Municipal Election: Follow the Leader

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This October, each of us has the right and privilege to cast votes in the municipal election. I say “votes”, plural, because there are, in fact, two elections taking place. One is for your choice of Councillor, and you get to vote for up to four of the eight candidates on offer. The other contest is for Mayor of North Grenville, where there are four candidates running.

It is easy to consider both contests the same, choosing a municipal council for the next four years. But, in fact, the job of Mayor is, or should be, very different from that of Councillor, and we need to be aware of the difference before we vote. In the same way, candidates need to be conscious that they are running to take on a job that has its own unique set of requirements, qualifications and expertise, and not all candidates in municipal elections seem to realise this.

Under the Municipal Act, the Mayor is the Chief Executive Officer of a Corporation. Among his responsibilities is “to provide leadership to the council” [Sec. 225(c)]. Here is the essential difference between the role of Mayor and that of Councillor: to provide leadership to Council. But that is where the problems can start. Do you want a leader who is autocratic and demands their own way, or one who is so concerned about being liked that they fail to provide direction and focus to Council and municipal staff. We have had both kinds in North Grenville, and neither style worked well for the community.

In a recent article in “Municipal World”, George B. Cuff described both kinds of leader. “Many communities and organizations suffer from an abundance of nice people who would avoid progress if it meant bringing about even a modest degree of disagreement. They place so much emphasis on the traits of compassion and gentleness that real leadership in dealing with difficult or emerging issues on the larger scale seldom happens. Other communities suffer under the leadership of those who do not understand their potential for good, and those who are more interested in headlines than corporate accomplishments. They act in petty and mean-spirited ways.”

The fact is that any Council is made up of individuals, often with sharply diverging ideas about what is best for a community. The Mayor must balance these variances and personalities with traits that Mr. Cuff lists as maturity, respect, and “the ability to build allies through consensus, and through mutual support”. We have had Councils that refuse to debate and discuss issues and differences in public, preferring to keep the arguments behind closed doors, so that, as they misleadingly say: “Council must speak with one voice”. It is the job of the Mayor to encourage debate and discussion, but also to allow transparency in the proceedings of Council, so that the people they represent are informed and included.

Being afraid to show dissension and debate only leads to the public seeing a Council that does nothing. In some cases, that is precisely what happens, when the Mayor refuses to be a leader and tries to keep everything happy and peaceful. In those circumstances, municipal staff are left without proper direction, and can find themselves making decisions that are properly the responsibility of Council, but there is no alternative, other than leaving the community without direction or purpose. This is very unfair to staff, as it forces them into a role they would rather not play and which is not their proper sphere of action.

The role of the Mayor depends greatly on the personality of the person in the chair. It demands a careful balance between giving direction and delegating responsibility to Councillors. It means having to decide between proposals when it comes to taking action. It requires the ability to lead and to encourage others to bring forward ideas, resolutions, plans and projects. It takes vision, a vision for the future of the community and how it is to tackle the future.

This may mean allowing differences to be aired, to make controversial decisions in the face of opposition. George Cuff makes the point well, citing the late President Kennedy: Municipalities are not well served by limp leadership. John Kennedy once remarked, “My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial and beautifully coordinated, there is not much going on.” We have to judge candidates for the position of Mayor of North Grenville with this in mind.

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