Success in politics: This is more than a popularity contest
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