“The way you conduct yourselves makes the whole thing work.”
– BETH JOHNSON
Is your local council a model of good governance or dysfunctional mess?
Beth Johnson has seen both, and pretty much everything in between.
The former mayor of Delta, B. C. now runs a consulting company to help elected and appointed officials work more effectively together. She was in Manitoba last month at the invitation of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM).
Good governance may seem abstract, until you’ve served on any council or board where it’s missing, Johnson told about 600 municipal officials attending the AMM seminar.
“Then it’s no longer abstract,” she said. “Then it’s a living, breathing nightmare.”
Lack of ability to work together is extremely frustrating in any group. But when municipal councils become bogged down by directionless bickering, it not only damages the group, but the entire community, Johnson said. It breeds public cynicism, rather than trust in local government. At the same time, it impairs an entire community’s ability to move forward.
“The way you conduct yourselves makes the whole thing work,” she said.
Good councils listen well, both to each other and the public, are able to make good decisions and demonstrate leadership and model exemplary behaviour in all their actions.
They may disagree and rigorously debate important matters. But the debate must be civil.
One of the time-tested means of making that happen is Robert’s Rules of Order. The recent AMM meeting devoted a seminar to helping people better use the 200-year-old rules for parliamentary procedure. It was standing room only.
Robert’s Rules are best suited to larger groups, but can be helpful whenever smaller groups get into conflict, said Heather MacKenzie, a parliamentarian with Manitoba Association of Parliamentarians who presented the seminar. Robert’s Rules, which include procedures for making and amending motions, and allowing for everyone to make an opinion known, make discussion orderly, MacKenzie said. “You’re talking about the same thing and one thing at a time.”
Many rural residents who participated in 4-H received their first taste of Robert’s Rules at club meetings.
Robert Misko, reeve of the R. M. of Hillsburg says AMM felt a brush-up on the rules was timely. Most councils typically don’t run into problems, but the organization has occasionally hit snags at conventions, he said.
Last year’s 2009 lengthy debate over a proposed one-cent sales tax was an example.
“There was tabling and different motions got called and sometimes there was confusion among the group,” he said.
Lionel Guerard who also serves on the Association of Parliamentarians said the organization is always glad to help groups improve their understanding of parliamentary procedure. “Frankly, there is no place as such that I know that young people, or people coming into city or municipal councils can go and learn the procedures,” he said.
Well-run meetings keep a council’s business on track, agrees Johnson.
Other advice she offered:
Debate matters strenuously but never resort to personal animosity if you disagree. Support a decision made by process of a democratic vote, even if you disagree with it. Do not bash other councillors or staff afterward. There are tactful ways to state publicly that you didn’t support the vote, said Johnson.
Make a decision, then stick to it. Good councils get all the facts and listen to all sides. They don’t endlessly ask for more information. That’s a stalling tactic and “sometimes a way of avoiding a decision,” Johnson said.
Be clear about the distinct roles and responsibilities of councils and staff. Remember that an elected council operates on a macro level, while staff are expected to carry out a council’s instructions. Don’t be accused, as some councils are, of having the staff run you, Johnson said.
Make it clear to ratepayers that a council is operating in a transparent and open fashion. The public has an increased fear that decisions are made behind closed doors.
Finally, set the example of respectful behaviour for the democratic institution of local government. A mayor’s responsibility is to ensure that the standards of decorum are absolutely clear to the public, council and staff alike, Johnson said. “You don’t have to be iron fisted but you do need to quietly and author i tat ively demand that decorum be served.”
A fair number of councillors, mayors and reeves presently serving in Manitoba are newly elected and just over two years into their term.
AMM executive director Joe Masi said AMM focused this spring’s municipal officials’ session on professional development to help these new leaders do their job better. The association itself doesn’t hear excessive numbers of complaints, but they do hear ratepayers complain at times that decisions aren’t being made in a transparent way, he said.
“The other one is conflict of interest,” he said. “A lot of councils struggle with that.” [email protected]