Council Day 67: Who to vote for

Wednesday night I returned home from another 6.5-hour-long council meeting and began to ponder what citizens should look for in their elected officials. It seems we elect candidates based on qualities that are not always relevant to the job.

At most, we choose who to vote for based on what candidates say in their practiced two-minute speeches, carefully written statements, and how the candidate comes across at a public event; at least, we choose based on who has the best sign or newspaper ads.

Unless you know what the job entails—what we really do—there’s no way you can choose members of your future council or legislature or parliament with conviction.

Over this four-year term, I’ll add to this list of skills and abilities you should look for in a political candidate, local or otherwise, based on my experience behind the council table.

Here are the first two…

Your elected official needs to be able to listen.

I’m not just talking about being able to listen to an irate citizen rant about their sidewalk not being fixed in nine years, though that is a fine and important skill. I’m talking about being able to sit and listen to hours and hours—and hours—of presentations. In the past three months, I have been subjected to no fewer than 35 presentations, most delivered via PowerPoint, most taking more than 15 minutes, some lasting over an hour, none of which required action from me. The human brain can withstand receiving only so much passive information before it shuts down and starts thinking about snack time.

A note to delegates presenting at council: Make us participate! If you involve us in the discussion in any form—even if you ask us our shoe size—we are more likely to pay attention because the bar for engaging presentations is that low.

Your elected official needs to be able to read.

Reading comprehension is the second most-required skill for an elected official. Each meeting agenda has attached to it all relevant historical and new reporting for each topic to inform the councillors as much as possible before they make a decision. This is the good news.

The bad news is we have pages and pages—and pages—of reports to read, understand and synthesize in a short amount of time before each council and committee meeting. If you skim, you’re screwed because you can guarantee you will miss the one fact you should have read more carefully before making an uninformed decision in public.

Better decisions will be made if you elect good readers.

More to follow

I still have mountains to learn about this job and what skills are required, but so far what I know for certain is that for all a candidate’s good intentions, they haven’t got a hope of accomplishing them unless they can listen and read for hours and hours—and hours.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for this Maeve. I’d forgotten how unusual our lives are until I read this.
    But trust me.. over time, you actually get used to it. And maybe that’s not a good thing.
    Maybe that should be the criteria for any politician’s “best before” date. If they ever get *too* used to this. (Then again, it comes with the job.)

  2. Would it not be possible for presentations to be five minutes that way the presenter needs to only give the distilled important facts to you and you can comment on them and be involved with them? It sounds like there is a lot of wasted time must be so frustrating

    1. A good idea Ruth. And how about a no PowerPoint policy? Imagine what the presenter would have to do to engage us then! The options are endless.

  3. Hi Councillor Maquire; I’m sorry you have been subjected to these ridiculously long meetings; if its any consolation don’t forget that we the taxpayers must endure right along with you (whether we attend the meeting in person or watch the on-line broadcast). An observation I’d like to make: there has been a consistent pattern to these long agendas. Remember “she who writes the agenda, controls the agenda and she who controls the agenda, controls the meeting”, something the current CAO and Mayor have become subject matter experts in. If they are permitted to continually load up Council meetings with information sessions, delegations and other “nice to know stuff”, Council will not be able to spend their valuable time on business decision related items. Who knows perhaps this is their intent: wear the Councilors and taxpayers down with hours of information, so that when the difficult / contentious issues arise everyone’s mind and attention has drifted off. Perhaps consideration of developing Council agendas with a specific limit to the number of items on the agenda, which in turn would reduce the length of Council meetings. Perhaps adding an additional Council meeting, every so often, just for these Council non decision making matters, might be more productive. As a member of Council, I hope you might be inspired to lead the other Councilors to changing the system.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mr. Gerbis. It isn’t only in council meetings that we have listened to presentations. A great deal of our councillor training is delivered by PowerPoint. Whoever’s idea it was to put Financial Management 101 in the afternoon has a sick sense of humour.

      To your point about delegations at council meetings, after these last two meetings with long delegations sessions, I had this very conversation with the mayor earlier this week. The delegations take up the best part of our meeting time, when we have the most energy to make difficult decisions, like notices of motion. I’m not sure what the solution is but we all recognize it’s not working the way it is today. Something good will come of it!

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