Suc­cess in pol­i­tics: This is more than a pop­u­lar­ity con­test

The Glengarry News - - The Opinion Page - -- Richard Ma­honey, richard@glen­gar­rynews.ca

An un­usu­ally large field of can­di­dates is vy­ing for the hearts, minds and votes of elec­tors in North and South Glen­garry lead­ing up to the Oc­to­ber 22 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions. In their at­tempts to win this pop­u­lar­ity con­test, can­di­dates try to ap­peal to all of the vot­ers as they kiss hands, shake ba­bies and ham­mer to­gether pleas­ing plat­forms. Seek­ing votes is sim­ple; the re­sults are tan­gi­ble; you win or you lose. The hard part re­ally be­gins when suc­cess­ful hope­fuls are sworn in and un­der­take roles that do not have pre­cise ob­jec­tives and of­fer re­wards that are neb­u­lous.

Elected po­si­tions can be com­plex and de­mand­ing, de­pend­ing on how much time and ef­fort rep­re­sen­ta­tives want to com­mit to their jobs.

If one be­lieves the en­cour­ag­ing words that were used to urge the as­pi­rants to en­ter the arena, be­ing elected to pub­lic of­fice is an op­por­tu­nity to rep­re­sent the peo­ple, to make a dif­fer­ence and to up­hold the tenets of democ­racy.

Speed-read­ing is a def­i­nite as­set, ac­cord­ing to the ad­vice mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and school boards of­fer to would-be mem­bers, who should be open-minded and po­lite team play­ers and quick stud­ies. The du­ties seem to be daunt­ing. Guides posted by mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties stress that coun­cil mem­bers can expect to ab­sorb agenda pack­ages rang­ing from 50 to 200 pages in length, han­dle phone calls at any time, expect drop-ins, and at­tend com­mit­tee and coun­cil meet­ings.

South Glen­garry’s primer in­cludes tips on how elected of­fi­cials are to co­op­er­ate with em­ploy­ees in or­der to en­sure a mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s image does not suf­fer. “A good work­ing re­la­tion­ship fos­ters trust between the lo­cal govern­ment and its res­i­dents,” the town­ship notes on its web page.

Noth­ing ruins a mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s rep­u­ta­tion like a pub­lic spat between politi­cians and ap­pointed of­fi­cials. Thus, it is best for ev­ery­one to have clearly de­fined job de­scrip­tions.

As ev­ery­one knows, the elected are sup­posed to, among other things, “main­tain the fi­nan­cial in­tegrity of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity and to carry out the du­ties of Coun­cil un­der the Mu­nic­i­pal Act, 2001 and any other Act.” Mem­bers can also set pri­or­i­ties and con­sider the in­ter­ests of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, speak for the masses, etc., etc.

Un­der the “What Staff Ex­pects of Coun­cil” head­ing, mem­bers are to be­come fa­mil­iar with mu­nic­i­pal or­ga­ni­za­tions and op­er­a­tions, do home­work be­fore meet­ings, be sup­port­ive, do not crit­i­cize staff in pub­lic, ap­pre­ci­ate the de­mands of the job, in­clud­ing statu­tory re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, be ob­jec­tive, con­sis­tent in ap­ply­ing poli­cies, give clear di­rec­tion as to what is to be done but leave some dis­cre­tion as to how it is to be done. There are also ref­er­ences to re­spect­ing and rec­og­niz­ing pro­fes­sional obli­ga­tions, “the or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture and its in­her­ent re­port­ing hi­er­ar­chy.”

Em­ploy­ees do not expect the elected to au­to­mat­i­cally rub­ber-stamp ev­ery rec­om­men­da­tion that is pre­sented to mem­bers, but an obe­di­ent, well-trained coun­cil sure does ex­pe­dite mat­ters, and ev­ery­thing runs smoothly when the in­her­ent re­port­ing hi­er­ar­chy is re­spected.

We expect prom­ises

Ar­dour for pol­i­tics can be dra­mat­i­cally di­min­ished the more one peers into the many lay­ers of gover­nance.

Yet, we must hope that there is still room in the Process for the wide- eyed and bushy-tailed zealots who vow to do things dif­fer­ently, “to speak truth to power,” to make govern­ment more ac­count­able and trans­par­ent.

Hey, peo­ple can dream. That is why vot­ers expect can­di­dates to make prom­ises, some of which are even re­al­is­tic. Ratepay­ers an­tic­i­pate be­ing fed plat­forms that are built on pledges of bet­ter ser­vices, lower taxes and more vi­sions.

Yet there are lim­its.

For in­stance, peo­ple seek­ing a school board trustee seat should have some aware­ness of the le­gal, po­lit­i­cal and leg­isla­tive pa­ram­e­ters in which school boards op­er­ate, warns the On­tario Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vices Cor­po­ra­tion. “School board op­er­a­tions must align with leg­is­la­tion, reg­u­la­tions or other provin­cial poli­cies. Can­di­dates need to be aware of this fact, es­pe­cially when mak­ing cam­paign prom­ises.”

Nepo­tism, school trips, uni­forms, flag pro­to­col and free­dom of in­for­ma­tion are just of the com­pelling topics a school board’s poli­cies cover.

A back­ground in ed­u­ca­tion is not re­quired to be­come a school board mem­ber.

“A newly-elected school trustee has a fairly steep learn­ing curve, and must be will­ing to spend time be­com­ing fa­mil­iar with ex­ist­ing board poli­cies and rel­e­vant leg­is­la­tion. Trustees should also be mind­ful to en­ter their new role with an at­ti­tude that is fair, open- minded and un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of eq­uity and in­clu­sive­ness,” the OESC adds. Knuck­les will be wrapped if a rep­re­sen­ta­tive does not toe the line. “Un­der the Ed­u­ca­tion Act, trustee power lies solely in mem­ber­ship on the cor­po­rate school board. The cor­po­rate board of trustees is ac­count­able to the pub­lic for the col­lec­tive de­ci­sions of the board and for the de­liv­ery and qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices. This means that once the board of trustees has voted, it is a trustee’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to act in a man­ner that pro­motes and up­holds the board’s de­ci­sion and to com­mu­ni­cate the board’s de­ci­sion back to the con­stituency.”

On pa­per, this makes sense. A body can­not func­tion if dis­sent­ing in­di­vid­u­als are con­stantly crit­i­ciz­ing ac­tions ap­proved by the ma­jor­ity.

How­ever, the stip­u­la­tion that a mem­ber can­not voice op­po­si­tion once a de­ci­sion has been fi­nal­ized could be used to sti­fle dis­sent and quash de­bate. Is a trustee to be muz­zled if he or she dis­agrees with a board’s stance?

A trustee must make de­ci­sions that ben­e­fit the en­tire board district while rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests of his or her con­stituents. Eas­ier said than done.

Re­mem­ber the Great Up­per Canada District School Board School Clo­sure Scare? With ru­ral schools on the chop­ping block, trustees were obliged to de­fend their re­spec­tive in­sti­tu­tions. The big­ger, board-wide pic­ture was a sec­ondary con­sid­er­a­tion. With fewer stu­dents and more empty class­rooms, parochial­ism will flare up again when this is­sue re­turns to the front burner in the not so dis­tant fu­ture.

Vot­ers are hard to please. They want reps who can work with oth­ers for the com­mon good, but they also don’t want mem­bers who sim­ply go through the mo­tions and refuse to take a stand. The key is to find a bal­ance, a skill demon­strated reg­u­larly by politi­cians who can strad­dle a fence with­out hurt­ing them­selves.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives must be team play­ers, quick learn­ers and speed readers

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