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The Winds of Municipal Change

By
Dean Iorfida
and
,
on
October 30, 2018

Change is inevitable.  With the dust settled from the October 22nd municipal election, there will be changes regardless of if a municipality has brought back the majority of its’ previous Council members or not.  Obvious changes from last Monday include Toronto negotiating a shrunken 25 ward, council, new mayors in Brampton, Burlington and London, the Niagara Region returning a mere eight members out of a possible 31 and some municipalities, like Pelham, not returning a single incumbent.

While the changes in Council composition are a natural result of the election process, the changes on the administration at a municipal level are less obvious.  A municipality that has returned its’ mayor or Head of Council will likely operate much the same as the previous term, with the obvious exception of Toronto; however, when the Mayor has been unseated, especially by a perceived foe, the changes to the administration can be seismic.

Despite the fact that the municipal administration is politically neutral, the benefits of incumbency often see key municipal initiatives being timed during the election year.  Major infrastructure projects, park enhancements and other municipal announcements are ramped up in the fourth year of the term, which benefits the sitting members.  

Although such projects were likely identified as part of the municipal budget process, the incoming mayor may view that the administration aided his or her opponent in the lead up to the vote. The municipality’s top bureaucrat, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), becomes particularly vulnerable and a change in the top political position may see the CAO brushing up their resume.  

Similarly, mayor’s offices are often populated by support staff that are municipal employees.  They come with the office.  This can create an uncomfortable situation if the Mayor-elect wishes their “own people” in these positions.  In a municipality I worked in, our switchboard started getting calls, post-election, for an individual purported to be working in the Mayor’s Office, who hadn’t even been interviewed yet, let alone hired.  Naturally, a position was found for the individual and others in the Mayor’s office were shuttled to other jobs within the corporation, some newly created.

While such wholesale changes to the administration are part and parcel with an electoral victory in the United States, where patronage appointments are doled out post-election, they are less common here.  It may behoove Ontario municipalities to have their CAO’s and executive support staff on contracts timed with the Council term to avoid expensive severance packages and the creation of new, possibly redundant, positions at the commencement of the new term.

For the senior staff that remain at the municipality, the new term offers a chance for a reset.  Usually, an orientation process will begin before or after inauguration for the new council. If you have a number of incumbents returning this can prove difficult because they may feel they already know all there is they need to know about municipal governance!  Nonetheless, the orientation process may allow the administration to correct perceived problems or issues, though this, too, can backfire.

Faced with our previous council declaring conflicts of interest on the most mundane of matters, I arranged to have a noted municipal lawyer speak to the new council, hoping that he would advise the members that unless there was an obvious pecuniary interest involved, such declarations of conflict were unnecessary.  He provided the exact opposite advice: if there is a whiff or scintilla of a possible conflict, declare it!

The new term, and especially a new mayor, also presents new opportunities for the electors in the municipality.  Each municipality has its’ “regulars”, vocal residents that regularly complain about issues.  A new mayor allows them another kick at the can, so to speak.  The resident, who has been advised that the overhanging tree branches emanating from their neighbour’s tree, is a civil matter and not a matter for by-law enforcement to adjudicate, will complain to the Mayor’s office hoping for a different answer with a new mayor in place.  The “entrepreneurs” with great ideas for the municipality, ideally funded by the tax base, may come back hoping the new administration is more amenable to their ideas, or, more likely, their request for financial assistance. If the new mayor has a sympathetic ear, however, staff may be re-visiting matters that they thought they had already put to bed.

The biggest change as a result of the municipal election will be for the new councillor.  Although they may have an idea how the municipal government operates, it is different once they are seated around the horseshoe in the council chamber.  They may discover the platform they ran on has nothing to do with municipal government and is in the purview of the Provincial or Federal government.  They will also learn as a part-time municipal councillor, their influence on job creation is almost nothing.  

The best new councillors will study the issues and pick their spots, learning the ropes and identifying the key municipal staff that will assist in their ability to deliver to their constituents.  Some of those key staff persons may actually still be around in time for the 2022 election.

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