What some P.E.I. councillors wish they knew before being elected

Four first-term councillors from four different jurisdictions — Charlottetown, Cornwall, Stratford and Summerside — told CBC News about their experience as well as some of the things they wish they'd known before taking public office.

'They understand sometimes dad can't be around because he has things that he has to do'

Some things take time and you sure can't please everybody, say some councillors. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

What does it take to be a councillor?

With municipal elections falling on P.E.I. this autumn, four first-term councillors from four different jurisdictions — Charlottetown, Cornwall, Stratford and Summerside — shared with CBC their experience in public office and some of the things that took them by surprise in their first go-around in government.

Particularly, things they wish they'd known before taking public office.

Here are some of their biggest takeways:

​Government is a big time commitment

Coun. Greg Rivard in Charlottetown says one of the biggest hurdles he faced was how busy it can get.

Simply looking at last year's stats alone, there was 100 meetings that I attended on behalf of the city.— Greg Rivard

"Simply looking at last year's stats alone, there was 100 meetings that I attended on behalf of the city," he said.

"Not including any social functions that you go to, or any kind of function where you bring greetings, or even meeting with residents … that was a surprise." 

Prior to his election, he was involved on the city's planning board, he said, attending monthly meetings.

Prior to his election in 2014, Coun. Rivard was involved on the city's planning board, attending monthly meetings, which helped understand the time commitment for councillors. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Being involved helped him understand the government process and the time commitment, to an extent.

Though in the end the commitment has at times been tough forcing him to go "the extra mile" to make up for lost time with his family.

"I certainly on occasions disappointed my own family having to attend meetings and things of that nature," he said.

"They understand sometimes dad can't be around because he has things that he has to do."

Making decisions can be a slow process

Jill MacIsaac was one of Cornwall's newest councillors following the 2014 municipal election and said one of the biggest things she would have liked to know beforehand — be patient.

'I wish I had have known how long of a process some things take,' says Coun. Jill MacIsaac. (Submitted by Jill MacIsaac)

"I wish I had have known how long of a process some things take," she said. "I had this kind of misconception beforehand that 'oh why can't they just do this' or 'why can't they just get that done.'"

But in reality, she said, "there's quite a few steps to any decision being made."

For someone thinking about running for public office, MacIsaac said people should start sitting in on regular committee meetings.

"You get a real good feel of what's happening in your community, how processes are done, how decisions are made, the time it takes," she said.

That, and get to know your fellow residents and be involved in your community early on as you shouldn't just be involved "the three weeks before you're hoping to have your name drawn."

You can't please everybody

Gail MacDonald was one of two new additions to the Stratford town council in the 2014 election and the biggest learning experience for her has been that not everyone will be happy with your decisions.

Don't go in thinking you can change the world.— Gail MacDonald

​"The funny part is I'm a people person and a people pleaser and I certainly found out quickly that you can't please everyone," she said.

"I like to make people happy, of course, but on certain issues this is almost impossible."

Mayor David Dunphy, left, and newly elected councillors Keith MacLean and Gail MacDonald following the 2014 election. (Submitted by Gail MacDonald)

For those considering running, she said, there's at least one thing to consider: "Don't go in thinking you can change the world ... but certainly if I feel passionate about something, or my residents feel passionate about something, then it's my job to convince the other councillors to see my side."

Complexity of governance

Gordie Whitlock said when he was elected to city council in Summerside he went in "totally cold."

What surprised him most, he said, was the learning curve and exactly how complex some processes are.

"It takes quite a while to figure out how things actually get done," he said. "It was 12 months before I really had a fairly good grasp on how to get things done, if you will."​

Coun. Gordie Whitlock says 'it takes quite a while to figure out how things actually get done.' (Natalia Goodwin/PEI)

For those thinking about running for public office, Whitlock said it's best to talk with sitting councillors now to "try and get an idea of how municipalities are actually run."

As well, try to get a grasp on how city budgets are formed.

"There's different wants and different departments. Do you really need another police car? Do you need another generator at the electric plant?" he said.

"There's any number of things that can pull you one way or another and most of them make sense but you can't do them all." 

About the Author

Cody MacKay

Web Writer

Cody hails from Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and is a UPEI History and Carleton Masters of Journalism alum. He joined CBC P.E.I. in July, 2017. Reach him at cody.mackay@cbc.ca