I’ve been struggling to answer an innocuous and friendly greeting: “Hi Paula, How’s council?” The answer would need to be pleasant, but still honest and informative… and 10 seconds long. Perhaps I could sum it up as a weather report: Deluge-of-information with sunny breaks, plenty of wind gusts and possibility of lighting strike. Avoid high places… perhaps like this article.
As a rookie breaking the three month mark, I find myself still immersed in vast quantities of information. Every agenda is packed with more details than I can capture so I try to focus on big pictures and record specific questions to research later. I am still learning and listening, not about to ride off into battle armed only with a toothpick. Besides, I’m pretty impressed with the cross section of staff and council and believe we will work well together. We are diverse, like Nelson, and so have our work cut out for us to provide guidance to this complex little mountain town.
To get functioning as highly as possible, we have been oriented by local staff, inundated by annual reports, updates, budget presentations, meetings, and heaped with an estimated 4,000 hours worth of useful reading. We have updated policies, bylaws, selected individual council portfolios and attended meetings, events, more meetings. Nelson has a plethora of services, programs, groups and passionate individuals who need to link with the city, often through councillors and/or city management (who I suspect have clone assistants because they are everywhere and know everything).
Then there is the email… I could while away 40 hours a week just reading municipal governance newsletters, message forwards and reply-alls or the ubiquitous “FYI” emails (which often require a fair amount of investigation to determine what ‘I’ was intended ‘FY’). Ahh, email. I love you, I hate you. But, I actually enjoy emails titled ‘City of Nelson feedback’ or other messages from the public. In contrast to frequently frothy LTEs, these personally directed correspondences are usually thoughtful and earnest, whether framed as queries or offers of information. This more direct communication sometimes allows me to inform but always enhances my own understanding of another person’s experience.
The value of this type of informed public engagement was underscored during a recent three day “Elected Officials Training Seminar” put on by the LGLA. Though I sadly missed the “Acronyms for Newbies” lecture, I did leave with many gems, two of which I’ll share.
First, local government operates as an equal partnership between three groups: council (for leadership, policy, and direction), staff (for implementation and professional advice), and public (for informed participation). I was fascinated to learn that this partnership can be hampered by misconceptions of what government does based on TV programs (fiction and/or news) from other provinces or the US. Fortunately, the realities of Nelson are easier to grasp because we are small enough to be more connected with local governance and also less likely to draw false parallels with New York.
The other gem was gaining an appreciation for specific traits of highly effective councils. This was accomplished by portraying three types of councils (high functioning, moderate, and dysfunctional) by describing how they would respond in differing situations. Traits of high functioning groups include effective listening, sharing of responsibilities, competency, and consistently respectful behaviour. Conversely, dysfunctional behaviour occurs through loss of decorum, blaming, bullying/intolerance and, worst of all, displaying such behaviour to public. Dysfunctional public behaviour results in the loss of public trust for council as a whole and resulting decrease in effective engagement (see gem #1).
I was told by a long-time Nelson resident that current council appears to be on first rate behaviour while still representing a good cross section of Nelson interests. If we continue to function highly, respecting our differences and sharing responsibility for decision making, we should be able to maintain your trust and participation.
I’m sure you’ll let us know how we’re doing.
Paula Kiss is a city councillor who shares this space with her coleagues around the table