Colwood Coun. Terry Trace

West Shore municipal politics 101

What’s it like to be a first-time city councillor on the West Shore?

A few months into their terms, first-time West Shore councillors are slowly adapting to their new roles as elected officials.

Coming from all walks of life, those seeking to become elected officials and oversee their community’s goings-on have to adapt to a whole new world once elected. While the learning curve is steep, there are people and organizations making it easier.

First time councillor Karen Burns says that she feels a sort of reversal from her role as a “citizen advocate,” now that she’s been elected to represent the people of Highlands.

In her public role prior to being elected, which was advocating for groundwater protection, water conservation strategies, education and environmental sustainability, she says she had freedom, but no power.

“But as a councillor,” she says, “I have a little power but no freedom, because I have to fairly represent all the citizens of the Highlands.”

She was also surprised at how much work it would be.

“Even for a small community like ours,” she says, “I routinely spend a day reading, researching and getting ready for council or committee of the whole meetings. I have also spent about 30 hours in meetings to learn how to be a councillor and strategic planning for the district.

Leslie Anderson, another first-time Highlands councillor, says that while the learning curve is certainly steep, there are many resources available to elected officials to make the transition to public life easier.

“I knew it would be quite a lot of work to get up to speed,” Anderson says, “and I still managed to underestimate the time required, somewhat.”

She says that although she still has “a ways to go before [she] will have a really good handle on all of the processes, information and history necessary to be really effective in this position,” she feels that because of the multitude of resources available, she’s been able to gain a functional understanding of the job much more quickly than she might have otherwise.

One of those resources is the Local Government Leadership Academy (LGLA) orientation sessions that were held this January in Parksville.

The LGLA was formed after a 2005 review by the Union of BC Municipalities which found there was a lack of education and training available to local elected officials, and were granted $1-million to form an academy to remedy that situation and improve the competencies needed to effectively manage and lead B.C’s communities.

The LGLA orientation is like a “Municipal Politics Boot Camp,” according to Burns.

“We had breakfast at 7 a.m., started our sessions at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m. or so, with additional sessions at night,” she says, adding that there were also “meet and greets” in the evenings, but she was usually too tired from the day of classes to put in more than a “token appearance.” She did, however, get a chance to pick the brain of many councillors from all over the Island and says it was an excellent learning experience.

The three-day gathering sees the elected officials – both rookies and veterans – go through classes in meeting procedures, funding programs, the roles and responsibilities of various municipal officials and staff members, bylaws and resolution implementation, the relationships between municipalities and other level of government and budgeting public funds, just to name a few of the topics covered.

The consensus, however, seems to be that new councillors’ greatest asset is the ability to lean on the veterans in the room and around the region.

“Jumping in alongside an amazing group of strong colleagues has taken the steep learning curve and made it easier, thus really making the experience stimulating and intriguing,” says yet another first-time Highlands councillor, Gord Baird.

“I feel very fortunate to be working with a team that is aiming to be thoughtful and constructive,” Anderson agrees. “It is allowing each of us to gain our footing much more quickly. I am very appreciative of the support from staff and ‘veteran’ councillors here in the Highlands as well as from other municipalities.”

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