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Small-town politicians say pandemic increased job demands and vitriol

Politicians in big cities have said the last term was hard on them, but people on smaller community councils — where members are just a phone call away from their constituents — say the strain of the last four years has been especially trying.

Fewer people are running for office in Ontario's 2022 municipal elections

'You're in the public eye no matter where you go,' says Rick Dumas, the mayor of Marathon, Ont. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Politicians in big cities like Ottawa have said the last term was hard on them, but people on smaller community councils — where members are just a phone call away from their constituents — say the strain of the last four years has been especially trying.

"You're in the public eye no matter where you go. You're in the corner stores, you're in the Canadian Tires, the coffee shops," said Rick Dumas, the mayor of Marathon, Ont., a small northern Ontario town located 300 kilometres east of Thunder Bay. 

"Nobody wants to run because the responsibility of a mayor and council is a lot and a lot of people don't realize that."

CBC compiled data from 414 municipalities holding elections for 2022 and compared that information to data provided by the province from 2018 and 2014.

The number of people running for municipal office has been declining and there are more council members who have run unopposed.


Dumas, who was acclaimed in advance of the Oct. 24 election, says municipal governments draw the brunt of local fire on issues even if they stem from provincial or federal decisions — the COVID-19 pandemic being a prime example. 

"I personally experienced, publicly, attacks in the community, on the street, as well as through social media," Dumas said. 

The last four years also felt more like eight to Marg Isbester.

After a single term as mayor of the Town of Greater Napanee west of Kingston, Isbester, 71, stepped down. She cut her first retirement short in 2010 to become a town councillor, but wasn't prepared for how all-encompassing the job would be and how COVID would add to the burden.

"It got to be very contentious and it wasn't just trying to protect [people]. It was trying to fight back the people that were against the protection."

Time-consuming 'if you do this job properly'

Isbester and Dumas both got into trouble themselves for incidents unrelated to COVID: Dumas for responding to a Facebook post criticizing him by showing up to the door of his critic and shouting, and Isbester for threatening in jest to burn down someone's house, an incident for which she had to apologize.

"I'm one of those mayors, stupidly sometimes, that will pick up the phone and say 'Do you know how far off base you are with that?'" she said.

The hassle of dealing with "keyboard warriors" is not what prompted Isberger's exit. Instead, the increasingly complex demands placed on municipal governments coupled with a true desire to retire pushed her out for good, she said. 

"If you do this job properly, it is very hard to travel, to make sure that you're taking advantage of watching grandchildren's soccer games," she said.

"Throw COVID into the mix and really this term, not just myself as mayor, but everyone, missed a lot of things."

'Never know when a phone is going to ring'

Isbester's departure opened the door for Terry Richardson, a retired police officer coming off his first term as councillor.

Richardson submitted his name to be mayor and won without a vote being cast — one of 139 mayors or reeves across the province this year who have been acclaimed.

Richardson was surprised to be acclaimed as mayor of the town of nearly 17,000 people, but understands the job may not be appealing.

He clocked in up to 30 hours a week as a councillor — earning just over $19,000 — and said it's not a regular nine-to-five workday either. 

"You never know when a phone is going to ring," he said. "You deal with a lot of information where people are angry about things, and you try and help them out as best you can. You think you have a lot of control in what happens and sometimes you really just don't."

One in three candidates running for mayor or reeve in Ontario have been acclaimed. The incoming mayors of Brockville and Mississippi Mills weigh in on what that may say about interest in local politics.

Higher pay could help diversify councils: mayor

Zac Spicer, an associate professor at York University who focuses on local government, says the role of municipal councils has grown beyond just roads.

"They're complex organizations that are under immense amounts of pressure on the regulatory front, on the financial front, and you need people who are able to think through that," Spicer said. 

Dumas says bolstering council members' pay would also help tackle one barrier to entering municipal politics, which is that councils remain largely the domain of retirees and business owners who have the time and financial flexibility to pull double duty. 

Richardson, the newly-acclaimed mayor of Greater Napanee, says he's clocked in up to 30 hours during some weeks as a town councillor. (courtesy Terry Richardson)

Richardson, who is on a police pension and has extra time on his hands, agrees "a lot of people don't have that ability."

He doesn't think hiking council members' pay is the answer.

"You get involved in this profession for the love of the community," he said. 


Also this week

MONDAY: How many acclamations are there this year?

WEDNESDAYThe challengers pushing to prevent acclamations in their local ridings.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

With files from Kate Porter, Paul Jay and Safiyah Marhnouj

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