Kingstonians, like those in the rest of the province, go to the polls on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, to elect a new municipal council to lead them for the next four years. Here in Kingston, citizens can put themselves forward as candidates for one of 12 council seats or even the position of mayor. Have you ever wondered what it takes to put your own name on the ballot?
It might seem overwhelming if you think about all the services a municipal government is responsible for providing: Roads, public transit, child care, local policing, water and sewers, ambulances, parks, recreation, housing… And the language of Ontario’s Municipal Act, which lays out the role of municipal councillor, might also be intimidating.
Luckily for those who might be interested but need a bit of direction, City of Kingston Committee Clerk Derek Ochej appeared in March on an episode of Tell Me More: the City of Kingston podcast with host Rob Hosier, also with the City, to tell Kingstonians more about the duties of City Council and encourage more people to consider running for a seat in the fall.
Duties of councillors
First, Ochej summarized what it means for City Council to set the strategic priorities: “It’s basically a to-do list for their four-year term, which sets the table for everything: it sets up what [City of Kingston] staff has to be working on, what is to be focused on.” The yearly budget is based on those strategic priorities.
Not all of this work comes simply by attending Tuesday night council meetings, however; much of it is done day-to-day and simply presented for discussion and approval at meetings. Ochej compared Council meetings to the “big production” that comes only after all of the writing, rehearsal, and dress rehearsal have been prepared.
“For example,” he shared, “Council has four standing committees [which] all deal with different topic areas… to examine issues more in-depth, ask more probing questions, [and] give a chance for members of the public to come out and have their say on the work that City staff is doing.”
Outside of those committees, there are a handful of advisory committees focusing on things like the arts, accessibility, heritage, and the environment. “Council members [can] sit with members of the community on these advisory committees and provide advice to staff and feedback to staff on the work that the City is doing,” Ochej explained.
“Another big part of the job that happens outside of those Tuesday night council meetings is responding to constituent concerns,” Ochej continued. “People have elected you to be the leader, and they’re going to want to get your assistance with things [and] have things explained to them… That’s one of the biggest responsibilities [councillors] have: getting that feedback, listening to people, and helping direct people’s concerns to the right areas.”
That feedback comes in the form of email, phone calls, public meetings, and even impromptu conversations that pop up while walking down the street.
Mainly, it is the role of a councillor to represent the public, work for the well-being of the community, evaluate City policies and programs, determine what services the City will provide, ensure accountability and transparency of City operations, and maintain the financial integrity of the City.
Qualities of a good councillor
Ochej observed that running for Council is not like applying for a job that requires specific skills and experiences. He offered instead five characteristics a good councillor should have:
- Good judgement: “Nobody can be an expert in everything the government does, but you need to have an overall sense of judgment of what’s going to be best for the community.”
- Being curious: “You can’t know everything, so you have to be willing to learn these new things and… [and put] aside any preconceived notions you may have… It is a constant learning environment.”
- Patience: “The wheels of government move slowly. We all hear the jokes about red tape and cutting through that. But sometimes it’s good that government takes its time to move through things because these decisions have a major impact [and] they need to be fully understood.”
- Being a good listener: “As a councillor, you’re often getting concerns from people in favour of something, and people not in favour of something… hearing those things from people and being able to work with people you may not agree with [is important.”
- Being a ‘big picture’ thinker: “There’s a concept out there called ‘rowing versus steering.’ As a councillor, you’re expected to steer the ship and provide the overall general direction, but the rowing aspect is what [City] staff does… So, that’s why you need to have that big picture perspective.”
Benefits of being a councillor
Councillors are compensated for their time. At a Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022 City Council meeting, a wage increase was recommended by an arms-length Citizen Committee examining the growing workload for councillors in Kingston. The increase was approved, and the next group of councillors will make $45,000, while the next mayor will make $129,000.
Councillors at that meeting all agreed it was a lot of work for the financial compensation, but indicated the job of a councillor is more about public service than financial reward.
To make that point concisely, Ochej offered a quote from a former mayor of Calgary: “If the federal government disappeared, you’d notice in a month. If the provincial government disappeared, it might take you a day or two to notice unless you were in school or a hospital. If the municipal government disappeared, you’d notice right away because you’d be dead.”
“Now, that may be a bit extreme,” Ochej said, “but I think it illustrates really well how municipal government is really important to the everyday lives of people.”
Being on City Council is a job for people who want to make an impact on the everyday lives of people, he continued. “From when you wake up in the morning, municipal government is affecting your life: if you go to hop in the shower [there is municipal] water; your garbage is getting picked up; if you need to take the bus to work, [if] you’re walking to work on the sidewalk. So, that’s something to think about if you’re considering a run for municipal government.”
How to run for council
If you have questions, Ochej suggested, don’t be afraid to ask them. “I believe it is in May [that] the City’s elections office in City Hall will be opening… you can come down to City Hall, talk to our staff.”
Finally, The Association of Municipalities of Ontario, with the October 2022 election in mind, has assembled ‘Lead Where You Live,’ an easy-to-use guide that provides all the information you need when preparing to run for council: how municipal government works, including the role of council and structure of government; key things to know about managing a campaign, including key dates and eligibility requirements; rules related to campaigning, including campaign finance rules; tips for dealing with media/social media; election day and information about voting; and key resources for after the election. The guide can be purchased here.