During the last municipal election I wrote an opinion/editorial piece on the embarrassingly few number of candidates that there were running for office. Part two to the piece was a less than subtle warning that London would likely end up with a very similar, if not identical, Council to the one before it. Voila!
This year, amazingly and perhaps not too surprisingly, the total opposite has happened. With no less than 14 candidates vying for the Mayor’s post and 74 seeking ward representation around the horseshoe, we should collectively applaud all those who took up the challenge. Was it because we have so many vacancies, so many incumbents not seeking re-election, or is it simply that many in this group of hopefuls has had enough of the status quo? Either way the big winner here seems to be the democratic process that defines us as a country.
But quantity alone will not be the differentiator when it comes to governing a billion dollar corporation. For those ultimately voted into the job, there has to be, or should be, considerable skill involved with a good measure of judgment, instinct, experience, fairness, collegiality, strategic thinking and tough mindedness if we are to have any optimism that this next council can do any better than the last.
That said, I have often been asked, exactly what then are the skills and experiences one needs to be a successful mayor or councilor? I wish that I had an exact, scientific response for that question but the problem is it doesn’t exist. There are however, some conventional thoughts that bear repeating and may serve as a guide for voters to contemplate as they make up their minds on who to vote for on Monday, October 27th.
If I could provide any advice at all on what, in my view, would make a quality candidate it would look something like this:
They must be a Strategic Thinker
A modern, effective Council should be populated with people who know how to think strategically, who get the bigger picture and can focus on the really important issues facing our community – like jobs and growth in the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors not what colour to paint the washrooms at the lawn bowling facility. The City has a talented and competent staff – they need to be left to do what they do best while a councilor should focus on strategic objectives, visions, and goals.
They all must Think Bottom Line
Yes, I know the City isn’t a business per se but, it should always try to employ best business practices. With a $900 million+ annual budget it simply has to run more business-like in all aspects of its operations. At the very least, candidates should have a working knowledge of how to read a profit and loss statement, a balance sheet, and a budget, as well as the reporting mechanisms associated with all of them. And all of the above should be performed with the inescapable truth that all of the money that they are dealing with, does not belong to them.
They will need to be Team Players
This includes being able to work with others in meetings and on committees and being able to complete any tasks on time that they agree to do. Grandstanding works well at the county fair, but it doesn’t work in council chambers. Oh yes, and if they lose their issue, position, or cause, they should stand down their opinions and re-join the team. Everyone agrees that a fulsome debate of the issues is healthy and democratic, but once it’s over the City needs a Council that can move forward as one.
They need to be Good Communicators
Skills here should include good listening and interpersonal skills, public speaking skills, the ability to articulate a thought and being able to accept alternative points of view as well as the ability to negotiate, mediate, and resolve conflict. Being aligned on an issue or challenge is far more achievable than securing agreement or consensus.
They need to be Problem Solvers and Analytical Thinkers
This includes being able to get to the bottom of an issue and to think of different ways to resolve it, including advantages and disadvantages of each – always with the best interest of the taxpayer at the top of their agenda.
They will have to have Guts and Conviction
Throwing one’s support behind the next shiny bobble or genius idea from out in left field may feel good in the moment but the next morning they will still be faced with critical issues such as London’s growing infrastructure deficit (pegged at $51 million in 2013/14). It takes guts and courage to vote for the right things even when it hurts and even when it’s not as popular.
They must have Good Organizational Skills
These should include being able to plan and manage their time, keep appointments and meet deadlines. The workload of a councilor is not getting any lighter or less important. We hear all too often that the workload is overwhelming. Only good organizational skills will keep a councilor ahead of the curve and in tune with the city’s priorities.
They must be able to Engage with the Local Community
They will need to make themselves available through meetings, the media (including social media), the internet, public forums, on the phone and of course, face to face.
They should know the Law or at least know who does
Much of what they are charged to do will have some legal ramifications so it’s important that they have some working knowledge or experience with legal matters and an awareness of the risks and potential rewards of a change. The Law of Unintended Consequences is always in full effect, and a bad decision can undermine years of hard work and thousands of dollars that homeowners and business owners have invested in their properties. When in doubt, they can refer to the City’s legal team, but knowledge in this area will help to execute decisions much more quickly and efficiently and keep the City out of the courts.
They need to demonstrate Sound Oversight
An efficient and effective Council needs people on it who will seek out independent resources to research issues and to get a second opinion on information it receives from the city’s administration or other levels of government. Yes it costs money but it is also necessary. They will need to be open minded about new positions like Ethics Commissioners, Integrity Commissioners, and Municipal Auditor Generals as they are fast becoming the norm in modern, well-functioning cities.
These are by no means the complete list of all of the skills and attributes a councillor or mayor could or should have. In fact, it’s doubtful that any one person would possess all of them. But if we want a progressive, forward thinking Council that is looking forward and not stuck in the past, I would look for candidates who have a good many of them. Food for thought before we place our marks on the ballot sheet.