What exactly does a councillor do anyway?

29 Sep

As an army of would-be city councillors descend on our doorsteps to extend a glad hand in exchange for our votes in the municipal election this Oct. 25, it might serve us well to remind ourselves of who these people are, what they do, and what they can do for us.

Who is my councillor?

If you don’t know who is currently your representative on council, your neighbours may be able to tell you. Otherwise, check www.Vaughan.ca.

When is the election to decide who my councillor is?

The next election is Oct. 25. To find a voting station near you visit www.VaughanVotes.ca.

Who is running in my area?

If they haven’t already knocked on your door or delivered flyers and platform information to your mailbox, you can find the names at www.VaughanVotes.ca or www.VaughanToday.ca/blog. Don’t forget: You also vote for your local school board trustee, the mayor and three regional councillors on the same ballot.

Why should I care?

There are a number of reasons why one might care who his or her councillor is. It’s sort of like you are a major shareholder in a giant corporation called Vaughan, operating budget: $205 million.

You pay for it to operate, and you pay for your councillor and his or her assistants to work for you. To make sure you’re getting the proper bang for your buck—and that your children do too—caring who calls the shots and how they call the shots would be step one.

How do councillors affect my life?

Toronto’s longest-serving councillor Howard Moscoe puts it like this: “When you flush the toilet, the municipality looks after it. When your house catches on fire, we send the fire department out. When you have a heart attack, we send an ambulance. People take it for granted, but everything around them is the result of some kind of municipal decision.” (Ed. Note: This is where, in Vaughan, regional council comes in, too. Post coming soon.)

What does a councillor do all day?

“Half of my time goes to resolving difficulties that my constituents have,” says Moscoe, who has a staff of three devoted almost exclusively to these issues.

This can take the form of community “site visits” where the councillor will show up, often with staff members in tow, to discuss the problems of the day.  This can come in the form of a visit to a residence, business or, if it’s a larger problem, a community meeting. Other times it can be in the form of late-night emergency calls from constituents. “It’s not a 9-5 job,” Moscoe says.

Councillors also deal with citywide issues by attending council meetings to debate and vote on controversial issues. They also sit on various committees to tackle specific agendas and goals. Councillors usually have some of their own community-building projects they work on as well.

Putting it at it’s bluntest, Moscoe says this: “We take your money and spend it on your behalf.”

Do my neighbours vote?

Probably not. Only 38 percent of us did in the last municipal election in 2006. Many new candidates this time around are hoping to win their council seat the same way that Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency—by getting out voters who’ve never voted before.

How do I choose the best person for the job?

Doug Holyday, longtime Toronto councillor, says the best way is to be proactive in sussing out the menu: “Go to an all-candidates meeting where you can hear them all first-hand, front and centre. Decide who sounds the most reasonable, who presents the best case and who seems to be the most capable.”

Councillors are employed to solve problems for “you” in the plural sense of the whole ward and city, but also “you” in the singular sense, says Dr. Mitchell Kosny, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University (and a former council candidate.)

“The councillor wants to get elected,” Kosny says. “They love to be friends of … the local community. People are disenfranchised … by the language and by all kinds of barriers, but still, at the end of the day, I honestly believe you just pick up the phone and you call.”

Why don’t people vote in Vaughan?

Kosny says municipal malaise is caused by a lack of understanding about how councillors affect our lives.

Moscoe agrees. “You really have the ability to change your environment (and) the rules the city makes and people don’t realize that.”

Another factor, says Kosny, is the jadedness we feel caused by a lack of participation in and ownership of municipal life.

“A lot of people think, ‘Those guys. Those guys down at city hall, they won’t listen anyway’. My experience says that I think that there is an onus on the citizen to make the effort.”

What about after the election?

Advises Kosny, “Use them, because they’re getting paid by us to represent us.”

He also recommends that we keep tabs: “They need to be held accountable for what they’re doing. You’ve got to check up. And not just every four years.”

— Christopher Reynolds

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