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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Councillors’ workloads

Do our Councillors need help?

Last night on A-Channel Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson revealed that the workload of a councillor hit him “like a Mac truck”. He plans to ask his fellow councillors to support finding $140,000 in the 2011 budget so that each councillor will have $10,000 to spend on a personal assistant to help manage that workload.

Good luck with that.

His experience of the workload, considering that the position is not considered to be fulltime, does raise the question “Just what does a councillor do?”

Based on my experience as a controller and observations and discussions with councillors during my four year term, here are the components that I can identify:

Dealing with day-to-day ward issues

A councillor is often the first point of contact when a constituent has a problem: the snowplow didn’t come, the neighbour’s property isn’t being maintained, cars are going too fast, etc. A councillor is on duty 24/7 for these kinds of issues by email, phone and blackberry. Most of these matters are simply referred to the appropriate city department and could probably be better handled by a 311 system but it does allow the councillor to have a direct connection to the constituent which can be politically advantageous.

The amount of time spent on these varies considerably by ward and councillor. Some councillors have their city calls go directly to one of the three administrative assistants who deal with the issue if possible. Others take all their own calls, asking for assistance only if they don’t have the solution at their finger-tips. Constituents in some wards may have many needs which generate calls. In other wards, constituents may have a lot of demands which also generate calls.

Standing Committees and Council Meetings

Every councillor serves on one of three standing committees which normally meet every other week. When I was on Council, the workloads of the various committees were quite disparate, with Planning Committee, on which I served during three of my four years on Council, being by far the heaviest. Meetings normally last from 2 to 5 hours, depending on the committee, but have been as short as one hour or less and some have gone more than seven hours.

Preparation time for meetings can be considerable. Agendas of 300 pages or more are common and the writing is dense and technical. Normally there will also additional background reports that have to be digested and calls made to experts to be able to weigh the merits of options or recommendations to be considered.

From my observation, there is a somewhat better balance in the workload of standing committees under the new governance model but this round’s agendas seem to be unusually light so it may be too soon to tell.

Council meets on alternate weeks. Given a smaller council, debate time should be shorter since each councillor is limited to five minutes on an issue or group of issues.

More time will be devoted to Committee of the Whole as it will undertake some of the work previously done by Board of Control. On the other hand, the participation of every member at Committee of the Whole should expedite the debate at Council.

Agencies, Boards and Commissions

The time spent on these will vary, depending on their meeting schedule and length of agendas. Some, like the London Public Library (LPL) Board, meet monthly for two hours or more with potential additional meetings if one is appointed to related bodies (I represented LPL at Friends of LPL and Historic Sites Committee for additional monthly or bi-monthly meetings). Others, like the Public Utilities Commission, meet for five minutes once a year.

Voluntary Council Committees, Task Forces and Working Groups

These are extremely varied in the number of meetings held and preparation required. I served on the Services Review Committee and Council Housing Leadership Committee which had very heavy agendas and met frequently. The Downtown Parking Committee, on the other hand, didn’t meet for a full two years!

Councillors vary considerably in the number of commitments they make in taking on these additional  responsibilities. A quick review of the current council reveals that they serve on anywhere from one to ten agencies, boards, commissions or other committees of council. The complete list can be found here. More may be added over the course of the four year term.

Meetings with Community Leaders, Stakeholders and Constituents

These vary with the individual Councillors and their participation on various committees, etc. Councillors involved with development applications can expect significant lobbying and everyone gets lobbied at budget time!

Bringing Greetings and Attending Events

Councillors are constantly being requested to represent the Mayor or the City at meetings, conferences, conventions, dinners, annual general meetings and ribbon cutting for institutions, organizations and businesses as well as welcoming visiting delegations to the city. It is usually left up to the individual Councillor how many or which requests are accepted. I did a lot of the citywide ones as a member of Board of Control.

Community Engagement

Wards with one or more community or ratepayers associations will expect their Councillor to be present at meetings. Councillors may also communicate with their members by maintaining a website, writing regular blogs or newsletters, holding coffee meetings, or formal ward meetings several time a year.

Community and Citywide Initiatives

Involvement in these will be voluntary but is crucial to building a great city. In the second half of my term, I headed up the Age-Friendly London initiative which involved a lot of meetings, research, consultations, report writing and event-planning. Even if you don’t head up your own initiative, as a Councillor you need to be aware of the ongoing issues and initiatives in order to be able to represent your constituents.

Policy Development

Councillors need to be up to date on what is happening in other communities and at other levels of government as well as developments in industry and business and society at large. That means you need to be constantly researching issues to ensure that our city has policies and legislation that anticipate the economic, social, cultural and environmental changes that will impact our city. This is what Council should be working on but often gets short shrift as members get caught up in the day to day demands and activities.

Correspondence and Clerical Stuff

Email has had a significant impact on the workload of the Councillor. It’s easy for constituents to send a quick note on any issue so volumes are high. Instant responses are expected. Some of the messages are angry, even rude, but only polite, reasoned responses are acceptable and sometimes not even then. Blindcopy and mass emailing mean that you never know who will be the final recipient of your response. Typographical errors can lead to major misunderstandings so care must be taken.

Councillors also need to be able to lay their hands on correspondence and research so a good up to date filing system for both electronic and hard copy material is essential as well as an up to date contact list and schedule of appointments.

Dealing with Media

Despite the variety of communications available, the London Free Press, A-Channel, Rogers TV and the local radio stations still have tremendous influence on how Councillors do their job and how their work is perceived by the community. Maintaining respectful relations, returning calls, and being prepared to comment on issues without commenting inappropriately means monitoring the various media, reporters and talk show hosts. That too takes time and effort.

That’s my list.

A lot has been left out, because no two days or weeks or months are the same. And no two councillors will approach the responsibilities in the same way.

Is the equivalent of $40,000 enough for this? Is sharing an administrative assistant with four other councillors going to cut it in terms of support? Is an expense account of $7,000 enough to cover professional training and conferences and other costs?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it would be hard to find another “job” which gives you more opportunity for making a contribution to your city and autonomy in how you do it.


Anonymous said...

Amen Gina. If he didn't know what it was like, why did he run? I guess running city hall more like a business means more perks such as an assistant!

Anonymous said...

I think most people would be surprised at the workload of a diligent member of London city council.

I've long thought that the pay is somewhat subpar and would actually support the hiring of assistants for all ward councillors.

The problem is the current optics.

Ward 8 Councillor Henderson is on a steep learning curve.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, make that Ward 9 Councillor Henderson.

Gina Barber said...
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