if we want better municipal politicians, we should pay better salaries
Four years ago in Ontario, 6,658 candidates ran for 2,864 local council seats. It’s safe to assume that a similar number will do so again, but it also raises the question of how many have considered running for office but have chosen not to.
It’s impossible to know, but one of the biggest obstacles to getting new representation on the board is the structure of the job itself.
It’s tough being a city councilor. There are two main parts to the job.
Formal and informal tasks
The first is the formal part, namely board and committee meetings. This is where councilors publicly express their positions, openly debate and make decisions on behalf of their constituents.
It also includes constituency work needed to address local issues, such as making sure property standards are met, responding to property tax inquiries, or helping people trying to access local services and programs.
The informal component is primarily social and involves attending community events and celebrations. Counselors are called upon to bring greetings, support various functions, and be generally present in the life of the community. Between these two responsibilities, the work can be exhausting.
It’s even more exhausting if you have a family or another career. In these cases, the pressures of work add to the stress of raising a family or taking time off from a profession you have pursued for years. Because of this pressure and stress, many may be surprised to learn that city councilors are not well paid.
In 2017, the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario conducted an investigation provincial councils, requesting information on compensation.
In many municipalities across the province, councilors are considered part-time and paid as such. Many municipalities in the province with populations under 100,000 have part-time councillors.
All are paid, but not all with a salary. Only 42% of the members of the board are salaried, the others receiving an allowance or fees.
Compensation levels vary widely. According to the association’s survey, most board members are paid less than $40,000. There are of course differences in size, with council members from larger municipalities earning more than those from smaller communities.
Even that said, those who represent municipalities with 100,000 to 250,000 residents reported earning an average of $35,442 in salary. Those representing communities of more than 250,000 people earned an average of $75,085. In Toronto – Canada’s largest and most expensive city — advisors are paid $120,502.
In return, councilors must work through council meetings that often last several hours, serve on multiple committees, respond to constituents in a timely manner, attend various court hearings and tribunals, be available for media inquiries, and review relevant reports and information presented by staff. The job can be tough at the best of times.
Signs of trouble
The picture painted so far is a bit bleak: lots of work, low pay and constant stress. Still, those 6,658 people thought the position was good enough to apply for during the 2018 municipal election season.
Obviously, the job is attractive to enough people. If we dig a little deeper, however, we find signs of trouble.
Four hundred and seventy-four candidates were acclaimed in 2018. Only 27% of all candidates were women.
In 2016, the Rural Ontario Institute explored the demographics of those elected to serve on Ontario councils. They found that 75% of elected officials in Ontario were men. The median age of councilors was 60 in rural areas and 61 in urban areas.
Only 2% of rural council members identified themselves as being part of a racial minority. In short, city councils tend to be older, male, and white, making them largely unrepresentative of the communities they serve.
How to make councils more representative? Raising advisor compensation would be a good start.
Boards in Ontario are aging primarily because most are considered part-time workers, with an associated salary. The work, however, is often not part-time. The duties are immense and the informal part of the role extends into evenings and weekends, making local council duties much easier to do if you are retired or independently wealthy.
A better salary will attract better candidates
It is very difficult to fulfill this role while having a full-time job or a young family without being compensated appropriately.
Even in municipalities where councilors are full-time and receive higher pay, the salary is often less than what many who plan to run for office are already earning – or could earn if they didn’t interrupt their career.
Attracting new voices means paying more for the role.
Not only would this properly recognize the amount of work counselors do, but it would allow some to justify putting their careers on hold or allowing them to organize existing work commitments so they can make time for their families — and serve their community. It would also help to ensure that local councils truly reflect the population.