New Brunswick

So, you wanna be a municipal councillor? Here's some advice

It's not an easy job, and it can be a thankless, but two veteran municipal councillors say helping to run your city or town can be rewarding work for the right person.

Two council veterans discuss what to expect if you're elected

Being a municipal councillor can be a tough job. but it can also be rewarding with the right approach. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Emil Olsen is likely one of the most experienced municipal politicians in New Brunswick.

First elected as mayor of Quispamsis in 1983, Olsen has been on council for 28 of the 37 years since, but he admits the job comes with many challenges.

"It's not for everyone, OK," Olsen said.

"You have to have a commitment into the community and you have to have dedication. You have to be willing to do things, and, like you say, some of them are not as comfortable as others."

New Brunswick will hold municipal elections on May 11.

Emil Olsen has served as both mayor and councillor on Quispamsis town council during a long municipal career that began in 1983. (KV Police Board)

Olsen has had people tell him they couldn't do the job.

"Well, you know what, there's all kinds of professions that you or I wouldn't want to do, but there's people who are doing them because they have a love for that particular work."

Olsen said the key to being successful at the job is to understand you're working as part of a team.

"People can't expect to come in and change the whole community overnight with one vote. You're just one part of a team," he said.

"And, so, people with vested interests should realize that."

Two-term Fredericton councillor John MacDermid would likely second that emotion.

He said change comes in increments and it's important to recognize that.

"Sometimes people are very black and white," he said. "They feel that the end goal is being at 100 per cent success.

"And there can be a lack of willingness to accept, 'Yeah, you know what, I got 25 per cent toward my goal. Now, that's better than when I started. It's not as far as where I want, but I'm making gains. And, if I keep at this, then maybe I can get to 50 per cent, and then to 75 per cent.'"

He said if you can't adjust your goals "you're going to have a hard time. You're going to feel like you're beating your head against a wall."

MacDermid said a new councillor faces a steep learning curve because the municipal system is so complex.

"I think they should go in with the expectation that their first six months [are] going to be largely unproductive," he said.

John MacDermid is a two-term councillor on Fredericton city council. He has decided not to reoffer on May 11. (CBC)

"They need to learn the system. They need to understand how staff fit into it. They need to understand how the dynamic of a council works in terms of everyone's there as an independent.

"And then, on top of that, is having an understanding of all the plans."

MacDermid said municipalities are guided by municipal plans, heritage plans, recreation plans and the like.

"These plans all guide the recommendations made by staff and the decisions coming out of council," he said.

He said you have to develop your approach to issues within the context of those plans.

MacDermid said people also make the mistake of viewing municipal politics as similar to provincial or federal politics.

"But the reality is, in the Fredericton context, if you want to make change you need to have, at the very least … six other councillors who are going to agree with that and go forward with it," he said.

"It's very much a collaborative effort as opposed to adversarial, where you've got two sides of the house."

Impact on family

Beyond the nuts and bolts of how council operates, both Olsen and MacDermid said the job does require a fair amount of time.

Olsen, now retired, says he spends up to 15 hours a week on council business and committee work.

But, he said, it was much harder when he was working, too.

"Unfortunately, you have to recognize it can impact your family life, and my wife, God bless her, raised our four kids because I was out doing everything else."

MacDermid said sub-committee work happens at noon hour in Fredericton, which can be difficult for some.

Rewards?

"I would say if you can't take your lunches off, then your effectiveness as a councillor by not being at those sub-committees is going to be greatly reduced."

MacDermid is not reoffering this election to concentrate on a new career, but he said his time on council has been worth it.

"This is the most interesting and rewarding job I've ever had. And I've had a lot of jobs. I've done a lot of things in my life and nothing has engaged me in the way that this has," he said.

Olsen said he gets a sense of self-satisfaction from the job, knowing that you're doing something to make your community better.

"You make millions, too," he said with a laugh.

Kim Poffenroth is New Brunswick's chief electoral officer. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Elections NB is now holding public sessions across the province for people considering running for municipal councils, district education councils and regional health authorities.

Chief Electoral Officer Kim Poffenroth said potential candidates must be 18 years of age on or before election day and must be a Canadian citizen and a minimum six-month resident of the municipality, school district or health region where they intend to run.

File early

Returning officers will begin accepting nomination papers on Mar. 23.

Papers have to be received by 2 p.m. on Thursday, Apr. 9.

"It's a very hard deadline," Poffenroth said, "The returning officers are not allowed to accept any nomination papers even one minute after 2 p.m. and I have absolutely no authority to extend that deadline." 

Information is available on the Elections NB website at electionsnb.ca.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Webb

Producer

Steven Webb is a producer for CBC based in Saint John.

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