David Kendrick
Guelph Mercury

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Municipal councils impact our lives daily with the decisions councillors make, as we use water, sanitary and storm sewers, the roads, recreational facilities and programs, public transportation and police, fire and emergency services.

With the next municipal election set for Oct. 27, I want to explore what constitutes a good city council and a good councillor. What is the councillor’s role, and what qualifications should we be seeking to fill that role?

I had the honour and privilege to have been elected to Guelph city council and served for 17 years, preceded by eight years of observation as the council’s city page. This period occurred during the four-decade span of leadership that is widely recognized as producing some of the best council representatives the city has ever seen.

It was an experience like no other. Almost without exception, the elected representatives I observed or worked with were focused on the overall welfare of the community, giving generously of their time and expertise to improve the lot of others.

From this experience I learned a number of things about politics, good politicians, the electorate and the overall process, which I share with you, in no particular order:

•The adage seems to be true, there are three types of people: those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.

•No one runs for city council for the money. Most enter politics because they want to have an impact on society or government.

•True democracy is about representing all the people, including those who don’t think like you. The welfare of the entire community suffers if a councillor’s focus is on too narrow an agenda.

•Good politicians will tell you what they are for — not what they oppose.

•Councillors should be able to understand the need to meet a payroll; to understand a balance sheet; to comprehend the concept of profits and losses; possess the ability to set priorities; and be able to establish and prepare a budget and monitor its progress throughout the fiscal year.

•This is a job of not only solving problems, but equally important, it is about anticipating problems before they appear. Effective problem-solving involves clearly defining the problem; creating evidence pro and con; discarding the irrelevant; formulating a tentative solution, and putting the solution to the test.

•Councils should conduct business based upon providing services to meet the needs of residents and their families. Councillors should not conduct their business based upon getting votes from this or that group of constituents.

•A good council will develop long-term plans, establishing both long- and short-term community goals and objectives. They will then be patient and organized enough to carry them through to completion, yet remain flexible enough to adapt those plans to ever-changing situations.

•Any goal without a number cannot be monitored and is simply a slogan. More and more, we are becoming a government of slogans: “send a message,” “seed money,” “building a business case.”

•Councillors must guard against fixating on re-election and saying the right thing. By doing a good job and focusing on the big picture, re-election will be assured.

•Councillors should be less obsessed with sharing their vision for a brighter tomorrow and rather focus more on providing the programs and services needed to make Guelph a better place today. Being a visionary may be more glamorous or exciting, but good management is what the job demands.

•True leadership means choosing what is in the best interests of the whole community, despite sometimes being unpopular with some.

•Decision-makers make decisions. They must not live in constant fear of being wrong. Incremental improvement is better than waiting for the perfect solution. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Today, governments hire consultants, obtain reports, hold consultations, gather data, build consensus, and consult with stakeholders, and by the time the consultations and investigations are completed, the data is outdated or the problem has evolved and become more complicated. Governments often suffer from analysis paralysis.

Perhaps you have some of the traits and qualities of a good councillor, or know someone who does. I urge you to encourage qualified people to come forward and offer their services and expertise as a candidate.

The political environment will not improve until such time as we take the steps necessary to bring about improvement. If we desire top people to stand for public office, then we have to treat them with respect, unless they prove to be undeserving of that respect.

Professional people such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, business managers and entrepreneurs are not motivated by money. But with some encouragement and support from their friends and neighbours, they might be motivated to give of their spare time to help manage and improve our community.

Then again, maybe it’s just me.

David Kendrick is a member of the Guelph Mercury’s community editorial board. He can be reached at isitjustme@rogers.com