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Kootenay council wanna-be’s learn ABCs of municipal government

About 60 would-be politicians showed up to a workshop in Castlegar on Monday for a primer on being a city councillor.

The workshop, the first of its kind held in BC, was sponsored by local municipal governments. It was designed to give people thinking of running for local councils an idea of what the job actually entails.

The event attracted candidates from Creston, Warfield, Rossland, Nelson, and Castlegar for the event.

“I have been thinking of running myself,” said Ida Price of Castlegar. “I am here today to find out more about what I can do to improve Castlegar. This is a wonderful city and I want to see what I can do.”

“I think it is important that anyone running for any public office understand governance,” said Dallas Magrum of Creston. “It’s not just about singular issues, there’s a whole big world involved with running a town and how a town works. There’s lots of processes. It’s important for people to understand all of that.”

And that’s what the moderators, Christina Benty, a former mayor of Golden, and Caleb Moss, set out to do.

“This workshop is meant to dispel the myths of what local government is about, why it exists, the services it provides, and what the responsibility of politicians is versus the responsibility of staff,” Benty told the group.

Over the next four hours, Benty and Moss outlined the part each cog in the municipal government wheel played, from politician to garbage collector, firefighter to planner.

The pair also worked to get the wannabe-candidates to understand what powers lie with municipalities, compared to higher levels of government.

For municipalities, it’s about infrastructure. Economic development and affordable housing may be important to the community, but the city’s job is to ensure clean water is delivered cheaply, that the streets are well maintained, the sewage flows away safely, and people can live and work together in a way that lets them get along reasonably peacefully.

“Why do we have municipal government?” Benty asked the crowd. “It exists to create a civilized society.”

And what do the municipal politicians do? They don’t fight fires themselves, she said, and they don’t run recreation programs for kids. Leave that to the experts, to the staff, she said.

“You represent your community about what services it wants, and at what level,” she told the crowd. “And this is critical: it is to represent the community on what services it is willing to pay for.”

A person might want to be elected on a platform of slashing local government and spending. And that’s their right, says Benty — but there can be consequences. Canadian cities are woefully behind in maintaining their infrastructure, and are facing tough decisions about spending priorities. As a local politician, you have to be prepared to accept the results of those decisions.

“You have to determine what risks to take, what responsibilities you are willing to assume,” she told the group.

Related: Former mayor to advise would-be West Kootenay politicians

And Moss told the group it was fine running as a maverick, and being a firebrand on council — just don’t expect to get very far in setting the direction of your community as a result.

“If you can’t connect people together, if you aren’t able to connect with fellow council mates or staff, then your opinions fall by the wayside,” he told the group. “You can learn the facts of the issue, but if you don’t bring to the table the ability to articulate, to communicate, and to play well together, your opinions might be awesome but they will be going to waste most of the time.”

And it’s important for councillors not to take on the job with an eye to changing the world. Climate change and social justice are important issues, certainly — but as a councillor, you may want to keep a distance from them.

“If you have neither the authority nor the resources to deal with an issue, why would you take on the responsibility?” asked Benty.

“When everything else is in good shape, you can focus on things outside your responsibility,” added Moss. “Like, in about 80 or 90 years.”

Still, both facilitators showed a love and respect for municipal government, and the people who run for office.

“It’s exciting, right?” said Benty “And everyone runs to improve their community. I’ve never met anyone who’s said ‘I want to wreck my community.’ Everybody who runs is very well-meaning, and wanting to do good things for their community. You see very big-hearted and generous people who are community-minded at these things.”

It was a sobering but engaging four-hour session for the candidates.

Municipal elections are on Oct. 20, but there’s only about two weeks left to decide whether you want to be a candidate. The nomination period runs Sept. 4 to 14.

John Boivin

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