About 18 people filled the gallery at the District of Sooke council chambers on Thursday, Sept. 15 to listen to consultant Rob Roycroft explain what it means to run for public office.
The two-hour session covered such topics as why people run for council, the challenges, what they need to be aware of and the upside as well as the pitfalls.
“The vast majority have a deep desire to make their community the best it can be, the electorate want and expect a good council,” said Roycroft.
He said everyone who runs is an independent and because they are out in the community everyday they are open to criticism and praise and have to be aware of their actions and stances on issues even before they seek a council seat.
People with self-interest, specific issues, business or professional interests similar to those of the district are likely not the best candidates.
The time commitment is a tedious one and candidates can expect to spend more time on council business than they ever thought. Council meets four times a month and then there are the committee and board commitments.
“There are demands during the day, evenings, weekends and at the worst possible times,” stated Roycroft. “It can impact your personal and employment life.”
The compensation is not much but Roycroft said that should not deter or preclude someone from running for council.
“Expect to spend a lot of time on district business. The community is best served by a body representing the broadest range of interest and abilities. He said that once elected a council member could expect to be available 24/7, nothing is off the record and confrontation and arguments are commonplace.
“It’s a dirty world out there,” Roycroft warned.
The mayor’s position pays a stipend of $20,100 plus expenses and councillors get $10,050 plus expenses. Conferences and travel are covered by the district.
The longest discussion involved conflict of interest.
“It’s the only thing that can get you fired,” stated Rycroft.
He said that you alone decide if you are in a position of conflict of interest and if you have to ask the question, you likely are in conflict, either real or perceived.
If you have a pecuniary interest in an item on the agenda, you cannot participate in discussion with staff and council and you cannot vote. You are obligated to remove yourself from the council table.
“A reasonable expectation of bias is also problematic,” he said. “Council must always approach an issue with an open mind and listen.”
Pecuniary interest is difficult to access and it is not black and white.
“You need to be guarded by both your head and your heart — if you think you are, you are. The governance function itself has to remain neutral.”
Roycroft said one of the best ways to figure out if one is in a conflict of interest is to ask the common person. if you ask, ‘do you think I would be in a conflict of interest,’ if they say ‘yes’ you would not pass the test.”
He stated that once a charge is levied in a conflict situation a person pays a huge price and the corporation (District of Sooke) pays a really huge price if it goes to court. He said a bylaw can be tossed out if a biased decision is made and it will cost the municipality a lot of money.
Care has to be taken in one’s public life as well as one’s personal life when they are on council.
“Embarrassment can be long lasting.”
Carrying on Roycroft said that the first year on council was the least influential as current issues, contractual obligations and such were already ongoing. Effecting change takes time and at times it can be overwhelming due to demands, pressures, sensitivity.
There are decision-making constraints and you will find yourself in a legislative straight jacket, said Roycroft.
“I guarantee a newly-elected official will get frustrated.’
He spoke of a code of conduct and the necessity to run a clean campaign.
“Once elected you are now part of the system and you are all on the same team. When a decision is made, it becomes a corporate decision and it is the responsibility of all to support it.”
Healthy debate is positive but it is important to stick to the issues and avoid personalities. He said the community elects the entire council to work for positive outcomes.
Roycroft went on to talk about in-camera meeting and the importance of knowing that what was carried on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors.
“There is no such things as ‘legislative immunity’ at the local level.”
If a councillor does end up in court, the district indemnifies the councillor when they act in good faith, but some actions can attract organization and personal liability.
“You have to be careful what you say,” Roycroft emphasized. He said this applied to one’s personal comments as well as public ones.
As everything is on public record, with the exception of issues of land, labour or law, a councillor or mayor’s notes, files, emails, correspondence are open to inspection.
The seminar ended with discussion on budgets and decision making processes. For more information a council hopeful can go to: www.civicinfo.bc.ca, as well the District of Sooke has a lot of information on the website: www.sooke.ca.