Happy Local Government Awareness Week! Each year the provincial government designates a week with a focus on building knowledge about local governments. Many councils and regional districts take up the challenge and organize events and demos that showcase the importance of local government services. Big and little kids get to climb in dump trucks, or shake hands with the fire chief.
So what will you learn this week? Well, one thing to notice is how important emergency preparedness is. That’s just one of many city services we benefit from every day. Planning for emergencies is less visible than garbage collection or sewer pipe installation. But right now, as lake levels continue to rise and threaten municipal and private assets, we can see that preparation going into action.
It’s impossible to plan for everything, especially with odd weather patterns that defy our expectations of what should happen. We only have to look to Grand Forks and the Boundary area to see what that can mean. If you can, please make a donation to the Red Cross or another agency to help our neighbours recover from the flood.
Meanwhile, election fever, well, mild warmth, is starting to take hold. Unless I stick to my home and garden, I encounter at least one conversation or question each day. What’s happening with the election? Who’s running? And on it goes. Very entertaining.
Last week I spoke with Jillian Merrick in Prince George. She’s a first-term councillor there, and has organized a series of monthly discussions called: Yes, You Can Run for Office. Her goal is to encourage and support people from under-represented groups to run for office. In those groups, she includes women, indigenous folks, youth, people with disabilities, LGBTQ folks and ethnic minorities.
Jillian says these groups often have particular issues that may not get addressed (or even be identified) at the council table if there isn’t someone to champion them. She uses herself as an example. As a UNBC grad, she brought student issues to the table. Jillian says the 8,000 students (ten percent of the city’s population) are important to the city. But their needs are specific, especially because, like many universities, UNBC is built on a mountainside, making transit and integration with life in town the priorities. Jillian says a Select Committee on Student Life was created, and doesn’t think that would have happened without her urging.
So far, Jillian says the barriers she hears most about relate to money. Where to get the funds and other resources to run a campaign. Jillian’s advice: don’t worry; you’ll be surprised by the generosity of your networks. And then, if you’re elected, how to manage your life on a council stipend. Jillian says people with a stable income source (e.g., a pension) are most likely to run for office. However, in Prince George the annual stipend for councillors is $32,000, which opens the door to more people.
I agree with Jillian that local government is so broad and far-reaching that a diversity of voices is needed. As she said to me, one person can’t have experience, knowledge and passion about it all, so you need different backgrounds for good decision-making. She also noted the importance of being flexible and ready to play different roles, and the ability to be part of group decision-making. We both agreed those are skills most women have!
Before talking to Jillian, I looked at her Facebook page and was pleasantly surprised by the absence of nasty comments. She told me that because FB comments are public, people are more restrained. Not in emails and phone calls, however; that’s where the nastiness happens. Thank goodness for the delete button.
I admire Jillian’s initiative. It’s important for experienced voices to call on others to consider running, and to support and encourage them. I usually do that in private conversations, on request, and I’m happy to speak with anyone who’s mulling the decision. Of course, I also recommend reading my book to get a taste of the experience.
Jillian says, yes, you can run for office. And I agree. The four-year commitment, the trials and tribulations, are all worth it. You can not only run, you can make a real difference, to your community and for yourself.
Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.