Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Do These Schmucks Do? - Alderman Edition

(Nation, the following is a re-post, with edits and additions, of a post I put out in October 2007.)

The City of Calgary, whether by design or by unbelievable oversight, has NO information available on-line as to what, exactly, an Alderman's job really IS.

Therefore, I have little recourse but to consult the Book of Armaments - er, I mean, the Queen's Printer, and take the words right from the legislative horse's mouth:

General duties of councillors

Councillors have the following duties:
(a) to consider the welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole and to bring to council’s attention anything that would promote the welfare or interests of the municipality;
(b) to participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality;
(c) to participate in council meetings and council committee meetings and meetings of other bodies to which they are appointed by the council;
(d) to obtain information about the operation or administration of the municipality from the chief administrative officer or a person designated by the chief administrative officer;
(e) to keep in confidence matters discussed in private at a council or council committee meeting until discussed at a meeting held in public;
(f) to perform any other duty or function imposed on councillors by this or any other enactment or by the council.

(Municipal Government Act, Part Five, Division Three)

Vague? Sure... but that's legislation for you. To avoid having 480 different Acts, they write as vague an Act as possible, so everyone will fit into it.

For their part, the City of Calgary's Bylaw department doesn't list any Bylaws that would amend or add to the responsibilities, as allowed for in section (f).

Near as I can tell, then, the job of an Alderman with the City of Calgary is to a) show up at meetings, and b) don't spill the beans on top-secret projects. At least, legislatively, that's the job. In reality, there are many other things that can win you the support of your constituents for years to come. Acting swiftly and decisively to get their concerns heard and dealt with at City Hall would be a good start.

Of note, is the fact that several candidates for Alderman in this election state on their websites that they intend to "run the ward" in a certain way. In fairness, they MAY mean "run the ward office", and they simply mis-spoke. It should be clearly noted, though, that we are not electing 14 little Mayors to run small segments of the city - an Alderman's job is to represent the people of their ward, not to govern them as a personal fiefdom. The collective will of Council, all 15 members, governs the City of Calgary. Your Alderman "runs" your ward as much as your MLA or MP runs your riding - which is to say, not at all.

THEY make decisions, as part of a larger body, on YOUR behalf. Without you, they have no franchise to exercise. Remember (because some of them will forget from time to time, and will need reminding) that THEY work for YOU. And, if your Alderman HAS forgotten for whom they work in the past 3 years - show up on October 18th and remind them who call the shots.

So...  tell me, E.S. - what does it take to be a good Alderman?

I thought you'd never ask.  Given the above listed responsibilities, I'd say the following items are of paramount importance in someone who wants this job...

Time - the job of Alderman is a 60-to-80 hours work week, on average.  The people who get elected need to be able and willing to put that time in.
Communications Skill - It's important for an Alderman to be able to articulate to the City Council and Administration this wishes of her or his Ward.  It's JUST as important, though, for that Alderman to be capable of listening to those concerns FROM the Ward - because if you don't know what your bosses think, you can't explain that to your co-workers and employees at City Hall, no matter HOW good a public speaker you are.
Bargaining Ability - Politics is the art of the impossible.  In City Council, it's about sitting down with 15 people representing little pieces of the city, and coming out of the room with resolutions to issues that will keep everyone satisfied.  Being able to build and work with that team on Council is how things get done - and a successful Alderman needs to be able to do that.
Fiscal Awareness - The City Budget is a massive document, outlining spending that is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Those would be dollars that belong to you and me, by the way.  A successful Alderman will not only be able to read that budget, but they'll be able to keep in mind just that fact - that they're not CITY dollars, they're CITIZEN dollars.
Humility - The height of wisdom, is knowing what you do not know.  Alderman serve on committees where they often have little if ANY practical background or knowledge when elected.  Our Alderman need to be able to admit, if to no one but themselves, when they're faced with a situation where their handle on an issue is insufficient to deal with the issue at hand.  If it means taking courses quietly at SAIT, MRU, Bow Valley College or U of C to get up to speed, so be it.  If it means just going to the stakeholders or the community to get more information, that's fine too.  But ego can't get in the way if the Alderman hopes to do a good job.
Visibility - The successful Alderman is the one who actually responds to constituent concerns (right, Helene?).  An Alderman needs to make sure that they're in the public eye, and can be accessed by the public.  It's possible to be incredibly effective while staying in back room meetings and out of the public eye - but only for one term.

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