“Time’s fun when you’re having flies” – Kermit the Frog.
This week (yesterday!) marks a year since I was elected to City Council in New Westminster (along with that other great new Councillor in the photo above). A quarter of the term under my belt, I guess I will have to stop referring to myself as “the New Councillor”, and will have to start taking blame and credit for the way the City is running. Time to take off the training wheels.
I am still asked several questions about my new role with some regularity, so maybe to mark the year, I can answer them more completely, so as to embarrass myself with my own naivety in a few more years. (Obligatory caveat: these are my opinions, not those of other members of Council, I think we all have our own journey, our own stresses, and based on many long Monday conversations, I can assure you we all have our own opinions!)
“How are you making out?” Fine, thank you. Year one has been an incredible learning experience, at times challenging. However, I’m fortunate in that I am part of a very supportive Council team. The stress and difficulty of finding your role and your voice, or being afraid of making a mistake, has been tempered by the teamwork I have felt working with the rest of Council an the professionalism of Staff.
I have a couple of members of Council I am a little closer to and lean on a bit more than others, but all have been supportive. We each bring something different to the table, and we find ways to disagree. We even have occasional very strong disagreements. I have been on both the “winning side” and “losing side” of debates or votes that split Council, but I am proud to say that my colleagues have never let a strongly-felt and strongly-argued disagreement impact the next topic of discussion. We hear each other out, we vote, and if we disagree we move on and hope to agree on the next topic. It is the way a Council (or any board) should operate.
I have heard horror stories from other Councils in BC, where there are partisan divisions that have either made the Council completely non-functional, or have resulted in some Councillors being totally pushed aside from the discussions. I have also heard stories of non-functional Councillors who do little more than show up and keep a seat warm, or (worse) just arrive to disrupt the work of others for political reasons. I feel fortunate that we have a Council of effective and passionate leaders, even the ones I sometimes disagree with.
“Was it what you expected?” Before I ran, I worked in local government, and I was enough of a rabble-rouser in New Westminster that I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the job entailed. But sometimes the history and detail of a topic is incredibly complicated and unpacking some issues to understand enough detail to even form an opinion can be challenging. When you are running an entire City, there are an incredibly diverse set of issues, none of us can be experts on them all. Which is why I am glad that there are many staff who are leaders in their fields, and that we have such a collaborative working model with Council.
I had (and still have?) a few idealistic expectations of the job. I expected I would reply to every e-mail and answer every call right away and be super responsive… the reality is that there is just too much communication to keep track of it all if you have another job and hope to sleep. You want to do it all, you soon learn to prioritize. I was hoping to answer an ASK PAT a day, and I have a few in the queue, so please have a little patience! I’m trying!
I also expected that I would be able to deal with everyone. People who know me know I am a social guy, and can have great conversations with people with whom I disagree. Sometimes, they even change my mind, and those are my favourite conversations of all. However once you are elected, there are people who are not interested in agreeing with you, or even having a discussion. They will oppose you because you are on the “wrong team”, or just because they don’t like how you look or sound. It frustrates me not that we disagree, but that the fact-sharing conversation cannot be had.
I remember sitting in the Rivers Reach having a hopeful get-to-know-you beer with a person very critical of the current Council, and being told what I knew to be a bald-faced lie for no other reason but to stir a pot. I quickly recognized this person was not interested in getting to know me, they only wanted me (and the Council) to fail. “That’s politics” you may say, but in a small town like New West, and with this person’s potential influence, that is poison to the community. So that was an unexpected disappointment.
“You get paid for this?” Yep. Council pays about $40,000 per year. I am giving an approximate number because about 1/3 of what we get paid is a “non-taxable indemnity” under Federal tax law, so it doesn’t directly compare to how you get paid in a regular job. We get a bit of a “bonus” for the month that we are Acting Mayor, we pay CPP and EI like most people, and have options to contribute to benefits like most employees. There is an established system in the City to incrementally increase our pay on a regular basis (annually?) to keep pace with cost of living and the increases being received by other elected officials across the region.
I picked up a Pay Slip at City Hall today (period ending November 6), and it reads my year-to-date Gross Wages are $35,951.78. I know it is gauche to talk salary, but if you live in New West, you pay for it, so you have the right to know.
“How much time does it take?” All of it. It expands to fill the time available to it. I’m only being partially facetious.
Council Mondays are full days, today starting with a Task Force meeting at 9:00, sometimes workshops, Closed Council usually around noon, then Council in the afternoon and into the evening. It can be a 12+ hour day with meal breaks.
To prepare for Council, we have stacks of reports that need to be reviewed. An average week Council Package can count 600+ pages. I go through them, and take notes, which typically takes most of my Sunday (and sometimes part of Saturday). I find (from my long years spent at University) that note taking forces me to review the information at a deeper level, as condensing requires me to understand enough to write coherent sentences about it. Most of what I write in my blog Council Reports is actually the result of me doing that note-taking and information gathering prior to the meeting. Some time after a Council Meeting, I need to prepare my notes for publishing on this blog, which usually takes a few hours.
I also serve on several Committees (Youth Advisory; Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians; Access Ability; Transportation Taskforce; Public Engagement Taskforce, and yet another Taskforce coming soon!) which each meet about once a month in the evening. Each require some preparation and note-taking of their own. I mix these evenings with other Community events, which occur pretty much every night in a super-active City such as this, and I really have to pick and choose those just by workload.
Then there are e-mails. I probably get a dozen to two dozen a day, which I basically ignore at the time of their arrival, as most arrive while I am at work or in Council (i.e “business hours”), so I have to sit down at night and go through them. Some are just for information, some need immediate reply, some need me to talk to other people in the City to determine how to respond. I really try to get back to everyone who contacts me, but am obviously challenged to keep up, and most will understand when a message scrolls off the first page, it is often a while before you get back to them.
If I am lucky or have a slow week, I have a few hours to sit and write other stuff for my blog – that typically only happens between 10pm and Midnight, which is my peak writing creativity time (and has been since my Thesis days). And somewhere in there (mostly at Beer Friday and Sunday Morning FR Fuggitivi rides) I try to have a social life.
Like I said, it expands to fill the time available.
“How do you manage it with your other job?” About as well as expected, and probably better than I hoped. I do work for a living, and my office is one with a “9 day fortnight” schedules. That means I work a 7.75 hours a day, 9 days every two weeks, which works out to about 35 hours a week. I get every second Monday off, a so-called “compressed day” (CD). This works out well with Council schedule, as I am able to shift my CD Mondays around a bit, and work with the existing long-weekend schedule (which offsets some Mondays) such that most of my Council Meeting days can fall on a CD. His year, I was required to burn a bit of my accumulated vacation days to accommodate Council Mondays when I didn’t have a CD to spare.
I am fortunate in that my employer values my service to them (I do a pretty specific job, and do it pretty well, if I say so myself), and is willing to accommodate this scheduling. They are also cognizant that my “other job” has some politics involved in it, and I take every effort to assure the two paths don’t cross. They have always been supportive of my volunteer work and my professional growth, including my work as a Board Member and President of the Environmental Managers Association of BC (an industry group for the kind of work I do), and my current position as the UBCM Representative on the Board of the Contaminated Sites Approved Professional Society. They have been super professional all along this strange journey, and I cannot say enough good things about them. So I don’t want to mess that up for them, or for myself.
Other than my co-workers continually mocking me by calling me “your worshipness” and the like, things have not really changed that much at work, I’ve always been a volunteer, this is different form of public service.
“Where do you find the time?” I usually reply to people asking this by saying: I don’t have kids, and I don’t watch TV. That is pretty much the truth of it. I have friends raising two or three kids, and cannot believe the time and effort that takes, and how every moment of their life is programmed or completely chaotic. The work load for a Councillor outside of my regular work cannot be any harder than that of my parents with two jobs and four kids. I also watch very little TV (Canucks games and the Tour de France combined probably represent 90% of my viewing time), don’t play videos games, and (unfortunately) don’t have as much time to read as I would like to these days.
I still have a social life, but do not get to do as much reading or cycling as I would like these days. But I will not let my other half throw away those back issues of the Walrus, because I have every intention of reading that great article from last year about how John Baird is the presumptive next Prime Minister… as soon as I get to it….
“What’s the best part?” This sounds cheezy, but every now and then, someone thanks me for helping them out. Often, it isn’t even in a way that I thought I was helping them out, and that is both surprising and fulfilling. I am at an event and someone says “Hey, I appreciate you providing those on-line council reports”, and it makes the effort of sitting down at 11:30 and putting in an extra half hour feel worthwhile. At an event last month, someone I respect immensely (enough that I assume they never think about me) thanked me for something I said in Council a few weeks earlier around accessibility on Transit, and I was taken aback. You are occasionally reminded that people are listening, and that decisions you make are making a difference in people’s everyday lives. And that is both scary and occasionally inspiring.
I lose sleep on Sunday Nights. I spend the day going through the package, and am filled with anxiety about the Council day to come: Do I really understand the long-term impacts here? Will I ask the right questions? Will I make a fool of myself asking that question? Am I the only one with concerns? Am I wrong in how I see this issue? Will we make the right decision? How will I convince the rest of them what is the right decision? However, more often than not, I walk home form Council on Monday night feeling good about the work we have done. That feeling – walking home after a long day of work, tired but satisfied that we have done good work – is the best part of the job.
“What’s the worst part?” When you disappoint people. There was a decision I made earlier in the year that was a difficult one. Difficult enough that I wrote a blog post about it, because I thought it was important to explain my rationale about how I arrived at my decision. This impacted someone I considered a friend in a negative way, and I even reached out after in a personal note to explain to that person why I made the decision the way I did. It was the only decision I could make in good conscience, and the only decision I could defend, and although it impacted them, doing differently would not have been doing my job – the job they voted for me to do. That friend has not spoken to me since. That sucks, and I don’t know how to fix it.
“Would you do it again?” You will have to ask me in about three years.