Do I believe that local government decision-makers are more challenged today, as they attempt to navigate a more complex public environment in which to make decisions? Yes, I do.
First elected as a municipal Councillor in 2005, I found that the environment at that time seemed less ideological and had a greater focus on collegiality. Council members had a pretty good understanding of their roles and responsibilities, both as individuals and as a collective body; they seemed more prepared to find middle ground and make decisions together.
In my experience, for a newly elected Council member, adapting to the rewards and constraints of municipal government was supported by good learning resources, an organized Council orientation and mentorship. It was the ability to build greater consensus at the table as opposed to building a bigger political profile, that was more effective at influencing or inspiring change. There was recognition that change ultimately occurred through civil discourse, mutual trust and respect, and collaboration, all key elements of sound and informed decision-making.
Fast forward to 2023 and dynamics seem to have changed. There appears to be less patience, less tolerance and a growing trend for friction at the Council table. If one senses greater tension, both in Council Chambers and at the community level, it may stem, in part, from the struggle local governments face after decades of provincial downloading. While downloading from the Province has created new opportunities, it has also created serious challenges, especially for smaller communities. Unfortunately, expanding the scope of responsibility for local governments, without adequate funding, can set them up for failure or disappointment.
The pressure for local government to provide and do more sometimes feels like a “stress and scramble,” to meet ever-increasing public demands and expectations; and, in the wake of such significant issues as homelessness, a housing crisis and inflation, facing these issues for local communities and their Councils can sometimes seem overwhelming.
The pandemic and subsequent COVID-19 provincial health protocols have also tested our institutions and public policy. Local governments, closer to the people and communities they serve, have found that the pandemic lockdown blew a hole in public engagement generally. Many of us experienced “a never before” disconnection from residents, colleagues and municipal staff. As health regulations intensified, out of necessity, decision-making shifted from Councils to municipal staff. As a result, in what’s now a post-pandemic period, re-connecting the dots to restore communications and public engagement remains challenging; this during a time when social and ideological divisions and fractures feel wider and deeper.
Social media plays a significant role for many of us in public life, both as a tool to re-connect and provide continuity but also as a tool that can alienate users. Constructive criticism online seems to have taken a trend towards collective outrage that targets others, without little accountability. The political quickly becomes personal in some cases, making online commentary a risk and a poor substitute for person-to-person communication. As an elected representative, I have learned that expressing ideas or opinions through social media can be perilous.
Let’s continue to encourage respectful listening and well informed discussion about difficult topics. Otherwise, individuals who should run for and participate in local government may not want to get involved, reflecting a loss to local democracy. What makes local government and individual contributions meaningful are close community connections and the focus on “what’s possible.”
Supporting constructive change is a responsibility that we all share as local community leaders and elected representatives. All of us can model the positive attitudes and behaviours that we want to see in one another, at our Council tables and in our communities.
As Jane Goodall said, “What you do makes a difference; you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”