. Simply representing “change” is woefully inadequate.
Furthermore, as of the day you are sworn in, you officially cease being “change” and become part of the institution —it’s what you’re signing up for. And if you think that folks are magically going to like you better than the last group, think again. The moment you sit down to the council table, you officially become “them”.
This I promise.
2) “I’m going to clean house!”
Uh, no you’re not.
If you envision yourself walking into the municipal office and 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. And even if you get a new guy, you still don’t have the right to manage the municipality. Besides, removal would take a majority vote of Council and would cost the rate payers 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 effect if you get elected).
3) “I’m going to fix the [insert pet peeve such as snow removal/pot holes/bike lanes] situation!”
Another very misguided statement that reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how councils function.
It’s an interesting dichotomy, of course, since candidates run as individuals but then have to work as a team, once elected, in order to get anything accomplished.
The truth of the matter is that you have NO POWER outside of council chambers. Even around the council table, your power extends only to the amount of influence you can leverage during debate, and to your (ONE) vote. I would add that, while it’s true that you have no power outside of chambers, you are ALWAYS a representative of the municipality.
You ought never overstep your bounds or ram through your personal agenda. You have a responsibility to consider all matters related to the strategic and fiscal direction of your municipality, and your job, as one member of a team, is to find ways to work together to make wise, informed, responsible decisions for the benefit of all. You are one of a group of decision-makers; no more, no less.
You won’t have the ability to unilaterally wave a magic wand and fix all of the potholes (though people will think you can).
When you make promises you can’t keep, you perpetuate the stereotype of politician. So stop it.
4) “We have to get rid of the current corrupt/secretive/self-serving/incompetent bunch!”
Ah, the ever popular “anti” campaign… this tactic, sadly, is often successful. It resonates with coffee klatches 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. Any ideas on what that will be? No? Hmmm, that’s really sad. It’s sad because you have a whole bunch of really important decisions in front of you; stuff that was already in motion, that the previous council (that you thought was so useless) was working hard to deliberate over and consider 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.
5) “I’m going to make lowering taxes my number one priority!”
This may well be the most irresponsible thing I hear come from the mouths of candidates. If all you want to do is find ways to save people money, then let’s abolish property taxes right now and we can all go home. After all, what’s the point of even having taxes if the only thing we care about is not spending any money?
My point is this: yes, fiscal accountability and responsible spending are very, very important. And no one likes paying taxes, me included. But the number one responsibility of the councillor is NOT fiscal responsibility — it is rather to build community infrastructure for future generations.
Shame on you if in 5, 10 or 25 years there is no water or sewer capacity or the roads are falling to pieces or there are insufficient playgrounds and recreation opportunities because you were busy pinching pennies.
Ultimately, there are good councillors and bad councillors in every community. Some mayors and councillors who should never be in office do get elected, and sometimes people are justifiably upset by actions and decisions. I get that. But I have yet to see a municipal council – at least in this province – that is a wholly evil empire. But, to the voter: can we at least agree to make informed decisions at the polls, instead of vilifying the entire group without, in many cases, even a basic understanding of the role, the decisions, the full story? How about those critical thinking skills, gang?
Why should you actually run for Council? You should run because you wish to serve your community, to provide good leadership, to plan and build for the future. You should run because you have a contribution to make, ideas to be shared, passion that won’t abate and a commitment to do the right thing no matter what. You should run if you understand that you will have to sacrifice popularity and family time, and that you will have to sometimes make decisions that benefit the community as a whole but don’t benefit you personally. You should run if you want a better future for your grandchildren, and your grandchildren’s grandchildren.
If any of the five terrible reasons I mentioned frame up your election campaign, take heart; it’s not too late. You can withdraw from the race now and free up a seat for people with the right motivation. Or you can reflect on your intentions and set a new course with a commitment to serve your community for the all the right reasons.