Christina Benty thinks there are three bad reasons for running for a municipal council.
The first one: “You say you are going to reduce taxes, but you can’t be really specific about which services you are going to reduce.”
The second is that you are going to clean up city hall, but you aren’t sure exactly what you mean.
“It is easy to speak in such general terms in a coffee shop discussion,” she says. “But what exactly is the basis of your mistrust?”
The third bad reason is that you want to tackle issues that are not a municipal council’s job and that the council can’t afford to do.
“Things like affordable housing or poverty reduction. These are critical issues, I do not argue with that, but is it the job of your local politicians to look after that? I would say an emphatic no.”
She says the exception is zoning and land use planning – definitely a municipality’s job – that is aimed at encouraging affordable housing.
Benty was the mayor of Golden for two terms until 2014 and a councillor there for two terms before that. She now does leadership and governance training for councils, boards and organizations.
On Aug. 27 she and co-presenter Caleb Moss will conduct a workshop in Castlegar for would-be West Kootenay candidates in the upcoming municipal and regional district elections. One of her focuses will be the role of municipal councils — something she says the public tends to misunderstand.
Local government’s job: provide the basics
“Local government exists to provide some pretty basic services, at a core level. They are water, sewer, emergency services, transportation, roads, garbage, and recreation.
“We are going to see this election focus on issues like affordable housing, which does not fall in the purview of local government.”
She says housing is the job of the provincial and federal governments.
“If local governments had their roads in stellar condition and their (sewer and water) and their sidewalks and recreational facilities all in stellar condition, then yes, go ahead and focus on things like local housing.”
But most municipalities have infrastructure deficits, she says, and many people don’t understand the cost of replacing, for example, aging water and sewer pipes. She says once municipalities deal with those things well, they probably can’t afford anything else.
The lowest income, the highest expectations
She says that for every tax dollar that people pay to all levels of government, “eight cents goes to local government, 42 goes to province, and 50 cents to the feds, so local government is providing infrastructure intensive services with limited resources.”
Benty said not long after she was first elected to council it was made clear that Golden’s infrastructure gap was growing by $2.2 million per year.
“So the misconception is that local government is wasting money and bleeding money all over the place, but people don’t realize the cost to provide the services.”
Leadership means more than having an opinion
Benty says part of the workshop will be about leadership, which is “more than just having an opinion. It is actually about being willing to be curious and change your mind in the light of information, to be a team player, to be somebody who is able to communicate and think critically and strategically.
“Your job on council is to do your homework, to intellectually prepare for debate and discussion with fellow councillors, and to make decisions. So there is a fair amount of reading and intellectual machinations required to do the job, but when you set up systems really well it should not be (a full-time job). That being said, never underestimate the time it takes to prepare and do a good job.”
Social media: don’t be overwhelmed by loud minority
Benty says social media has changed the landscape of municipal government significantly. She said local governments don’t have the resources to manage the proliferation of misinformation or respond properly to the vitriol directed at them online.
“Is it a disincentive to run? Sure it is, when you know you are going to subject yourself to a barrage of negative, uninformed opinion on a regular basis, and if you have watched that happen, you are going to think you don’t want to put up with that.”
The job of a politician, Benty said, is not to become overwhelmed by a loud minority, and to become a source of good information.
“Make sure that you participate in social media but don’t be overly responsive to idiot behaviour.”
Be a source of good information
When she was mayor and someone made an uninformed comment, she would phone the commenter and offer to discuss it and provide accurate information.
“That was a game changer, because people would start to backtrack. I created this reputation, if you are going to put something stupid on social media the mayor is going to phone you. So it kind of cut down on that, and sometimes people would take down their comments. You don’t want to be on the defensive all the time. You want to be on the offensive when it comes to good information.”
The four-hour workshop is being hosted by the cities of Castlegar, Nelson, Creston, Salmo, Rossland and Warfield at the Castlegar Community Forum, 445 13th Ave. starting at 4:30 p.m.