Full-time Folly

The dithering at city hall needs to be fixed, but full-time ­
councillors are not the solution

WITH A MUNICIPAL election looming in October, support seems to be building in some quarters for the concept of full-time councillors with full-time pay. I am unable, however, to see how paying our city councillors more money for a full-time workweek promises any actual improvement in local governance.

For one thing, it immediately reduces the candidate pool significantly. Asking a four-year commitment from someone with a successful business or career will automatically eliminate a large group of potential candidates. They might be able to find 20 hours a week to serve (a good average for a committed councillor), but it is hardly fair to ask them to walk away from their current situations to ensure they meet the “­full-time councillor” criteria. And these are just the kind of people we need to attract to municipal governance—those with business experience and proven real-world smarts.

Here’s the thing about a municipal council: it is not an operational body. Council members do not control city departments or committees and they have no executive power as individuals. Their only real power is their ability to pass or change legislation as a group.

‘I have no doubt you could devote 80 hours a week to being
a councillor, but that doesn’t mean such work is productive
for the public. And it certainly shouldn’t be funded by
municipal tax dollars’

The everyday running of the city is (or should be) left to trained professionals. On issues deemed important for whatever reasons, councillors can and do challenge the assumptions and conclusions of city staff, generally in the name of the public interest they are supposed to represent as elected officials.

Some councillors bury themselves in minutia or devote a lot of time to ‘constituency work’, ­preparing for the next election. If you follow either path (or a mixture of both), you can easily fill a 40-hour workweek, and that is where much of the support for better-paid, full-time ­councillors comes from.

Nit-pickers and happy hand-shakers will find no shortage of things to occupy their time. I have no doubt you could devote 80 hours a week to being a councillor, but that doesn’t mean such work is productive for the public. And it certainly shouldn’t be funded by municipal tax dollars.

The most effective past councillors I’ve known were almost all successful in their efforts because they knew how to motivate people and organize their own time, not because they necessarily had a lot of it to give. And I would suggest that individuals who do not possess such a skill set probably shouldn’t go into politics in the first place.

The most effective council is one that operates not unlike a corporate board of directors. Their responsibility is to set the agenda and tone of the operation, map out its future as far as that can be foreseen and monitor the results of their instructions to staff.

The chief executive officer (the city manager, by whatever title) is responsible for executing the policies laid down by the board, and reporting his successes and failures as a result. Both he and the managers below him should be held firmly accountable for any of the latter.

With access to other staff or advisors as needed, council can and should keep a firm, well-­informed hand on the direction of the city. Its role should not include grandstanding for the media, and its goal should be to see that the city is run as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In our current local political model, council is too often reactive rather than usefully proactive, and regularly seems uninformed about the full implications of current discussions. Communities all around us have benefitted from dithering at our city hall, as company after company has chosen to locate elsewhere after unsatisfactory discussions with the city.

That’s not good enough by far, but a longer council workweek and higher councillor pay are not the solution we need.   Jim Chapman