I’ve been reflecting on my first year on the Esquimalt Council—it has been quite a year, filled with a lot of reading, meeting lots of new people from across the region and a significant amount of learning. Despite my years of experience in municipal policy and having a keen interest in cities, local governments, and their workings, I was still taken aback by the steep learning curve of being on the council, a challenge that persists.
Here are a few things that have surprised me, based on my experiences with the Esquimalt Council:
- Contrary to my expectations (and what I believe many people assume about government decision-making), I’ve been struck by how almost all of our real debate and discussion happens at Council meetings for everyone to see. Although I occasionally have chats with one or two of my fellow councillors, it’s mostly to explore an issue and check that I haven’t missed some history or a critical detail. Although we may hold strong opinions, I often have no idea how most decisions will unfold before they are presented to the council. There have been numerous occasions where I entered with a firm idea in mind, only to have it shifted by staff presentations, public input, or my fellow councillors. I’ve come to believe that the council is genuinely engaged, attentive, and makes decisions in real time.
- We make very few decisions in camera (privately), strictly adhering to the rules set forth by the local government act. This council, and even more so Esquimalt staff, takes our obligation to discuss matters in public very seriously.
- Council is tasked with making many significant decisions swiftly. We generally receive reports at the same time as the public (generally the Wednesday before a Monday meeting), leading to a quick turnaround of a lot of information. In other areas of my life, I prefer to delve into problems, data, and alternatives extensively—there isn’t much time for this in a council setting. Even with thorough preparation (and I do read every word of every report on the agenda), the meetings can take unexpected turns, necessitating quick pivots. While we can defer decisions, it’s not ideal to do so very often, as this causes subsequent items to be postponed, given our typically full agendas are planned weeks to months ahead.
- Making decisions quickly and publicly is a real skill that I’m still developing. It’s daunting knowing that every word you say is available for scrutiny online and recorded for posterity. I’m still a bit self-conscious about what I say. The packed schedule and the need to move on to other items probably gives the impression that we take decisions lightly- which isn’t true. This is made harder by the fact that the decisions that come to us are never the easy ones—those are typically handled by staff without council intervention. Every decision we make will disappoint someone, and there are times when we might get it wrong.
- Council meetings—and the council chambers more broadly—are not the best venues for receiving public feedback. Although it’s always good to have members of the public speak on matters important to them, the formal setting of a council meeting, with its rules for respectful and efficient conduct, aren’t particularly welcoming.. It’s challenging to listen to a member of the public making a heartfelt appeal when according to our council procedures we are not supposed to interact by asking follow-up questions or encouraging further explanation to better understand their perspective. Speaking to the council can be intimidating, and while I understand that a formal setting makes for efficient debate and decision-making, I believe it could be made clearer and less intimidating. More on this in a future post.
Being a council member is a demanding role—even though it is technically part-time, there’s a lot to manage and keep on top of. There are many emails to read and (try to) respond to, extensive reading, and plenty of conversations with residents. I particularly enjoy meeting with residents on any topic and encourage anyone to reach out via email (email@example.com) to set up a meeting over coffee.