Of Vancouver’s 11-member city council —10 councillors and the mayor — only two have any previous experience on city council. The remaining nine are all brand new to their roles. So I have a few tips I’d like to offer them from my six years of experience as a city councillor.
1. Reply to all correspondence.
This means both hard copy and emails, as well as all your voicemail messages.
You’d be surprised at the number of city councillors who fail to do this. Once safely ensconced in their elected positions, many develop a very laissez-faire attitude about calls and correspondence, including those directed to mayor and council as a whole.
I still remember the day at city hall when a fellow from the IT department came by to see me. He offered me an option on my computer such that I would not even receive any emails directed to mayor and council. I couldn’t believe that most of my council colleagues used that option!
If you want to stay in touch with your constituents, it’s an absolute must that you personally respond to them.
It might seem like it takes a lot of time at first, but you quickly learn that you gain a wealth of information that you wouldn’t otherwise have — on-the-ground news from the neighbourhood; how people are thinking about the issues of the day; creative solutions to problems facing the city.
2. Listen to constituents.
Most of my major initiatives when I was on council didn’t originate from my thinking but from constituents’ ideas. I learned far more, for instance, about rapid bus by talking to citizens familiar with this concept than I ever learned from staff reports.
Rapid bus, BTW, is a dedicated bus line something like the B-Line, but more. Passengers only use prepaid ticketing so they can board more quickly plus the bus operates in a special green-lighted lane, so it doesn’t have to stop for red lights. It’s just as efficient as SkyTrain but only 1/6 of the cost so can you have six times as many kilometres of coverage for the same price.
3. Work across party lines.
The two accomplishments I’m most proud of from my time on city council — the Vancouver Food Policy Council to improve food sustainability and the city’s ethical purchasing policy — were achieved with the support of the NPA councillors of the day.
In my second term in office, COPE held the majority of the nine seats on council. The NPA had two, but since COPE was divided into two factions I needed the NPA’s support to get my motions through.
This turned out to be a very healthy requirement as it meant that a future council with an NPA majority wouldn’t roll back these initiatives.
With today’s multi-party city council, it will be more important than ever for individual councillors to embrace the concept of collaboration. It’s not only about getting your motion passed: Through collegial discussion and debate, other members of council better understand the thinking behind such initiatives, and ultimately share the responsibility of keeping them alive and well.