I travelled around Southeast Asia for a month; the experience transformed my life. Then I successfully ran for municipal politics and discovered it was much cheaper to have a transformative life experience right here at home.
No, I am not kidding.
Few people decide on a career in municipal politics, which may be an issue deserving the attention of our education system. Remember the old Civics courses? In hindsight, they helped develop politic awareness in a generation eventually obliged to control it, either by running for the job or voting for the runners. In the meantime, we are stuck with the situation at hand which, simply put, is: very few understand the complexity of the job; everybody thinks he or she can do it better but few have the time and those who make time are dismissed and diminished by the vocal minority.
My hometown of Steady Brook went through some hard years of bad press which maligned council members and staff. I figured I’d step in and do my civic duty; I successfully ran for mayor (naively thinking I could run a small town on my way to work). The bad press shut down. In May 2012, after a series of unpredictable coincidences, Steady Brook was left without one single paid employee. I took a leave of absence as mayor and took on the job of town manager. I discovered:
— There is a difference between leading, managing and doing. They are all important.
— Generally, the louder you shout the more the group (who truly want harmony) lets your point of view carry, because it’s easier.
—About two per cent of any population hates decision-makers and they disagree with most decisions — some of them get elected to council and won’t make a decision. After the fact, they are clear, the decision made was “wrong” and feel obligated to make sure the world knows.
— Some wonderful, thoughtful, hard-working people get elected to council and are able to do meaningful things for their community. By and large, the greater population never hears from them.
— The work is interesting, complex (but not complicated) and very rewarding.
— It would be helpful if the satisfied 98 per cent would step up and periodically give your municipal politicians and staff a little positive feedback. If you expect good people to come forward to do this work, they need some positive reinforcement as well as hearing the objections.
A decent society cannot be shaped by people filled with hate and disgust for those currently leading the charge. As Dave Ledrew once told me: “We all build on someone else’s back.” The town/city you want to live in cannot be directed only by people angry because the roads have not been paved.
Good decisions cannot be made by people who think it is someone else’s job to spoon-feed them data.
So, where does that leave you? You likely have an opinion on municipal politics. You may be among the many who think, all politicians are power-hungry, money-grubbing morons and you are not.
People engaged in municipal politics were not born to the job. They were not schooled for the work. They are your neighbours. They are your friends. They are the head of your school council. They are you. They are me.
If the only ones who put their names forward are the ones that have an opinion on what is being done wrong, you will elect a group who are committed to identifying problems and may be precious short on solutions. The only way to fix it is to become part of the solution. If you just thought, “I’d love to but I don’t have the time” with respect, I challenge that position.
You have time for your kids’ sports league, daily personal work-out, book club or dart league, hobby or recreation, job, partner’s needs, the list goes on. Why is your child’s sports league more important than the future he or she will inherit? Why is reading a novel more important than becoming informed on the capacity of your municipal infrastructure to deal with the flooding that will come with global warming? Just who does have the time?
If you do it right, municipal politics is the most interesting volunteer board you will ever sit on. You will be positioned to accomplish work that matters to you, your neighbours and the future your children will inherit.
It is meaningful work. If you don’t have time, those who make time, win by default and — from my vantage point — you think most of them are not fit for the job.
Donna Thistle is the outgoing mayor on Steady Brook. She is also a business owner in Corner Brook and has or currently serves on the boards of Flowers Canada, Revenue Canada Advisory, Junior Achievement, Marble Mountain Development Corp, Board of Referees for HRDC, Rotary Club of Corner Brook, Writers at Woody Point and many others. She has considerable experience in governance on a national and local level.