BOB'S BLOG: New municipal councillors learn the fine art of staying awake
New municipal councils were sworn in across Ontario last month.
In spite of Mike Harris’s efforts to give us fewer politicians and fewer councils, you wouldn’t classify them as endangered. In Ontario, there are 30 upper-tier and 414 local councils. They range from large ones like Toronto with 45 members representing 2.6-million people to smaller ones like say, Burk’s Falls.
Burk’s Falls, population 967 in 2011, has a Reeve and four councillors who make up a five-person council. Like other municipalities, they have by-laws to regulate cats and dogs, control “hawkers and peddlers,” set fees and punish litterers. The meeting agendas in Burk’s Falls aren't that different from Toronto, really. No one caterwauling “subways, subway, subways,” I suspect. Otherwise, they are pretty similar. They meet on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m., upstairs in council chambers at 172 Ontario Street.
The village has only one member on its new council who is not an incumbent. Jarv(is) Osborne, a 66-year resident of Burk’s Falls, will obviously know a lot about the village and its concerns, particularly as he was clerk for more than 20 years. I’ll bet even he will be surprised at the heap of reports he needed to read over the holiday season to get up to speed. I doubt things have changed much from my rookie Councillor days.
That was back in 1991. June Rowlands became was the new mayor of Toronto and I was attending new Councillor Training School in North York. Our teacher, a 15-year veteran of Metro Toronto Council, told us to keep track of how we voted on each issue because we would never remember later on. (He was right.) He warned against health problems brought on as a result of too much sitting and listening in meetings. He professed to having logged in excess of 50 sitting and listening hours the one week he bothered to keep track. (He was right about that too.)
Counselling is not just sitting though. In addition, councillors need to pay attention, or at least give the perception they are paying attention. One veteran councillor once disclosed his secret to this rookie. The secret, that you can indeed listen with your eyes closed, was one “skill” I was never able to master. And, frankly, the veteran councillor hadn’t mastered it either as I learned over the years.
As far as I’m aware, Burk’s Falls, Toronto and other municipalities all welcome citizens to come on down and delegate.
Delegations bring their own experience, expertise and perspectives.
There are at least three kinds of delegates. I have given them names.
There is Gracie Noll.Gracie worries a lot. She worries that budgets are just part of some large conspiracy to hide information from the public. With others, she shares the absurd, but common, perception that if you can't read about it in the local rag then City Hall is involved in some sort of cover up.
Tex Burden will be at most council meetings too. Tex reminds councillors that all levels of government have been piling on people like him for years. Tex waxes nostalgic about the good old days. Armed with half-baked Fraser Institute analysis, Tex apparently uses no public services. He wants to be left alone.
Juan Issue speaks as well. Nothing wrong with expressing an interest in one particular program or service or pointing out an oversight or lack of consistency in policy or program implementation. In fact, councillors often gain new insights into matters in which they are not well versed by Juan Issue.
Mainly that is because councillors are typically quite well versed, or should I say tutored, by their good friends from the development business. As someone once said, municipal politics is all about real estate.
Hugh Gains, tonight’s delegation from this world, will make certain that this reality is not lost on council.
All this being said, I have a lot of respect for those elected officials who toil long hours in service to their community. Good luck to them.
Bob Wood is a housing and poverty advocate and former two-term Burlington City Councillor who has built a bed-and-breakfast with his wife on Lake Erie. He is on Twitter at @timberwood24.