The civic accountability of municipal councillors has long been a question worth exploring.
What can your local councillor do for you? What is beyond their reach?
Can he or she solve neighbour disputes, stop highrises from being built in your backyard, get your street paved when the potholes are taking over, keep cars from speeding in your community, or even prevent commercial uses in residential areas?
Rarely, sometimes, yes, not really and maybe are the answers, most but not all of the time.
That’s because there’s no hard-and-fast job description for municipal councillors.
Sure, Ontario’s Municipal Act takes a run at defining the job, but only in bits and pieces. Barrie’s Code of Conduct for its councillors, and members of committees and boards, takes a stab at it, too.
But nothing really definitive you can put your finger on.
Geoffrey Booth, a political science teacher at Georgian College’s Orillia campus, says that individual councillors have very little power — just the one vote — unless they can convince a majority of council to take their side.
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If you think about it, municipalities are by far the most democratic form of governance we have in this country,” he said. “Most councils are not bound to any (political) party or set of formal principles. Councillors are free to vote according to their conscience and thanks to local media… that message gets out.
“And so if people do feel that something needs to be addressed and it creates some type of political will in council, then stuff will change.”
Barry Ward is Barrie city council’s longest-serving member, since 2000, as Ward 4 councillor and as deputy mayor. He says councillors have two main responsibilities.
“One is serving as a kind of ombudsman for residents, trying to help them when they have a problem or question, everything from not having their garbage picked up to inquiring about the zoning of the property next to them,” he told BarrieToday. “Usually, I either know the answer or can find out with an e-mail or phone call to staff. Often, it is a matter of directing them to the appropriate department at city hall.
“The other job is making decisions I believe are in their best interest, not only on city council but on the various organizations and bodies councillors sit on, such as conservation authorities and the health unit," Ward added. "It is impossible to know what the majority of residents want on every issue. A councillor just has to use his or her judgment.”
Ann-Marie Kungl is Barrie’s newest councillor, winning her Ward 3 seat in the February 2020 byelection. She says being a councillor is all about looking after her constituents and making their lives better.
“I firmly believe that there should be no hidden agendas and no partisan politics,” she said. “Overall, I think it is imperative to the integrity of the role for a councillor to be honest, transparent and hold themselves to a high standard of conduct and seek the best available information to guide decisions.
“There will be city-wide priorities that will have implications for constituents, and it is important to balance competing demands and take an informed and fair approach to divided positions," Kungl added.
Dave Lawlor, 71, a Barrie resident since 1979, has long battled the city on a number of fronts — most notably against a proposed townhouse development on Big Bay Point Road, one which eventually stalled and has not been built to this point.
He says what councillors should do, and what they actually do, are often not the same thing.
“I would have thought that a municipal councillor’s job is to represent the interests of their designated area (ward),” he said. “I find political organizations (his words for politicians) now to be remote from accountability.
“I’m quite taken by the fact that a political answer to a direct question is usually a total avoidance of the question. There’s no question but that someone will talk, but what they say is not at all an answer to the point of the question. And that to me is a political answer.”
Lawlor says he’s looking for just one thing when he asks a municipal councillor a question.
“I would like that from anybody. I would call that the truth. I would like to hear the truth,” he said. “I don’t want, I don’t need someone to suggest that speaking for some measure of time is any sort of a real response.”
Lawlor, nevertheless, doesn’t believe there’s any sinister intent with local politicians.
“I don’t think that any of those people that you’re talking to think they’re doing anything less than their job. I think that they believe that what they’re doing is right,” he said. “In the end, they are in power. They hold the reins of power and no one can hold them to account.”
What about municipal elections, which are held every four years?
“That’s as close as you’re going to come, but in fact… I think that people get away with stuff because they hold power and just because there’s an election, that doesn’t change the fact that they hold power.”
Harry Hughes has been a councillor in Oro-Medonte Township, Barrie's neighbour to the north, its deputy mayor and is now in his fourth term as mayor. He questions how much power any single member of council holds, including the mayor.
“The first thing a municipal councillor has to do, and it takes them a long time to understand this, is that they are an elected official, they aren’t staff,” he said. “And that’s something that not only some councillors don’t understand, the members of the public do not understand it, either.
“What councillors do is they establish policy and they give direction to staff and it takes a majority of councillors to be able to do that. One councillor cannot do that, nor can a minority number," Hughes added. “Quite frankly, it’s a myth that the mayor has any more authority (than a councillor). It (a decision) has to be able to be done by the majority of elected officials, which is called democracy.”
Oro-Medonte’s mayor also says there are other shocks awaiting first-time councillors, ones which cannot always be fixed.
“If there’s anything a councillor should be able to do, that they can’t do, it’s to move things along more quickly. It takes so long to do something,” he said. “There’s a process you have to go through, covered by a whole lot of process regulations, handed down by the province.”
Hughes said some councillors leave after one term when they discover just what they can and can’t do, and how difficult it is to get anything done.
“They are being called to do something and are held responsible for something that is beyond their ability,” he said.
Part 2 will be published Monday.