Porch Views: Serving the community

Photo: Mark Woermke

For the first time this year, I am enjoying my morning coffee on the porch. It’s pretty quiet on my corner this Saturday morning, but the sun is shining and things look promising for Wilno’s Kashub Day.

I have an excellent view of Bay Street and the Township of Madawaska Valley municipal office. From this vantage point I have watched councillors and mayors of Madawaska Valley Township and the previous municipality of the Village of Barry’s Bay coming and going. I suspect they were too busy with council affairs on top of their family and work commitments to look up the etymology of the word “municipal, but I am confident they understood it deeply. Bob Kulas, Linda Neuman, John Hildebrandt, Phil Conway, Bonnie Mask, David Shulist, Shaun O’Reilly and others put the original Latin meaning of “municipal” into practice:

“service performed for the community

May 1 was the first day for citizens to declare their candidacy for the 2018 municipal election. I wasn’t in the Bay, but I wish I had been on my porch that morning to see who queued up to submit their nomination papers. Maybe there was no one, because ratepayers who are mulling over a possible career in politics have until July 27 to file.

I attended a presentation on April 23 in Renfrew for folks interested in running for their municipal councils. My reason was curiosity. I was hoping to see a few familiar faces from Madawaska Valley, but I think I was the only MV citizen in attendance. That was disappointing because I earnestly hoped to see reasonable and progressive folks rising from our ranks to serve the greater good.

The speaker was Fred Dean, the former solicitor for Sudbury, a trainer for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and one of the partners in Amberly Gavel – a group of former municipal lawyers which provides training for mayors, councillors and staff; closed meeting investigations; and integrity commissioner services for Ontario municipalities. Strangely enough, I had come across his name earlier that very day. While researching the legality of in-camera municipal meetings I discovered that Amberly Gavel had given a report to The Corporation of the Township of Madawaska Valley in 2013 criticizing its penchant for closed meetings.

fred-dean-speaks-in-renfrew-apr-23-2018

Fred Dean speaking in Renfrew April 23 2018   Photo: Mark Woermke

Mr. Dean covered topics such as the scope of local government, municipal powers, accountability and transparency; roles and responsibilities of mayors, councillors and staff; significant changes coming to the Municipal Act vis-à-vis codes of conduct; conflict of interest; and how one’s life changes when elected.  I could write on these topics at considerable length, but I will highlight only three.

Steering Not Rowing

The first topic is the proper relationship between the executive and administrative branches. Mr. Dean made it clear that, according to the Municipal Act, mayors and councillors are required to leave the day-to-day management of the municipality to the CAO and staff. Staff is expected to undertake research, to advise the mayor and council, and to establish administrative practices and procedures in order to carry out Council’s decisions. According to Dean,

Council should steer the boat rather than row it.

I always wondered about this, because some of the municipal councils I monitor get more involved in the details than I ever did in my role as a former director of a board. I wasn’t sure if this was common practice in municipal government, but now I know, definitively, that micromanagement is neither the ideal nor the norm.

The street where you live is off limits

The second consideration is conflict of interest. At every meeting, mayors and councillors have an obligation to declare their pecuniary interests in any matters coming to the table. That means, if appropriate, they must disclose that their participation in a discussion or decision pertaining to the affairs of the municipality might give them some kind of financial advantage or disadvantage. This declaration must be recorded in the minutes and the individual must remove himself or herself from the meeting for that particular item. To clarify this point, Mr. Dean used the example of municipal roads. If work on a street would affect the value of a mayor’s or councillor’s property, that individual must declare a pecuniary interest and be recused. He went on to say that pecuniary interest could be

  • direct (affecting the individual alone) or
  • indirect (affecting the individual’s spouse, parent, child, sibling, cousin, business partner, employer.)

An indirect pecuniary interest could even apply if the elected representative is a member of an association or club that has brought a matter to council.

Currently, if an elector believes an elected representative has a conflict of interest which should have been disclosed, a court action must be initiated at the elector’s expense. After March 2019 ratepayers will be able to make their conflict of interest complaints to municipal integrity commissioners and if the complaints are not frivolous or vexatious, the integrity commissioners will forward them to the courts at no cost to the complainant. Dean expects “a tsunami of requests” to integrity commissioners because

Transparency and accountability are areas where many municipalities struggle.

I imagine that in small, close-knit communities like the Madawaska Valley or some of its neighbours, elected officials have to be particularly scrupulous. In the short term these changes will likely cost municipalities (taxpayers) a lot of money. Ultimately, it is a good thing because by increasing accountability and ethical behaviour, the provincial government protects the interests of taxpayers.

Sacrifices for the Common Good

Despite the rain yesterday and a stop in Wilno to drop off a friend, I made good time on my trip home from the city. Before the wind and the rain, I even had a chance to enjoy a beer on my porch. I saw the Mayor loading bags, likely containing homework for the weekend, into her car which reminded me of Mr. Dean’s comments on the workload of a mayor or councillor. These jobs are 24/7 and life changes dramatically after one is elected. In addition to council meetings, there are committee meetings to attend. According to Dean, it is important for effective and efficient meetings that elected officials are prepared for meetings:

You had better love to read. The expectation is that you have read every single page.

One of the most important considerations for a potential candidate is the impact on privacy and family. When one is elected, or perhaps when one enters a race, he or she is subject to public scrutiny, and folks in the Madawaska Valley excelled at public scrutiny long before Facebook came along. So candidates and their families can expect aggressive conversations, midnight phone calls, gossip, anonymous letters, savage emails, comments on social media and the probing of the press not to mention possible investigations by integrity commissioners and ombuds-persons. Says Mr. Dean,

                                    This job requires total commitment — it will consume you.

Wow. This all sounds daunting, but it didn’t stop the community builders I used to see walking into the town hall back in the day. Al Burant, Dennis Yeretch, John Yakabuski, Mary Blank, Chris Briggs, Willie Serran, Eric Huestis, Ursula Burchat, Roy Woermke, Dr. Joe Cybulski, Hillary Jones, Ron Briggs, Paul Yakabuski, Horace Landon and Henry Chapeskie all met the challenge. So did lots of other folks from the pre-amalgamation municipalities of Radcliffe, and Sherwood Jones and Burns.

Real democracy requires effective leaders, but we can’t have (or don’t deserve) effective leaders if we are not good citizens.

  • Good citizens are informed;
  • Good citizens vote; and
  • Good citizens run for office.

It requires the sacrifice of personal time and privacy, but for the sake of our community, residents who have the necessary qualifications must run. By qualifications I don’t mean the residency, 25 signatures and hundred dollar fee requirements on the nomination form. I mean the vision, empathy, sound judgment, courage, understanding of the community, ability to collaborate, integrity and the desire to maintain the Township of Madawaska Valley as thriving, caring and culturally rich home for all residents.

There are many talented folks in the Madawaska Valley, from Combermere, Wilno, Barry’s Bay and points in between, with these qualifications. They are women, men, retirees, young adults, volunteers, labourers, skilled tradespeople, craftspeople, employees, business people, educators, homemakers, artists, professionals, recent arrivals, folks with deeper roots and people from various cultural backgrounds. If you feel ready, or if your neighbours and colleagues are encouraging you because they see leadership potential in you, please consider running for the offices of mayor or councillor. If you are apprehensive, think of all the citizens who have served us in the past and remember the words of Charlotte Whitton, the Renfrew girl who became Ottawa’s first female mayor:

When one must, one can.

And, someday when I am rocking on my porch, I’ll see you entering the front door of the municipal office.

Mark-Woermke-Porch-Views

About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook. 

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Bernadine Roslyn

    Thanks for this article, Mark. Anyone who runs for municipal council should know this, and all elected councillors and mayors should receive at least a day of compulsory training. Much of the conflict and chaos in MV in recent years would have been avoided if councillors had understood their role better.

    • Mark Woermke

      I hope they do, but this piece is really for the leaders-in-waiting who will share their vision, integrity and hard work to ensure a socially and economically sound future for TMV.

  2. Linda Neuman

    Great article Mark! During my term on council, I attended quite a few workshops put on by Fred Dean. What a wealth of knowledge and he certainly didn’t beat around the bush when answering questions. If he felt that one was micro managing he told you so. I definitely learned a great deal from this man. If a person has four years to give to their municipality being a councillor or mayor it can be a great learning and giving experience. Don’t be afraid, you will be a better person for having done it!

    • Mark Woermke

      He remembered TMV when I spoke to him. Despite promises to reduce the number of closed meetings, the​re still seems to be a considerable amount of business conducted “in-camera.”​

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