Full-time or Part-Time Councillors?

January 17, 2015

The following article was recently published in the Guelph Mercury:  Opinions Differ on Ward Boundaries, Work Status of Councillors.

It’s an interesting and timely discussion on the heels of a recent election, especially as we head into another round of budget deliberations.

LEANNE’S OPINION:   Democracy Needs Diversity of Voices

I think we can all agree that the role of city councillor has morphed over the years as the complexity of leading a thriving twenty-first century city has evolved.  Let’s have a look at the history of elected representation in our city…

From 1851 (when the Town of Guelph was officially constituted) to 1856, Guelph consisted of four elected at-large councillors and one Reeve.  From 1856 until 1879, there were four wards (North, South, East and West) with three councillors per ward (12) and a Mayor.  After achieving “City of Guelph” status (population threshold of 10,000), the city was divided into six wards — St. Patrick (1), St. George (2), St. John (3), St. David (4), St. Andrew (5) and St. James (6) — with three councillors per ward.  Yes, that is 18 councillors!   This continued until well into the twentieth century.  Councillors way back then did not make planning decisions, battle climate change, and the city boundaries were much, much smaller.

Looking through the list of councillors over the last 100 years (from Leo Johnson’s book The History of Guelph) I recognize many of the names (not because I knew any of them personally of course) because so many of them were prominent local businessmen, developers, philanthropists, bankers and lawyers.  Self-interest drips from the list of names — Gow, Stevenson, Goldie, Sleeman, Macdonald, Mitchell and many more.

Fast forward to 2015.  It has been suggested that it is time for councillors to become full-time “career” positions.  I respectfully disagree.   Here’s why:

1.  Diversity:   Twelve part-time councillors represent a wide cross-section of our community demographic — age, gender, education, expertise — and provide a diversity of experiences and perspectives.  The professional background of each councillor strengthens the quality of decision-making.  The make-up of the current council means that decisions are evaluated through the collective lens of an artist, banker, referee, engineer, teacher, landscape architect, historian, environmental scientist, certified mediator, human resource professional, real estate agent and insurance broker.  Diversity of perspective makes for better decisions.   Reducing the councillor position to a “career” also reduces the diversity of the pool of potential candidates to those who are either retired, independently wealthy or unemployed. 

2.  Democracy:   Participatory democracy is healthier when our citizens have access to their elected representatives.  Having fewer councillors working full-time hours doesn’t address access to elected representatives.  The math is the same — six full-timers or 12 half-timers — which ever way you look at it.  Access is reduced to a smaller number of representatives.

3.  Function:   City councillor is not a ‘career’.  To treat it as such does not serve the interests of the individual councillor or the community.  A city councillor is a member of a Board of Directors, which changes every four years.  There is no objective performance appraisal process, and a career politician is at risk of losing their job every four years.   What would the qualifications of a “career councillor” be?  City planning and zoning, budgeting, arts, culture, heritage, law, water, wastewater, engingeering, recreation management, parks and forestry, infrastructure, human resources, public works, traffic, and so on?   Councillors should never micro-manage staff who have professional qualifications in their area of expertise.  The qualifications of a councillor should focus on leadership, decision-making, communication, policy analysis and citizen engagement. 

4.  Efficiency:   Full-time councillors can’t be everywhere.  Meetings are generally held in the evening so that the public can participate in local government.   The bulk of constituency work, events and neighbourhood outreach takes place outside standard office hours.  The reason for that is simple:  because that’s when our citizens are available outside their own work hours.  Twelve part-time councillors can balance workload and family needs by sharing constituency work in their respective wards.  Decisions would not be made any faster with a smaller full-time council.  Meeting schedules, agendas, staff reports, and passing of by-laws are not correlated to council size, but of work capacity within City Hall and due public process. 

5.  Cost:   I do not anticipate any cost savings if we move to a full-time career councillor position.  In fact, I predict higher costs.  Twelve part-time councillors (approx $33K per year), if reduced to 6-8 councillors at a much higher wage (to attract qualified candidates) would also need office space, administrative support, office budgets, and a higher level of benefits, such as paying into the OMERS pension plan.   Only three Ontario municipalities have full-time councillors — Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton — which are also the three largest cities in the province. 

One commentator in the Mercury article suggested that a part-time councillor cannot possibly do justice to both jobs when they hold down other employment.  I strongly disagree.   There are many citizens in our community who are members of service clubs (ie. Rotary), business organizations (ie. Chamber of Commerce), non-profits ((ie. Habitat for Humanity), youth organizations (ie. Scouts, Minor Hockey) who contribute significant hours to these organizations, and also hold down full-time jobs.  Excellent time management is essential to successfully balancing one’s life, whether you are a city councillor, a working mom or an active, engaged resident.   Part of my decision to run for elected office involved doing a ‘time audit’ to see whether I could manage the time commitment.  Giving up other commitments (school councils, neighbourhood association and other local boards) and having family support was part of my decision to commit to the city councillor role.  Each individual councillor is very different.

On a personal note, I believe working full-time makes me a better city councillor, and vice versa.  A significant part of Ward 5 encompasses the University of Guelph and OMAFRA/Research Park.  I interact with students, staff, faculty and neighbours regularly in both roles.  A well-rounded perspective helps me to be more inclusive and make better decisions in both positions.  This is not the same as a pecuniary conflict of interest.  If it was, every single councillor would be in conflict of interest if an agenda item were to overlap with their personal life, whether it be enhancement of our bicycle or trail  network, a local park improvement or downtown investment.

So what is the solution?

Based on my eight years experience as a city councillor, I estimate that one third to half of my workload is answering constituent calls and emails after City Hall has closed.  For the most part, to put it bluntly, the calls/emails are actually requests for service or information.    All I can (or should) do is to pass these requests over to the appropriate city staff or department for response.  This is not ‘passing the buck’ — it is following due process.  There is a perception that if you send your service request through a city councillor, you will get faster service.  This is false.  Once forwarded from a city councillor, a service request is processed as a work order with the same priority as a request that comes through Service Guelph or directly to the appropriate department.  In fact, in most cases, both city councillors are doing the same thing which further burdens city staff responding to the same issue twice.  The remaining emails/calls are from citizens passing along their input, information, ideas and experiences — good and bad — and I am happy to hear and respond to this input as part of my role as a city councillor.

In order to lighten the workload of city councillors, so that they can focus on their core responsibilities, there are three actions that I believe will have significant positive impact on supporting part-time councillors:

1.  Hire one full-time Council Constituency Assistant.   This individual could significantly reduce the workload of councillors by dealing with constituency inquiries, information requests, and scheduling of councillor schedules.   This would also save staff time in other departments responding to multiple service requests originating from the same source.  A Constituency Assistant could also track trends and identify gaps in communication, which could improve overall efficiency of City Hall customer service.  In addition, timeliness of response could be faster because inquiries would be handled during business hours.

2.  Improved communication and education:  City Hall has multiple routes for customer service – email, phone, social media.  The recent addition of the web portal How Can We Help You? was designed for residents to initiate their own work orders, and to receive immediate confirmation and follow up when the work is complete.  For direct contact, we have created email addresses — waste@guelph.ca, operations@guelph.ca, water@guelph.ca, bylaw@guelph.ca, parking@guelph.ca and so on — to make it easier for the public to reach the department they need.    We need to do a better job of getting this information out to the community.

3.   Balance ward boundaries and ward councillor roles:  Ward boundaries should be reviewed periodically to balance political representation by population.  This was last done in 2005 and will occur again during this term of council.   Rather than creating smaller wards (7 or 8) with one councillor each, another idea would be for each of the two elected councillors to divvy up the workload by acting as the ‘official’ liaison for different neighbourhoods (while always acting as back-up for each other).   I recall doing this when I was a school board trustee, where each of the two trustees for the same ward was assigned to act as liaison for a group of specific schools.

There may come a time when Guelph is ready for full-time councillors.  In my opinion, we are not there yet. Not even close.