Council leads, staff follows.
In municipal politics, the four words summarize how the balance of local governance is designed to take place.
Though it can be messy and a balancing act, at the end of the day council – the representative of the people – is meant to be the leaders of the community.
They’re ultimately accountable to the electorate, the face of decisions being made and the voices determining the level of transparency in the public realm. If residents feel council members haven’t kept their end of the bargain, every four years there’s an opportunity to replace them.
At its core, council is voted to represent the people of its community. While more than half of people choose not to vote at the municipal level, the responsibility is not lessened. The position is meant to carry forward the vision and guidance of a community acting in its stead for matters that impact the day-to-day life of residents.
But what happens when a situation arises and the balance of power tips from the people to that of staff?
In a perfect world, it would never happen but it’s unfortunately all too common.
There’s inevitably a push-and-pull between who guides what in a municipality. While staff are naturally knowledgeable and are in the weeds day in and day out, accountability ultimately stops at the footsteps of council.
Similar to council, being a municipal staffer can often be a thankless job with it all too easy – and often unfair – to blame public sector employees and elected officials for all the woes of the world.
It’s impossible to get two people to agree on everything let alone an entire community, meaning there will always be divisive voices for everyone offering support. The voices of derision are regularly the ones that happen to be the loudest.
However, members of the public sector can often forget they’re there to serve their residents and implement the policies and vision of council.
In a growing pattern across the country, municipalities are becoming less transparent, less open and less inclined to be accountable to residents.
Similarly to municipal staff not crossing the line into council territory, the same is true of council overstepping its bounds.
If you have council members giving advice to a construction crew on repairing a broken watermain, approving or denying a building permit for a deck, or deciding as a group they’ll take care of how often the Zamboni resurfaces the ice each day, the pendulum has gone too far.
Regardless of if 1,000 people, 100 people or one person is paying attention, the role of an elected official is immensely important.
Though democratic ideals can go from being romanticized one day and downtrodden the next, those values are inherently important in governance.
Council members are meant to lead and not simply act as a rubber-stamp.
The failure to lead is an abdication of power.
The fact a discussion on who decides service levels is being had is a more troubling situation.
For staff members who may disagree with decisions being made, the good part is every four years there’s a municipal election to run in that any resident has the option of taking part in.
For new council members, it can often be a lengthy learning period as weighty decisions that can impact a community for generations need to be made.
But at the end of the day, it’s council members who put their names on a ballot, decided to run and represent their community.
There should be no debate on who’s in charge.