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Proactive politics – What is the role of a City Councillor?

By: James Jeff McLaren
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An opinion piece on why I have weekly public drop in consultations at the Chit Chat cafe

I have often been asked, “Why do you meet residents at the Chit Chat Café every Sunday?” or “Why are you going door to door now - in the middle of your term?” The short answer is that I am trying to make myself a better City Councillor. But what does that really mean? As I reflect on the past two years working for the people of Meadowbrook-Strathcona, I continue to explore and define what it means to me to serve the public.

E.F. Schumacher, the author of “Small is Beautiful” distinguished between at least two kinds of policy problems in the world: 1) “Convergent problems” in which, as more people study the issue, solutions converge on the best solution and 2) “Divergent problems” which are based on values. Since values vary, the more a divergent problem is studied by people with different values, life experiences or sentiments the more divergent the solutions get. An example of divergent problems are questions on the “common good” and how best to balance competing common goods for your constituents.

A councillor's role as policy maker is where these two types of problems meet. We have to make the most informed decisions possible, while remembering our duty to represent the values of the communities we serve. A thoughtful representative will strive to do both, and where we draw the line is often a matter of our own personal style. In our municipal system, managing these two types of problems and our role in the process, leads to the policies, the drama, and ultimately, the voting record of City Council.

A decision on a convergent problem is relatively easy if we are fully committed to an informed council and a robust discussion of potential solutions. While we should (and do) feel the weight of responsibility for our decision-making, solutions to convergent problems would likely be the same for most people. For a politician, it means taking the time to study the issues, reflect, and vote according to what is best. Divergent problems are different. A very few are contentious high-level questions in which a decision will bind council and the community with long-lasting consequences. Such decisions are often best done with broad public consultation through personal contact, public meetings, or even a referendum.

The most challenging work for me as a policy maker is crafting and deciding on new mid-level policy. These are the kind of policies that need to balance decisions for constituents while representing constituents’ values. These values, based on different human experiences, are not always reducible to a similar core value. This is the most common source of displeasure with councillors, because as we know: Not all of the values in our constituency are the same. The facts may be the same, but the values can and will lead us in different directions.

For this reason, representing the constituency is the hardest part of my work, because life experiences, attitudes, personalities, beliefs and knowledge can vary so widely. That is also why working to build strong relationships with people is so important. Every point of contact with my constituents can bring new insights to help me represent them, and it is well worth the effort to be consistently available to them.

This past summer, in a mid-term consultation, I started going door to door to proactively find constituents and ask to learn the issues and concerns they have. For the past two years, I have made myself available at the Chit Chat Café every Sunday at 4:00 pm to expand my understanding of lives and issues that I may not have personally experienced.

Every meeting is an opportunity to share an experience of a life lived differently; a concern felt differently; a sentiment honed by different experience, and an opportunity to be a better City Councillor. It is a vital part of my work, and I believe wholeheartedly that an engaged representative must invest time and effort into understanding the represented. This is what politics means to me.

Please join me this Sunday, November 13th at 4:00 at the Chit Chat Café in the Frontenac Mall for my 100th drop-in public consultation.

Added on: Nov 9, 2016
By: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren