New Councillors: “Keep your stick on the ice!”

by W.D. (Rusty) Russell

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10 Rules for Surviving Political Body Checks

Now that you new councillors have a few meetings under your belt, I will wager 10-to-1 that you have, at times, wondered what on earth you got yourself into. But, cheer up! After you start to get the “hang of it” you will find it to be an exciting experience.

Let’s take stock of some of your initial experiences.

First, you are finding that the municipality has a ton of complex issues. Getting a handle on these is challenging. There are no simple answers!

Secondly, since you are custodians of “public money,” you are constantly reminded that you must take decisions within the confines of numerous provincial statutes and regulations. The result: you get the feeling that your election plans are hampered by this legislative straightjacket.

Thirdly, you are amazed by the diversity of opinions on council. What you thought was just “common sense” is openly criticized by other councillors. Then, there is the nagging question, “Where is the public money to implement my election promises?”

One councillor put out this notice: “Due to the current financial restraints, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off.”

Operating in the Fishbowl

You’ll discover your private life (and that of your family) is important news in your community. It will not always be pleasant. Don’t take a hairy! Keep your stick on the ice!

Certainly, you will make mistakes. These can be embarrassing. I am not suggesting that these will get national television coverage on 60 Minutes, but certainly will surface in the local press. You are now in the public spotlight.

Prepare yourself for those occasions when you will be the focal point of criticism, ridicule, and controversy. Again, it goes with the territory. From Nova Scotia comes the story of a sign placed in the local council chambers which read: “Due to large number of items on the agenda of township council, we respectfully request that those wishing to insult council please limit themselves to 15 minutes or 15 insults, whichever is shorter.”

Don’t Re-invent the Wheel

Learn quickly from the old pros on council. They have the “street smarts” on how to be a politician. Learn from them. Remember the old adage, “Those who do not learn from the lessons of history are condemned to re-live them.”

Let’s review the 10 time-tested rules for surviving “Political Body Checks.”

1. Learn to listen with interest

When talking to a ratepayer or another councillor, “listen up” and listen carefully. Too many councillors get in a hurry to inject their personal thoughts and get in their “two cents” worth. Do not rush it! Discipline yourself to listen attentively and with interest, and look the speaker right in the eye. Size them up! Silence is the safety zone of conversation. Nothing is more frustrating to a ratepayer than to think that you have turned off your hearing aid.

Summary – Discipline yourself to listen with interest.

2. Learn the skill of asking questions

Early in his or her legal career, a young court lawyer, after being “dusted off” a few times, learns the technique of asking skillful questions. To be a good politician, you should follow suit. If learning to be a good listener is a step in the right direction, learning how to converse by asking questions puts you in control of the conversation.

For example: If a ratepayer or councillor is getting too long winded, do not show your irritation. Inject a few questions, such as: “Mr. Wilson, if what you say is correct, how do I reply to the arguments of the residents in the north part of town who have the opposite view point?”

By this tactic, you start to take control of the conversation without offending Mr. Wilson. If he replies, “Just tell them to go to hell,” then he has blown his cover, and you have every right to end the conversation. If you want a real kicker, you can respond with this question: “May I tell the people at the north end of town what you just said?”

That is putting the knife in a little, but it does give you some idea of the technique of asking questions. One of my colleagues put it this way: “For your information, I would like to ask a question!”

This technique, of asking questions, is like having a six-shooter on the hip. The speaker is forced to get down to the meat of the issue without your having to pull your gun out of the holster.

Summary – Avoid direct confrontation. Reply with a question.

3. How to get someone to stop talking

Suppose a ratepayer (or councillor) is rambling on and, in your opinion “just sawing sawdust” – more talk. (They say that talk is cheap – that is until you hire a lawyer!) One way to put him or her on the spot is to comment: “Sir (councillor), we have been listening to your comments. Would you please summarize your points so that I can write them down?”

This approach is good strategy. You have not destroyed your relationship with the speaker, but you have certainly put him or her on the defensive. The key words are:

  • summarize your points;
  • so I can write them down.

This approach is particularly important. The speaker is forced to get down to the nuts and bolts of the argument. Chances are, in summarizing, the speaker will realize that he or she has only one or two points – regurgitated many times. By saying “I want to write them down,” the speaker will pause and immediately realize he or she is being put on the spot.

Summary – You can often end a conversation by asking the speaker to summarize his or her points.

4. When addressing council, get your facts right

If you decide to go out on a limb and call “a spade a spade” that is fine, but make sure you have got all your facts straight. If not, you are toast!

Also, do not count on getting your facts from the newspaper. This may be a lead, but you must do more investigation if you are going to “tell it like it is.” Make phone calls, inquire from municipal staff – they can be of great help. A person’s judgment is no better than their information.

If you do not get your facts straight, the other councillors – especially the old pros in the game – will saw the limb off behind you, and your credibility will take a disastrous fall. It may be a long time before you can work yourself back into the confidence of the other councillors.
Summary – When addressing council, make sure your facts are correct.

5. Do not waste your gun powder

Occasionally, new councillors will attack the mayor/reeve or other councillors in the belief that they are standing up for their constituents. Nothing could be further from the truth! Electors want you to call it as you see it, but they do not want to see a personal vendetta on council. You were not elected to carry on a feud with your colleagues. You were elected to govern responsibly, not criticize indiscriminately. There is a difference.

If something is said by a fellow councillor that positively infuriates you, such as a fabrication or an outright lie, bite your tongue for the moment. Keep your powder dry. Do not yield to temptation! Cool it! Give yourself time to collect your thoughts. Keep a straight face, and do not show any emotion.

If you are really put on the spot and everyone is looking to you for a reply, pause. Rushing in with an emotional response can only fan the fire. You need time to think. You might respond with “Your Worship, please do not interpret my hesitation as indicating my consent or approval of what was said. I shall respond at the appropriate time.”

The worst comment that you can make in council is to say “That is a lie!” or “You are a liar!” Never, never call a person a liar even if it is the truth! If you want to show your contempt for the speaker, a more skillful way might be as follows: “Councillor Brown, I find your point of view to be completely unacceptable,” or “Your Worship, I have grave misgivings about the councillor’s statement,” or “Your Worship, I must wholly disassociate myself from Councillor Brown’s remarks.”

Let us take this a step further. What do you do when a person turns to you and in a threatening manner says, “Are you calling me a liar?” Be careful about this one before responding. I have known people who purposely throw this question out as a form of attack. It certainly puts a person on the defensive.

There will be an almost irresistible temptation to respond in a like manner, such as “Why you old goat! You have not told the truth in 30 years!” Resist, do not say it! Stop! It is a no win situation, even if you are right. My suggestion is that you answer the question indirectly. If you answer directly, you are falling into a trap. Some suggestion of indirect answers might be as follows: “Councillor Brown, you can call it what you want, but I certainly do not agree with your interpretation of the facts,” or “I think, Councillor Brown, you are mixing fact and fiction,” or, if you feel a bit more venturesome, you might try this: “Councillor, I did not call you a liar. I merely said that you are living on the wrong side of the facts.”

Summary – Keep your cool. Keep your stick on the ice!

6. There are times you should apologize

If you make a statement before council that you subsequently learn to be incorrect, or false, immediately, at the first opportunity before council, apologize to the mayor and council. If you do not, your credibility is on the line.

A suggestion might be as follows: “Your Worship and members of council. At the last meeting I stated that such and such was true, and I have since learned that my facts were not correct. While it was not my intention to mislead council, I apologize for having done so.”

Now, that statement shows that you value the truth. An apology definitely repairs your credibility. Failure to make an apology means that it could be a long time before other members of council have confidence in what you say.

Summary – There are times you should bite the bullet and apologize.

7. Be prepared to compromise

As a councillor, you quickly discover a wide diversity of opinion among fellow councillors. Look at the facts. Councillors come from all walks of life and they have a broad range of backgrounds. Compare this to the board of directors of a corporation where most of the directors have come up through the ranks. While they may have differences of opinion, they have played on the same team for years.

This is not the case with members of municipal councils. Here, diversity of background is the rule. A definition of a municipal council might be: “A municipal council is a collection of diverse individuals applying their variant opinions to a multiplicity of complex problems.”
No matter how convinced you are of the correctness of your proposal, you may inevitably have to consider trade-offs to achieve some of your objectives. In fact, by the time all the amendments to your motion are in, you might not even recognize the original proposal. Other council members have ideas too.

In essence, democracy is a compromise between the opinions of various groups.

Summary – Be prepared to make compromises and trade-offs.

8. Do not use profanity

When you get right down to it, your objective is to convince the other members of council of the soundness of your argument. To do this, you must learn the art of persuasion and diplomacy. Harry Neale, formerly of Hockey Night in Canada, once commented that the art of diplomacy was saying “nice doggy” until you find a stick.

Trying to drive something down another person’s throat is not going to succeed. Using profanity to emphasize your point is shooting yourself in the head. If you disagree with a person, do not respond with “That’s a hell of a poor idea ...” You would show yourself to be a more competent person by saying “I find it difficult to see any substance in your comment.” In short, it is more forceful and less antagonistic.

Discipline yourself never to use profanity at a council or committee meeting. The minute you do, you have lost your composure. You have lowered yourself in the eyes of others, even though they themselves may occasionally resort to such poor taste.

There are words in the English language that have a much greater impact than swear words. By swearing, the speaker may think he or she has made a forceful impact, but has not. True, profanity has a shock factor, but the speaker has buried his or her thoughts. He or she could make a greater impact by saying, “Any person who thinks that way is a fool.” The word “fool” is a much stronger word than profanity. Think about it. Simple words like “fool,” “incompetent,” “uniformed,” “sloppy logic,” “ill considered” and even “stupid,” carry a greater impact than profanity.

Summary – Avoid profanity like the plague!

9. Remember, you will be in the media spotlight

As mentioned earlier, as a councillor, you are in the spotlight and what you do becomes local news. You must be prepared to pay the price of this publicity, and in many instances, bear the burden. One of Newton’s Laws says “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

What do I mean by “paying the price?” Let me give you an example. A ratepayer appears before council and gives a piece of his or her mind about being short-shifted. The local press will love it. This is good news for them. The fact that the speaker may not have the slightest idea of the facts behind the position of council does not matter. The newspaper will champion the ratepayer’s cause. It sells newspapers.

Newspapers do not have the luxury of time, to get all the facts. They have deadlines to meet. They know that most readers will only read the headlines and the first paragraph. This criticism of council comes from the same newspaper that urged you to run for municipal office as “part of your democratic duty.” A newspaper editor will turn on his or her own grandmother if there is a story in it. As one noted author stated, “It is a short walk from hallelujah to the hoot!”

Leaking information to a newspaper is a political game that frequently backfires on the informant. Newspapers will jump with glee at every interesting morsel of information they can get. In fact, many newspaper reporters will “use” you, and this will eventually reflect on your credibility with your fellow councillors. Four years is a long time, and councillors have long memories.

This is not to say that newspapers are always wrong. Far from it. They are undoubtedly the greatest champion of your democratic process, as they ferret out situations that otherwise would be buried and go unnoticed. But, also keep in mind that, while newspapers champion “freedom of the press” and argue that every meeting should be open to the public, they too have their business secrets. Newspapers only exist if they can convince their advertisers that they are selling newspapers. Juicy topics help to sell them. The newspaper’s bottom line is still profitability.

Summary – To a councillor, a newspaper can be a double-edged sword.

10. Respect your municipal staff

Your clerk, CAO, and the senior staff are your key resource people. My experience is that these senior people are very capable, having learned their trade by coming up through the ranks. They all have the scars on their back from the school of hard knocks.

Make use of staff. When you approach them, do so on a third party basis such as, “Can you give me the pros and cons of this issue?” Do not interpret their reply as being against your thoughts. They are just laying out the realities of the situation with more “background savvy” than you believe. Remember the old Greek saying: “Don’t shoot the messenger!”

Summary – Your municipal staff can help you get the facts straight.

So, my friends, these are some of the “ground rules” that have stood the test of time for decades and decades. There are others, but you will discover these as you gain experience. Let me mention two further items.

Information unlimited

You will be flooded with information – more facts and statistical data than you would ever believe possible. Eventually, you reach the stage of “analysis paralysis.” While in this stage, you will be required to take a decision. In doing so, remember the old adage, “A good plan underway is better than a perfect plan that never gets off the ground.”

Democracy at work

After a four-year term on council, you may find you are losing faith in our democratic process. Life on a municipal council is not always a piece of cake. In spite of this, look on the bright side.

Perhaps the most balanced judgement was made by Sir Winston Churchill with his famous conclusion about democracy: “Democracy is the worst system – except for all those other systems that have been tried and failed!”

Conclusion

If you keep your stick on the ice, being a councillor can be interesting, fascinating, exciting, and at times, even good fun. Yes, many a retired councillor would say, “I will drink to that!”  MW

W.D. (Rusty) Russell, Q.C. is a lawyer with the law firm of Russell, Christie LLP, and author of the book Russell on Roads (2nd Ed.).

as published in Municipal World, April 2011





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