What Do Councillors Do, Anyway?

9 Oct 2013
By Michael Ireton |

If you’ve ever thought being a city councillor seems like a pretty cushy gig, you might change your mind after you read this! So just what do councillors do? And what say do you have in the matter?

To understand what councillors do, we have to take a step back. Municipalities in Alberta don’t make up their own rules or give themselves any power or authority. Everything–absolutely everything–that defines what municipalities can or can’t do comes from a piece of provincial legislation. It’s called the Municipal Government Act (MGA), and it’s a whopper. The current version is 500 pages long and it’s not exactly bedside reading, even for the wonkiest of policy wonks.

According to the MGA, municipalities have 3 purposes. That’s it. Three. No more, no less. They’re pretty simple, too. Municipalities exist to “provide good government”, “provide services, facilities, or other things”, and “develop and maintain safe and viable communities”. You might ask yourself what the other 499 pages of the MGA are all about. Let’s just say that three seemingly simple purposes can lead to a lot of technical stuff.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on the roles and responsibilities of councillors. There are 6 of those:

  1. To consider the welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole and, to bring to council’s attention anything that would promote the welfare or interests of the municipality

  2. To participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality

  3. To participate in council meetings and council committee meetings and meetings of other bodies to which they are appointed by the council

  4. To obtain information about the operation or administration of the municipality from the chief administrative officer or a person designated by the chief administrative officer

  5. To keep in confidence matters discussed in private at a council committee meeting until discussed at a meeting held in public

  6. To perform any other duty or function imposed on councillors by this or any other enactment or by the council

The first one is pretty interesting. Here in Calgary, we elect our councillors by Ward. So do councillors represent the interests of their Ward? Well, maybe, sometimes. But according to the MGA, councillors are supposed to make decisions–as item 1 says–based on the “welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole”. If you’re really getting into this whole voting thing, you might want to quiz the candidates in your Ward about where they stand on representing their Ward vs. the best interests of the city as a whole. You’ll sound really smart by being able to quote the Municipal Government Act–bonus!!!

So–meetings, meetings, and more meetings (council, committees, boards, etc); developing and evaluating policies and programs; keeping an eye on administration and operations, and “any other duty or function”. If it all sounds like the job of a senior corporate executive, there’s a good reason for that. The entire text of one section in our good old friend the MGA says, “A municipality is a corporation” (Seriously–that’s the whole section!). So councillors are a lot like the folks in the corner suites–president and vice-presidents of a major corporation. (In fact, the mayor is the CEO–it’s just that CEO stands for Chief Elected Official rather than Chief Executive Officer.)

But councillors are something else, too. They’re symbols–symbols of democracy, government, and the public. They may not be movie or rock stars, but they are “celebrities” in the sense that they’re in the public eye. They’re subject to a lot of media attention and public scrutiny. They give up a lot of their private lives. They’re pretty much always “on duty”. Item 6 in their list of roles and responsibilities (“any other duty or function”) means they attend a lot of community meetings, cultural celebrations, special events, and on and on. But even if they just want to go to a restaurant or a movie with their family, they still have to be “on”. And councillors have to have thick skins. No matter what they do, there will always been critics more than willing to share their opinions.

For this combination of responsibility, scrutiny, and close to 24/7 duties, councillors in Calgary are paid about $111,000/year. They also get an expense allowance around $14,000, a car allowance, a parking spot at City Hall, and an aide or two. If that sounds like a lot, compare it to the total compensation packages for senior execs of major corporations in the private sector. Being a city councillor isn’t exactly a “get rich quick” career path. So it’s entirely fair and appropriate to ask candidates why they want the job–and you get to ask that question (any many more)!

To carry on with the corporate metaphor, think of an election as a mass “performance review”, “interview”, or even hiring and firing process. Think of yourself as both a shareholder and a member of the (rather large!) “Hiring Committee” of “Calgary, Inc.”. The incumbents running for council want you to review their performance and hope you decide to “renew their contracts” rather than let them go. The challengers are new applicants, hoping you’ll like their resumé, interview them, and decide to hire them.

So there you go–you’re an HR expert whether you knew it or not! And you’ve got all the power! You’re the interviewer, sitting comfortably in familiar surroundings. The candidates are the ones with the sweaty palms, sitting all alone in front of a gigantic hiring committee, praying they don’t forget the answers they’ve prepared, and hoping to get the job they’re applying for. From reading this post, you know the job description. You know how many positions you have to fill. You know the pay scale. You’re totally ready to go. Just as it would be if you were sitting on a hiring committee at work, your homework is to read the candidates’ resumés, ask them questions you think are important, and decide who you want to hire. It’s a bit of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. Good luck, hiring committee!