What it takes to be a mayor on P.E.I.

With elections on the horizon on Prince Edward Island, and mayors that won't be re-offering, there's bound to be fresh faces taking the top seat in their respective municipality, so CBC News spoke to outgoing mayors representing the province's largest municipalities.

'Municipal politicians are the closest politicians to the people — and their issues are real'

Among Bill Martin, David Dunphy and Clifford Lee are over 25 years experience as mayors on P.E.I. (CBC)

There will be some fresh faces in the mayor's office for several municipalities on P.E.I. this fall as some current mayors won't be re-offering.

With that in mind, the three outgoing mayors representing the province's largest municipalities — Summerside, Stratford and Charlottetown — had a few words of advice for those interested in the mayor's chair.

Among them are over 25 years of experience and each had a different approach as to what people need to know to be a mayor on the Island.

Here's what they had to say.

Bill Martin: 'Their issues are real'

'The first year was tough,' says Mayor Bill Martin. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

After one term as mayor of Summerside, Bill Martin is moving back into private life. Without prior experience on council, Martin said there was a "steep" learning curve when he began as mayor.

"The first year was tough, the learning curve was pretty steep in terms of understanding process and understanding council and understanding my role," he said. "Beyond that it continued to get a whole heck of a lot easier."

For those interested in becoming mayor, Martin said people have to realize that "even though you have this title, you have very little overall authority" as council is the primary driver behind decisions.

"You have influence," he said, "but I only voted twice in four years."

'You just need to recognize the City of Summerside has 16,000 residents, I have 16,000 bosses,' Bill Martin says. (Google Street View)

Learning the role of mayor will come with time but from the jump, some of the most important things for future mayors, Martin said, are to be accessible, transparent and open to council's ideas.

"In my case, you just need to be yourself. You can't be successful trying to be something you're not. You need to be honest, you need to be transparent, you need to recognize that council has every right to think differently than you do," he said.

"You just need to recognize the City of Summerside has 16,000 residents, I have 16,000 bosses."

And you need to answer the phone when it rings and meet with your constituents whenever possible.

"Municipal politicians are the closest politicians to the people — and their issues are real," he said. "It could be a pothole, it could be a requirement for a ditch to be filled, it could be a street light that needs to be replaced or installed, so you just need to be accessible."

David Dunphy: 'There's a lot of balancing to do'

Mayor David Dunphy says the biggest help 'has been having an excellent council to work with ... as well, probably more important, is the staff.' (Laura Meader/CBC)

After two terms as mayor of one of P.E.I.'s fastest-growing communities, David Dunphy's name won't be on the ballot come Nov. 5. 

In running his town, like most elected officials on P.E.I., he still has a day job and said mayors have to have a well of energy for what can be a round-the-clock job.

"What many people don't understand is that most elected officials at the municipal level have day jobs," he said. 

"The municipal government that we work with it's almost like a part-time job, or an after-hours job, so it's over and above what you do in your day-time job.… There's a lot of balancing to do and obviously prioritizing your work and trying to be available as much as possible."

With that in mind, mayor and council need to lean on municipal staff to stay organized and get stuff done.

"The biggest help to me has been having an excellent council to work with ... as well, probably more important, is the staff," he said.

It's also important to keep in mind, David Dunphy, says, that you won't be making decisions alone. (Shane Ross/CBC)

"Let the staff do their job, and let council handle the policy and those kinds of things, the overall high-level master plan for the town for the year or long term, and let staff do their job because they're a good help to elected officials."

It's also important to keep in mind, Dunphy added, that you don't have to make decisions alone and it isn't always about what you think is the right decision because, on many issues, feedback from the constituents is a necessity.

"It can't always be about what you think is the right thing to do or what you want to do, you have to get that feedback and input from many people … and use that to make the best decision possible," he said.

"It's not a dictatorship, it's not an autocratic government, it's a team working together to make the best decisions for the residents of the town."

Clifford Lee: 'You need to have a long-range vision'

'Make yourself available,' says Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Being mayor isn't something Clifford Lee ever thought about before he took the seat in 2003 but after 15 years as boss of the capital he won't be re-offering.

For him, one of the top requirements for the job is "enjoying people," he said, because if you can't do that with everyone "you're not going to be very successful" as a mayor.

"Being prepared to talk to people, being prepared to visit people in their homes, their workplaces. Make yourself available. And doing it all because you want to make the quality of life for these people a little better than it is today," he said.

But perhaps just as important as that, "you need to have a long-range vision" before you're elected. Just as significant is knowing the ideas you want to accomplish as mayor need to fit the city, he said, not the other way around.

"One of the things I wanted to do when I became mayor, and quite successfully we achieved it, was make Charlottetown an event-hosting destination," he said. "If I look at this 15 years later ... I say without hesitation that Charlottetown has become the leader in the province for hosting events."

An important thing to keep in mind in seeing out your vision, Clifford Lee says, is that a mayor doesn't fulfil their goals by competing with other municipalities. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

And that wasn't accomplished, he said, by changing the city to fit that vision. 

His goal had to be met by taking advantage of what the city already had and that meant, he said, meeting with residents, tourism operators and working with business owners. 

"For any municipality to be successful you need to have the support of the residents, you need to have the support of the business community," he said.

It also meant understanding what infrastructure the city had to host events, and then becoming an ambassador for the city and selling it as an important place on P.E.I. to host events — a major role all mayors have to take on.

Another important thing to keep in mind in seeing out your vision, Lee said, is that a mayor doesn't fulfil their goals by competing with other municipalities along the way.

"That's not good city government for anybody, it's not how you work together with other municipalities in the province," he said.

More P.E.I. news


Cody MacKay

Multi-platform Journalist

Cody MacKay is a writer, editor and social media producer for CBC News on Prince Edward Island. From Summerside, he's a UPEI history and Carleton masters of journalism grad who joined CBC P.E.I. in 2017. You can reach him at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?