So You Want to Run for Council? Some Unfiltered Advice
Updated: Mar 7, 2022
I have been fielding calls from people in my municipality and others in the region who are eyeing the upcoming municipal election, and considering whether to run. Here follows some of the unfiltered, free advice I have imparted, based on almost 4 years of trials and triumphs in Fort Frances:
First, as a general premise, many of these callers are very forthright about stating they want to work well with others on their council should they be elected. This is a good motivation, and it's clear to me that everyone I have spoken to wants to do good things for their community (or, at the very least, to stop specific bad things from happening).
Obviously, most people don’t like conflict, and for some of these hopefuls, their comments are meant to contrast with the lightning rod I have strapped to myself by being increasingly vocal about my dissatisfaction with the municipality’s approach to equity issues, reconciliation, providing amenities for young families, and following its own governing laws and processes.
I am a litigator and I make a living addressing conflicts in various forums. Likewise, my view of the healthy and productive dimensions of conflict colours my outlook on the role of conflict within institutions, and how to wage it effectively. Certainly, while “getting along” is a nice sentiment, it has its limits if you want to get things done, especially from a minority position in these decision-making bodies.
I am buoyed by the young people who talk to me about running for their council, and some of them may stand in these shoes later this year. If elected, some say they want to find common ground with their colleagues to solve problems. They will, sometimes – and I understand the resistance to courting controversy – but this is naïve, especially if, like me, they become the lone voice of their demographic at the table.
Here's the deal: in that case, the “common ground” available will often make you look absurd (or like a sell out). Why? Because there is no meaningful common ground to be had that will advance your constituents’ priorities when you are up against an entrenched voting bloc. Unless you command a majority on council, if the establishment is too far from your position and refuses to budge, “common ground” is a fantasy. There is often no rational compromise to be had if a majority of council is out of touch with the lived reality of the community in question on a given issue you care about. I’ve written about these demographics in Fort Frances before.
This is not to say that the people you are elected with are bad people – not at all. But you have to dance with the one that brought you, and their frame of reference is the people they talk to and interact with – their own peers in the community. We are all guilty of this, even though we may do our best to see things from another point of view. Installing a more diverse council is one way we can address this.
So, what do you do if you’re isolated on your council, but you want to get things done on any issue that causes more than gentle differences of opinion around the table? You need to dissent, and shrewdly use politics, media, and public support. This will not always be easy, but it will help you strengthen ties to the community that your colleagues do not have.
Sadly, you will have to do this all the time to create enough pressure and pop the bubble your counterparts live in one issue at a time – or at least make it uncomfortably clear that the support for their position is tiny and self-serving. In what you might describe as "old guard towns", it's not just their bubble either – it's often the same bubble that your municipal administration and previous terms of council have operated within. It is familiar and hard to penetrate. They like it in there. It supports their agenda and worldview.
In Fort Frances, council has been largely homogeneous for several terms and, as a result, has entrenched certain operating norms about the roles of staff, the head of council, and councillors which are, by and large, not supported in law. Some of these norms are fading away with staff turnover, but debunking this culture can become a serious obstacle (as I have demonstrated), especially when you will face criticism from those on the sidelines who view every challenge as an attack on their legacy.
To be frank, my mistake in this term was compromising too much on issues that were important, and letting things go that should have been scrutinized further. I bought into the “get along” mentality initially, and the result was much lost time and momentum, mostly for nothing in return on my priorities for the community. With the benefit of hindsight, my view is that if you don’t get elected with a like-minded slate that will move your issues forward, you need to embrace conflict, and get comfortable using it professionally. You will, occasionally, need to bring the hammer down and use politics like the crude tool it is meant to be. As a politician, dear reader, it is often the only tool in your chest.
We can further set the stage for this political gamesmanship by reflecting on the interests of the players. What holds many of these smaller municipalities back is that council members operate at an institutional disadvantage. Respectfully, too many people go into this work and quickly let municipal staff convince them that the only job of councillors is to sit back and deliberate all the the bright ideas that come forward from unelected bureaucrats. In other situations, staff do not provide enough information to members of council to be comfortable advancing business items put before them by councillors.
Likewise, several members of council – in Fort Frances and across the region – haven’t put a single new business item on an agenda this term. There are political incentives for this too – they will never have to take flack in the community if it's unpopular, and they get to read the room before speaking up or casting a vote. For passive observers, these members are viewed as the stately, steady hands at the wheel, when really they are merely responding to the agenda set by others instead of driving priorities. (This is not an observation about any one member of council – it is based on my observations of my council and others, my work with clients in my practice who deal with other area municipalities, and my discussions with other "outsider" members of council in the region.)
This is a disservice to the public, because members of council are not bystanders to municipal policy – they are its architects. A constrained understanding of the role of members of council is a perversion of our political and representative duties. More nakedly, if council members acquiesce to such a diminished role, it only serves the interests of staff and members who are aligned with staff. As an elected member, you are there to drive the discussion, not simply to be consulted by staff or used as a rubber-stamp. You are allowed to criticize decisions of council. You are allowed to criticize your mayor or other councillors. Council is not a partisan caucus or a cabinet. You do not owe reputational loyalties. Criticism, itself, is a political tool. Get comfortable doing it publicly, but never personally.
As a member of council, you have to advance your work in these conditions. Staff have a lot of control over information flow. They are not on the same team as council, even though they may have similar goals for the community. They control when items are brought to council’s attention. They have no duty to provide materials to individual council members unless council as a whole directs it. They are the ones who get to decide how to frame advice given to council. They are the ones who generally decide what lawyers and professional advisors work for the municipality (who, in turn, strive to please staff to keep their work). They are often risk-averse and will frequently describe uncertainty as risk in order to maintain a status quo. Part of that is their professional obligation to advise council of risks (lest they be fired for failing to do so), but it's also a tactic that can be at odds with change and reforms driven by individual members of council.
There will also be deceptive efforts to erode the ability of members of council to advance their constituents’ priorities. These Trojan horses will be varied. Some members of council will welcome them with open arms in order to shut you up. Some members of council may complain about you to staff to provoke these measures coming into being. You need to be alive to potential consequences and future mischief of every policy which impacts the respective role and rights of members of council versus administration. Some of them will be specifically erected to create roadblocks for your constituency or to make it more difficult to hold public servants accountable.
To confront these challenges, you will need to get creative. Use municipal procedures, social media, petitions, legal and administrative proceedings. You will need to engage allies in the community and, yes, good, old-fashioned letter-writing campaigns. It is often the only way to make a dent, especially in an office that comes with no staff, no budget, and limited access to information. There is no "power" vested in any individual member of council, just endless responsibilities and a soapbox platform.
If you do not do these things, the path of least resistance is what the establishment wants. In this region, the establishment is mostly upper middle-class retired white folks and business owners. Many of them presume their correctness and expertise all the time. They will problematize you for contradicting their assumed wisdom. Staff will often back them for it. Many members of council will reflexively oppose reforms or new ideas on the basis that they think it’s safer to do what the staff recommend, and staff control the information that they have to make their decision.
All this is to say that conflict is an unavoidable part of the job if you're actually taking the job seriously. It is an integral part of the role of a member of council if you want to get things done, and if you want to hold your municipal administration and your colleagues accountable to the community they serve. Understanding your role and the respective interests of your elected and staff counterparts is part of how you do this job and understand the angle of the other participants. Knowing how to wag the dog when you’re the odd one out is how you must respond when the odds are not in your favour.
Getting along is great, and is so teamwork. But team members need to challenge one another and hold each other accountable. In the context of municipal advocacy, you will need to make the establishment squirm to shake complacency and move your community’s priorities forward. If you’re coming at this work as an outsider, or a minority, or the person who is “different” at the table, then that’s sometimes the entire job. That is, if you’re committed to keeping your promises and actually working effectively for the people who elected you.
Ontario’s next municipal election will take place in October 2022. Nominations will take place in the summer beforehand. If you would like to confidentially discuss the role of a councillor or running for office, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.