“So You Think You Can Dance?” Footwork for Elected Municipal Officials

January 5, 2017

The following article was adapted from a speech that Kevin Latimer, Q.C. was honoured to present as the Ken Simpson Municipal Lecture, hosted by the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, on November 30th, 2016 in Halifax.

Being a municipal councillor is a tough but rewarding calling. New to elected office and not sure where to start? Or, think you’ve seen it all and looking for some new moves? This article offers some practical tips on making the most of your mandate – gleaned from 20+ years observing both masterful performances and missteps on the municipal stage in Nova Scotia.

A brief note on the title. It was inspired by the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance? I thought the notion of having to work hard, work with partners, be adaptable, and perform under pressure in the public eye might resonate with elected officials.

With that, here are my top ten tips:

1. Know Your Part

Municipalities are a “creature of statute”. The only powers they have are those set out in provincial legislation. If you don’t have a grasp of the basics, you won’t understand what the Municipality can and can’t do.  Review the key legislation (MGA, HRM Charter, etc.) to get the big picture and understand how the pieces fit together.

2. Learn the Steps

As with any new dance, it can get tricky when you move outside your comfort zone. An important part of success as a councillor is knowing how to function properly and effectively in council meetings. There are rules of engagement that apply. If you don’t get them right, you could blow the routine. Know the meeting Agenda, know the rules of order, and understand how particular decisions are to be taken (i.e. open or closed meetings). The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you’ll participate and contribute positively in council’s decision-making process.

3. Rely on Your Partners

Fortunately, you have a support team to help you perform your role. Know and understand their roles, and seek their assistance when you need it. Know that the CAO reports to council, and all other municipal employees report to the CAO.  Effective councils don’t micromanage; rather, they set policy and take advice, letting staff do their jobs.

4. Know When to Lead – and When to Follow

You’re going to have a lot on your plate. Before taking on a task, ask yourself whether it’s your responsibility, or whether someone else is better suited to take the lead? You don’t have to take on every problem. Often, your best response to inquiries may be to point the inquirer in the right direction. Think about your role so you don’t end up tripping over someone who’s better qualified and able to respond.

5. Never Stop Learning

From the disco, to the Moonwalk, to “dabbing”, one of the great things about dance is that it’s always evolving. You will be key actors in driving attitudinal change. As councillors, never stop questioning the work you do or the way things get done. Don’t become complacent. There are challenges and opportunities around every corner. Consider the need for structural reform of municipal government; pursue opportunities to remove or reduce the regulatory burden to make our towns and rural areas more attractive to new businesses and start-ups; take steps to attract new immigrants so the whole province reflects the diversity of the world around us. An attitude of “it’s always been done this way” won’t take our province and communities where they need to go.

6. Know your Audience – and Remember They’re Always Watching

As an elected representative, part of your job is to continually engage with the citizens who elected you. Continuing to be anchored in your community is vital to your success. Conversely, know that your every move will be scrutinized. Make sure you conduct yourself in a way that engenders trust and confidence. Know how to identify and report a conflict of interest. Appreciate the importance of public disclosure and transparency, but at the same time understand the rules and the consequences of breaking them.

7. Find a Coach

Like dancers, we all need a lifeline from time to time; someone outside our immediate orbit who can bring some experience and perspective to the challenges we face. Find a person at arm’s length to help you make good decisions along the way, keeping in mind that this type of relationship may take time to build.

8. Take Care of Yourself

Every dancer knows the importance of stretching and warming up before a performance and listening to their body when rest is needed. Your role as a councillor will be demanding. Ensure that you have a plan and are deliberate about the time you take for yourself, your family, and other outside interests. Don’t relinquish the things that gave you joy and satisfaction before you entered office.

9. Keep on Dancing – The Show Must Go On

If you don’t have setbacks, failures, or disappointments, you’re not trying hard enough. Try to keep your humility and sense of humour as you encounter challenges. Be prepared to get up, brush yourself off, and keep your feet moving.

10. Take a Bow and Accept Your Applause

Enjoy your successes, both big and small. Remember that failure is never fatal, success is never final. Being a councillor is a community role; first and foremost, you’re there to serve. Ultimately, you’ll know you’ve succeeded when you can look back and see that your community is better for your service.

A winning routine takes thought, focus and persistent hard work. Go out there, keep your feet moving, find some good partners, enjoy your audience, and put yourself in a position to take a bow when the music ends. Best of luck.

As always, I’d be interested in your thoughts if you have other advice to add to this list.

Kevin Latimer, Q.C., is the Managing Partner of Cox & Palmer’s office in Halifax, NS. His practice focuses on civil litigation, employment & labour, municipal law, and regulatory matters. He can be reached at (902) 491-4212 or via e-mail at klatimer@coxandpalmer.com.

Contributions by Meryn Steeves, Articled Clerk.

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