As a former city councillor….


I love an election eleven years ago, and I lost it because of some mistakes I made. Perhaps reading this will give Hamilton’s new Councillors advice on how to avoid my errors.

Spend more time preventing problems than fixing them. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the right thing to do. Let me give you an example. Hamilton has a by-law that regulates “Residential Care Facilities” — retirement homes, community-funded homes for people with disabilities, private lodging homes for people who need some help in their day-to-day life. If I had helped pass the bylaw after someone died of an error, say of a drug overdose, or perhaps after a newspaper exposé on a retirement home where food was locked away and the only nutrition given to a resident was a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and supper, the by-law would have been applauded. However, since the by-law that helps regulate residential care facilities now exists, hopefully we have prevented those kinds of incidents and we won’t hear those stories.

Doing work like that — helping to protect the most vulnerable among us — was the reason I sought office. But, even though it was my job, the right thing to do, and I’m proud to have worked on the by-law, it was the kind of work that doesn’t help a Councillor get re-elected.

The point is — you can’t do this type of good work and help insure that the City runs as well as it can unless you’re in office. But if you spend your time preventing problems rather than solving them, you are less likely to have your work noticed, and it’s harder to stay in that office.

Another example might be working to see that the City’s trees are trimmed regularly. Believe me, you get a lot more credit for calling the arborist and getting a constituent’s tree trimmed than for working behind the scenes to set the right tree trimming policy. (We never did pass my resolution to speed up tree trimming to keep our urban forest healthier.) The same for our terrible roads. Filling potholes on someone’s street is more likely to get you votes on that street than ensuring a preventative maintenance and catch-up policy is instituted.

I made the mistake of listening to the traffic engineers who would not recommend 4 way stops and unneeded traffic lights. Many constituents have the mistaken belief that stop signs slow traffic. In fact they lead to less observance, jack rabbit starts, and more air pollution. But after all, you are elected to do what your constituents ask, right? All the people who didn’t get their requested stop signs certainly weren’t part of my fan club.

And that is the big conundrum. Do you listen to your constituents, staff, outside experts, lobbyists, and use your best judgement, or do you follow the wish of the majority? Do you do what is popular in your ward but not necessarily as good for the city as a whole? Do you have an obligation to respond to the press, and e-mails and calls from voters, or hide when there is a controversial issue?

Eleven years ago the municipal election turned into a referendum on the Red Hill Creek Parkway. David Christopherson, an opponent of the road, lost to Larry Di Ianni, a supporter. If memory serves, the only City wards to support Christopherson were the ward I represented – ward one, and ward two represented by Andrea Horwath, who was also an opponent of the road. My opponent, Brian McHattie, was an opponent of the road. He beat the socks off me. Ward one residents didn’t see the need for the road as it didn’t serve our area.

I took a long time before I made up my mind to support the expressway. You see, I held back for my first six years in office trying to find an alternative. I came to the conclusion then and still believe that we had no choice but to complete the north-south portion of the parkway. One of our major economic strengths is our geography. Serviced by a port, an airport, closer to the US border than Toronto; we are also a trucking hub. Not having a ring road was hurting our economy. The growth in commercial assessment and the corresponding taxes and jobs over the past decade speak for themselves. As well, the quality of the creek for fish has improved, air quality in the inner city has improved, and I still enjoy hiking the valley trails. So was it a mistake to support the expressway? The voters of Hamilton’s west end sure thought so.

One big ‘mistake’ was not being one of the “Back Room Boys.” My first three years were pretty difficult. Most of my initiatives went nowhere. During my second and third terms I hammered out a good working relationship with the newer councillors and my colleagues in the suburbs. But believe me, I could have gotten even more done if I had paid better attention to “Sometimes you gotta’ go along to get along!” And sometimes I did. Issues confined in a ward, the ward councillor can usually count on get- ting their way.

So if your goal is re-election, don’t argue with constituents even when what they want is counter-productive. Go along with the power brokers on council. Don’t worry about the big stuff, just fix the little stuff. To get re-elected just go with the flow. People may hate Council as a whole, but you’ll do OK.

On the other hand, I could just be a sore loser.

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