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COLUMN: Counsel for council candidates (and voters)

What can voters expect from you? What do you need to be thinking about and preparing for?

Ah, election time. If I hadn’t made a better decision (to retire!), I’d be in the fray as a candidate for city council for the 10th time. Instead, I am going to claim veteran’s rights (even though I hate being called that) and offer some advice to candidates.

What can voters expect from you? What do you need to be thinking about and preparing for?

First, prepare to deeply engage with your community. You may think you know Nelson well (it’s a small town, after all), but as I quickly discovered (and continue to discover) there are many facets you’ve likely never encountered or even imagined. That diversity creates the fabric of this special place. It’s an incredible richness. It also makes Nelson challenging to govern.

So many voices and opinions.  So many passionate people, who will love you or lambaste you.

Prepare to know yourself. Understanding how you make decisions is critical, or you’ll have tormented nights (speaking from experience).

What values guide your decisions? How do you determine the greatest good? How do you weigh the trade-offs? Do you talk your way to decisions, or do you need a decision-making matrix to help?

If you lack confidence that you have given an issue full and fair consideration, your integrity (and potentially your sanity) will be at risk. And that, I think, is the greatest legacy a politician can leave — to have acted with integrity.

Prepare to work hard. You may be passionate about the arts or job creation or water metering. And that’s great. Just be aware that you will spend way more time on topics you currently have absolutely no interest in. But, hopefully, you’ll discover the importance and the charm of water pipes and sewage treatment, of parking and tree management, of development variances and the dog bylaw (oh, maybe not that one).

Working hard means much more than just attending meetings. You can spend all your time racing from one meeting to another in this very busy community. And at the end of your term you’ll wonder what you actually contributed or accomplished, besides showing up.

Prepare to learn how things work at the City. Figure out how to initiate and advance ideas. That might mean simply bringing forward a motion to council (which some council members, despite years at the table, still struggle with). Or it might be a whole new initiative — how do you get it on the agenda, how do you build support, how do you follow through?

Some people try to make things happen by loud-voiced intimidation. Others try wheedling. Others just stay focussed on doing the work. Obviously, I favour the latter. The first two seed bad relations among council members, and are all too common.

We have excellent staff at the city, and I’ve learned not to overload them. They’re super great but not superhuman! We have systems in place to prioritize work — whether it’s writing new policies, resolving outstanding issues, or updating ancient bylaws (some look like they were typed on a typewriter, if you remember what that is). It’s comforting and productive for everyone to know the plan, and follow it (even when the unexpected curve ball comes).

Your main workplace will be like a sandbox. Around the council table will be people you like and others that just exasperate you. Prepare to rise above those feelings, and look for the ideas, beliefs or values that you share.  Humour, patience and gentle smiles go a long way. But when things go sideways (e.g., someone’s on a rant), you also need to be strong and insist that civility, decorum and respect are maintained around the table.

Be prepared for the ride of your life. If you are elected, you will experience an amazing journey — not always fun, but always interesting and meaningful. You will help to guide our community. Do it thoughtfully and carefully, and with confidence in this place and in yourself.

Good luck, everyone!


— Donna Macdonald is a councillor with the City of Nelson. She shares this space

with her  collegues