COLUMN: Election alert!

Donna Macdonald has some advice for people thinking of running for municipal office…

It’s hard to believe, but municipal elections are just a year away. And if the past three years are any indication, October 20, 2018, will be here in a flash.

The provincial government made two changes a few years back. One was moving local government elections from the third Saturday in November to the third Saturday in October. No more slogging through snow to vote. Hopefully. The second change was the move to four-year terms.

You may think it’s a bit early to be thinking about this, but it’s not. Not for citizens, potential candidates or for currently elected officials.

For the latter, it’s an important time of assessment. Either as individuals or as a collective, councils should be casting a glance back. What’s been accomplished in the past three years? It’s likely less than expected, not through lack of trying but just because nothing is simple in government.

Most councillors start off with great intentions and dreams, and at this three-year mark they may feel a bit disappointed. Some careful reflection on the course of events is needed, not reactive blame (such as, the mayor is so obstructive or staff aren’t doing their jobs).

But more important is the look ahead to the last year of the term. What do I/we want to focus on? What should be started and what can be finished? At some point next year, the pre-election silly season will begin, when thoughts of voters and election strategies start inserting themselves into decisions and discussions. Then things can get really slow, and strange.

Citizens too may want to do an assessment of their council. Are they on track to create the kind of community you want? If not, who’s missing at the table? Is there someone you want to encourage to run? How will you support them?

And, of course, anyone considering running for office (except for incumbents, perhaps) has some prep to do. If you’re really serious about being a government leader, you have a lot to learn.

The sooner you get started, the better your chances at the polls and the more quickly you’ll be effective if elected.

What might you do? Well, meet Sally who’s thinking about running for council. She decides to attend some meetings to see what it’s all about.

And, whether she can endure hours of sitting in meetings! Sally has seen people run for office without ever attending a council meeting; she thinks that’s crazy.

Realizing these formal meetings are only part of the job, Sally decides to spring for a couple cups of coffee. She identifies a councillor she generally agrees with and one she doesn’t, and invites them for coffee (or maybe a soul-calming or energy-activating herbal tea). She uses the opportunity to grill them about the job, with curiosity and respect of course.

Sally knows she can’t (or shouldn’t) rely on friends, rumours and social media for information, and watches the local media for stories and analysis on City Hall. She finds some but never enough. She notices that council members don’t always use the space offered to them by the newspaper to write columns. She misses this insight into council life and work.

City websites should offer a lot of information, Sally thinks, but she finds both frustration and fulfillment as she explores various ones. Luckily, the City of Nelson has launched a new website and noodling around that gives Sally lots of info.

She learns about city governance and administration, about council priorities and the committees she could volunteer for. She’s fascinated by all the city services, from animal control to utilities. Sally even finds interactive maps to play with, and a long list of bylaws to read on nights when sleep eludes her.

Sally signs up for city notifications of council meetings, garbage collection, and power outages (and much more). Now she feels more connected.

In her online explorations, Sally runs across the Local Government Leadership Academy, which provides leadership development for local government officials. The LGLA has abundant resources on its website, on topics from community engagement to local government law to work-life balance. Oh, so much to learn.

With all that, Sally’s well on her way to being the best informed candidate ever! But she still feels like she doesn’t yet understand the reality of the job, what it really feels like. She seeks out Randy Diehl’s book Serving with Pride in the Public Eye, about his experience as Kamloops’ city manager. And for the view from the elected side of the table, she checks out my book, Surviving City Hall.

Running for office is not a lark, nor is the job ahead of you should you be elected. If you want to be a successful community leader, you need to prepare and educate yourself. Just like Sally.

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.

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