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The Weird Relationship Between Council and the Community...

Ah small populations communities, how we love you. We do, for all of your quirks, love you. Every community has those features that set them apart from each other, and that makes them unique and great places to live. They also have some commonalities that need addressing for them to be sustainable. Today, I want to address this one.

In our work, it has become abundantly clear that there is a huge gap in some communities between what the community *thinks* is Council and Town staff's job, and what it actually is under the legislation. There is also, in some cases, a big gap between what individual Councillor *thinks* their job is, and what it actually is, but that is a conversation for another day.

In my travels, I've heard many conversations that start with:

1. We expect money to support the project my group thinks is important. If the town doesn't give it to us it proves that the people on Council don't care about us.

Consider this: Council budgets are set once a year, and if you were not asking for money at budget time, the community dollars have already been allocated. This is not about being cared about, it is about responsible use of taxpayers' dollars. Those are the same taxpayers that also support all of your fundraising efforts, so you ask them once when you sell your raffle tickets and hold your events and ask for donations. When you ask Council too, you are asking them to take money from somewhere else, to further provide your project with money from the same taxpayers. Sometimes that just isn't possible, or responsible. Your best bet is to work closely with your Council from the very beginning, so they can plan for the expense should they decide supporting it financially is in the best interest of the community.

Also, Councils are elected to govern the town. They are not ordinary boards or committees. They have to follow legislation including the Municipalities Act, Occupational Health and Safety, Human Rights, Labour standards, and multiple other laws, rules and regulations. It is the administrator's job to know where to reference these because theirs is the role that sits through many Councils. This is a government. It is not a committee.

Individual councillors have NO decision-making authority on their own. The only authority councils have is through their partnered decision made at a public meeting, supported by resolution, policy or bylaw. They govern this way to encourage fairness--so that individual councillors cannot favour their own causes at the expense of others. That means asking for support a week before your event may not provide enough time for Council to make a ruling on it, and so the administrator's answer must be no. The administrator does not have the authority to change Council policy or act against a directive.

It is not that your Council doesn't care...they live in your community and pay the same taxes you do....but caring isn't allowed for in the budget. If you want consideration from the town...if you would like everyone's tax dollars to offset the expenses of your thing, please include the town at the beginning of your planning, and ask nicely. You are asking every single ratepayer for a personal donation when you are asking the Council for support. Councils have to gauge your request against the many, many others, and their own obligations for infrastructure, asset management and more. The better you work together, the easier it can get.

2. I didn't see ONE member of the Council or the Mayor or any staff at our event.

Consider this: Public events can become a gauntlet of public complaints when the community cannot respect people who are off the clock. Being an elected official does not mean you are on call to the community 24/7. Some people think that is part of being elected, but public abuse is one of the reasons for a disconnect between the Council and the public.

Something else you may not know is as a government, legislation forbids the administrator from allowing staff to be abused by anyone. The administration has an obligation to keep its staff free of abuse. If I were an administrator, I would not ever send staff into a situation where abuse from the citizenry is considered a job hazard. Being on Council or staff is a risky business during a time when people forget their basic manners. I often hear about text messages being sent in the middle of the night, people coming to their homes on evenings and weekends, and otherwise harassing staff, administration and Council.

Here is something else to consider... Councils and their staff have no more obligation to provide hours for free than anyone else in the neighbourhood, and being elected does not give you access to their personal time. If you would like them to come as town representatives, invite them to come in their capacity as officials. You may ask, you may not demand. If you would like them to come and volunteer, ask them, as you would anyone. They do not owe you because you voted for them.

3. We volunteer and work so hard and sit on all the boards, and the Town doesn't appreciate us.

Consider this: Council exists to govern the town, collect taxes, and use those taxes to provide services. The town certainly appreciates volunteers. Most of them volunteer somewhere. Council is a municipal government, whose role is to govern the town and administer the business of the town, specifically water, sewer, emergency planning, roads, taxation, garbage, and recycling. All the rest of the things they do is because people of the community supported the additions, and the tasks became part of the operational routine. But make no mistake, people within the community have no right to demand that Council take on projects or provide funding, or even show appreciation. That is the job of the entire community! They have a specific role to serve and it isn't that. Serving on Council is the highest form of community service and it is a role that should be respected. It is not generally a paid position in our small communities either, an honorarium fee structure based on the meetings they attend, and the expenses they personally incur is the norm for councillors.

Overextending yourself does not and should not create an emergency for the rest of the ratepayers when there is a shortfall in funding or manpower. Demanding your Council fill the gap is holding a few people accountable for the apathy of many.

Council cannot demand staff show up to your event in their free time. Staff wages are fully allocated in that annual budget, their work schedule is done far in advance. Demanding staff support means that you are asking for the community to pay overtime to subsidize your event, or something else isn't getting done while they do your thing. When the thankyous appear on social media or the local paper, I almost never see the town listed, although they almost always contributed something.

4. We rented the facility, and nobody helped us set up tables and they even expected us to clean it.

Consider this: Dollars to pay staff are also budgeted at the beginning of the fiscal year, and if the municipal government was not planning to pay staff for your event, they have to pay overtime IF they have the staffing. If you want your friends and neighbours to have their tax dollars go to staffing your event, you will need to plan for that well in advance.

Also, seldom does rental for any facility include set up or cleaning. Those services can sometimes be provided at an extra rate. A written rental agreement can help clear up some of the miscommunication.

5. We deserve a break on the rates for our facilities. After all, we are volunteers, we sit on all the boards, and we bring people in.

Consider this: Even the smallest towns have multiple volunteer-run service groups, and nobody wants to pay anything for the facilities, assuming their tax dollars should cover it. Most of our facilities are empty much of the time, but the daily cost to keep the facilities viable continues to build up. There are seldom any marketing efforts to keep the facilities full with neighbouring events, so the cost of the empty facilities is passed down again to the ratepayers. These are issues that result in operational shortfalls year after year in spite of aggressive fundraising. Blaming Council is not the solution here; working together to address those issues is the better way.

6. Well, we elected them...and we pay taxes!! Aren't they accountable to us?? We pay their wages!!!

They are accountable in specific ways. They have to make decisions at public meetings, and they are supposed to conduct their business transparently. They are not required to jump at the whim of any volunteer group. In fact, they cannot. You are "not their boss" because you pay taxes. The amount you pay in taxes does not begin to cover the expense of providing services; the amount you pay as a community doesn't begin to cover the operation. You are subsidized out of the wazoo typically through federal and provincial grants that the administration applies for on your behalf. If you do not like how they are conducting the business of the town, there is usually a process to follow.

Demanding, coming in hot, and being insulting and abusive, would get you thrown out on your ass in every other office. For some reason, people seem to think that bashing the Council and Town staff publically, and on social media is acceptable when people do not get their way. There are effective ways to deal with issues, public bashing should not be the thing you go to. It is always one-sided, creates drama and makes those who could help you less likely to do so. They are not obligated because you insist they should be, no matter how entitled you think you are. And once it goes public, it reflects on your community in a very negative way.

People just don't have boundaries. I've heard of people contacting councillors and staff in the evenings, on weekends, and in the middle of the night...this is a government office people. The expectation far outweighs the job description. These are your neighbours and your friends. What is weird is when they become a part of town operations, they become 'the Town', and are regarded with suspicion. We need to do better. The sustainability of our communities depends on it.

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