Former councillors tell all

Representing your neighbours as a municipal official is a big responsibility so it’s useful to check out former councillors’ personal experience when you consider running for office. The Current spoke with past members of municipal councils, both in Madawaska Valley and elsewhere in Renfrew County, to get a flavour of what it’s really like.

Our sources are both residents of Madawaska Valley. Linda Neuman ran two campaigns and served as a member of council 2010-2014. Mark Willmer campaigned in MV in 2014, after having served as a councillor for the Town of Arnprior for 21 years. Willmer also worked as a municipal employee in a different municipality when he was on the Arnprior council.

Why run for office?
Deciding to run is a personal choice. Neuman says,

I used to say, Why did they do this? Why wouldn’t they do that? Someone said to me, Run for Council and find out why. So I did. And I did find out.

What’s it like to campaign?
Willmer, who started his career as a municipal employee at the Arnprior Recreation Department, contrasted running for office in Arnprior with his 2014 campaign here in MV.

It was very different running here than in Arnprior where I knew everyone. It’s much more isolated in many areas. Arnprior’s a lot easier to do a campaign in. Here you’re driving all over the place. But I enjoyed running and it was certainly a challenge.

Neuman puts a personal spin on it.

I hated to campaign… So before I started I said a little prayer, “OK Lord I’m going to do the best job I possibly can with campaigning because you know how I feel about doing this, but it’ll be what it’ll be. If I get in, fine, I was meant to get in and if I don’t, that’s OK too.”

Do you need training to be a councillor?
There’s lots of help available for prospective candidates and newly-elected municipal officials. Neuman said she attended every session she could, both for new councillors and for the areas she chaired (finance and human resources). Willmer recommends that councillors take advantage of the opportunities presented by Municipal Affairs. He said,

As soon as you’re elected your first time, you’ll get mail from them congratulating you and telling you where the new councillor training sessions are. There’s always training and upgrading there.

Although both recommended the training and said how much they gained from it, neither could confirm that all their colleagues on council attended the courses.

What will the neighbours say?
Neuman chuckles,

The worst thing is, I found out about people. Some you thought are really nice people and then when you’re on council they treat you differently. That first time we went to the new councillor workshop, the first thing they told us was certain people in the community and some of your friends are going to look at you differently. Don’t feel bad about it. It always happens.
And I thought, Oh, you’re crazy. But it did.
I remember campaigning when this gentleman came up to me and said, “If I vote for you what are you going to do for me?” And I said, “I’m going to do the best job that I possibly can for the Township of Madawaska Valley. But for you personally I can’t promise you anything because I’m only one vote and one person and I wouldn’t make a promise I can’t keep.”

Willmer says,

I remember somebody saying to me once, Wow, [it is] going to be great to have you as a neighbour. And I said, you know it’s probably not; it’s probably the opposite – because I will declare conflicts. I will not vote on something which I may normally if I didn’t live on the street. I may agree with you that it needs paving, but because I live on the street I’m not going to be voting.

He continues,

Even when they are bidding on the paving, because you live on that road you should be declaring a conflict of interest when they are discussing that road potentially as one that should be paved.
It’s in the act. You’re always taught, if anything, to err on the side of caution. So there were a number of times that, just because I knew somebody or knew something about it, I would declare a conflict.

What’s it really like on council?
The Municipal Act requires the mayor to lead the council and the CAO to lead the municipal staff. Willmer has been on both sides, simultaneously, and said,

The CAO heads the administration. Council and the Mayor are there to govern. So it is two groups that need to work together.
You’re always going to have different opinions on council, which you should. And they may not always be the best at working together. However, with strong leadership generally you should be able to hold it together. You may have a totally different opinion but at the end of the day we are all discussing things positively together and trying to come to solutions.

Neuman said,

You find out very quickly you are just one vote. It is very important to always be prepared. Reading your agenda, finding out background material, speaking with staff are all part of preparing yourself to make an informed decision. You have to be able to support your decision in order for people to understand why you vote the way you do. Being a councillor is a commitment to your municipality, a commitment for four years, 24/7.

How about dealing with municipal staff?
Willmer experienced it from both sides. He reported to Nepean council as a staff member in that municipality (in a different region) while he was a councillor in Arnprior with staff reporting back to council. He said,

You quickly learn as a councillor that you need to rely [on] and trust your staff. Your staff are the ones you’ve hired, presumably with more money than you’re paying your council members, to be the subject experts. The councillor is not. A councillor is somebody who has a political interest and probably is interested in their community, but has just a general knowledge.

Neuman agrees.

Staff are your best resource. I was an elementary school teacher and finances were not my strong suit. I had a very good teacher on staff who would take the time to explain in great detail so I would understand, sometimes more than once. Staff know the history of the municipality and what policies and bylaws are in place.

What about the time commitment – don’t meetings last forever?
Willmer answers,

When the frustration is the length of the meetings, you need to follow the Municipal Act and the regulations. We used to always have a cut-off. Then at 10 o’clock if it’s still going, the meeting will be adjourned and it will have to continue another day.

Want to know more?
Ask your municipal Clerk for details aboutwhat you need to run for office. Municipal Affairs has published guides for candidates, voters and third party advertisers, available online http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/Page219.aspx

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