Why Municipal Politicians Deserve More Respect
As I drove home to Edmonton last Thursday, after doing media training in southern Alberta for four municipalities, I had time to think about the role of municipal politicians and asked myself why they're so often underrated.
You can easily argue the decisions made by politicians who lead the municipalities we live in have a greater impact on our lives than their provincial or federal counterparts, but they rarely get credited for the important work they do.
I think it's time for us to appreciate the work done by our local politicians. You may not always like their decisions, but most of them work extremely hard on our behalf.
A Memory from Mayor Nenshi
In December 2019, I was at a Christmas party for a client of mine, an Alberta association. The party was in downtown Calgary and then Mayor Naheed Nenshi put in an appearance. Just after dinner, Nenshi gave about ten minutes of remarks (totally ad libbed) and just after he finished, I did a quick interview with him, despite his handler trying to get the mayor to his next event. He still had two other places to hit that night.
Just after we finished the interview, I asked him how many of these events he gets invited to in a weekend. He replied “This weekend, it’s 30. That’s a little more than I normally get, perhaps because it’s Christmas. Usually it’s 20-25, but sometimes it’s more.”
As his handler escorted him to his next event, I thought about how different his life was than for most of us, certainly on weekends.
It’s just another aspect of being a municipal politician that most of us don’t think about. Sure, the mayor of Calgary is going to be busier than a councillor from a smaller community, but there’s no question municipal politicians put in far more time doing their jobs than most of us suspect.
I know that municipal politicians spend many nights and weekends going to community league and homeowner’s association events, town hall meetings, grand openings, barbecues and every other type of gathering you can think of.
Despite that time commitment, it can often be a thankless job.
I fully understand there are a lot of people who don’t like politicians, regardless of who they represent. However, why does it seem municipal politicians get less respect than provincial or federal politicians?
Is it because municipal politicians sometimes deal with mundane issues like dog and cat bylaws, while provincial and certainly federal politicians deal with “more important” topics?
Maybe it’s because municipal politicians are still seen to be doing a part-time job? It might have been that way years ago, but it’s not these days for many of them.
Is it because we see Question Period on TV from stately, serious places like provincial legislatures and Parliament Hill in Ottawa?
Maybe it’s because municipalities are sometimes described as “creatures” of their provincial governments, or perhaps because provincial and federal governments are called “senior levels of government.”
Words do matter.
Quite frankly, I’ve often thought decisions made by municipal councils have a far greater effect on most of us than those “senior” levels of government. We all want good roads to drive on year-round, our garbage collected on time, help from police and fire departments in an emergency, local parks to spend time in and well-planned communities to live in. Local politicians make all those decisions.
School boards even get less publicity, but school trustees also do some wonderful work to ensure our kids get the best education possible. Sure, money and overall direction come from the province, but some very critical decisions are made at the local level, with very little coverage in the news media. "Doing more with less" has been the reality for school boards across Alberta for the last few years.
Nowhere to Hide
The other thing that often gets forgotten in this discussion is that municipal politicians are so visible, especially in smaller communities. They don’t spend half their time in provincial capitals, or in Ottawa like provincial and federal politicians do. There’s nowhere to hide.
They also don’t hide behind party platforms, because they don’t exist in municipal politics. If the media has a question for them, they’re pretty easy to find. Having said that, my experience in many smaller towns and also in counties and municipal districts, is that many councillors will defer to the mayor or reeve to talk to reporters. There’s nothing wrong with that, because in many cases the top elected official is the media spokesperson. Often though, if something is happening in the part of the ward or division they represent, they should be the one to comment because they’re the closest to the story, and often do.
One of the first jobs I had as a reporter many years ago was covering Edmonton City Council. At the typical City Council meeting, there would be around 15-reporters from radio, TV and newspapers providing coverage. These days there are normally three or four and sometimes less.
Fewer reporters translates into fewer stories and less coverage of the decisions municipal councils make. That might be the biggest reason of all for municipal politicians being underrated these days.
I enjoyed our session very much Grant, it was an eye-opener on many fronts, and exposed multiple weaknesses in my own armor. This article also speaks well to a topic of interest for all municipal officials. Thanks also for letting me attack your reporter 'skillset', it was a fun tangent to our session. With luck, I will cross paths with you again. Regards, Ray Wildeman