Civics 101 — leader, manager, doer

Donna Thistle
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Donna Thistle

Some of the people we will elect Sept. 24 will be new to municipal politics; some will be old hands. Either way, the consistency of services you expect on a daily basis will be driven by the management and staff of your community.  

The term “municipal politics” actually encompasses three very distinct, equally important, groups: leaders (elected officials) have vision; managers have knowledge and skills to execute the vision; then there are the people who actually do the work.    

Leadership is a skill. Universities specialize in teaching it, and some are born leaders. It is possible the persons offering to stand for election in your town have either been schooled or are naturals. It’s also possible they are not. For sure, they are Type A personalities, full of good ideas and not averse to speaking their mind.

The mayor will be expected to lead the group. This will be somewhat like trying to herd cats. There will be squabbles, and some will be made public. Remember, open debate is a good thing as long as it stays on issue and does not become personal. If you wade into the debate, keep the conversation on issue and hold your elected officials to the same standard. Name calling never built a bridge or stopped fracking. The only political system built around complete agreement is dictatorship and history has not been kind.


Majority vote

Regardless of your perception of municipal mayors, neither of them can accomplish anything without the support of their council. There must be a majority vote. So building the park, building, trail or pavement you may think is a bad idea only happened because the leader had the majority support of his or her fellow alpha council mates. And, yes, there were a number of things that I wanted to accomplish while I was mayor, but the majority did not agree. It’s the way the system works and as frustrating as it is, it sure beats the dictatorship thing.

Once the majority agree, who exactly gets the job done? Unless your town is tiny, you have at least one and may be 100 employees whose real day job is making sure water flows out of the tap, down the toilet and the garbage and snow disappear. Your council members may have their own day jobs to attend to … they actually don’t do the visible work of running a town. If your town has one employee, that person has to make phone calls, put gas in the fire truck, drive the snow plow, send out the tax bills, field complaints etc. etc.  They are both the doer and the manager. If there is more than one employee — one of them has to be the manager. Why? Let’s say it’s garbage day. One drives the truck, the other picks up the trash. Supposed they disagree on who gets to do what and neither is accountable for the outcome?  They could still be arguing at quitting time, the garbage still not picked up.

 Every working group has to have a decision maker who is responsible and accountable for the work load. It’s called a manager. It is a very hard job to understand because it APPEARS that person doesn’t do any visible work. They don’t shovel or plow or unplug. I am here to tell you, the thinking, planning and research done by good managers is essential to your town. If that person appears to have a hide like a rhinoceros and doesn’t seem to care what you think — be grateful — it’s likely the only way to cope.

And who does all the work council decides needs doing and directs the manager to make happen? Some of the smartest people you will ever meet are the ones down in that hole in the pavement. If you are irritated the road is dug up and passage is inconvenient, turn your mind to how inconvenient it will be to get to your destination and find the toilets plugged or no water comming out of the tap. Be grateful the inconvenience is only traffic. Why can’t they get it done at a more convenient time than rush hour? Trust me they do. These are the people that get out of bed in the middle of the night when water lines breaks, the chlorine alarm goes off or a fire breaks out. They do their best and from my point of view, you should get out of your car and kiss them! Or shake hands if the kiss is too much to ask for. Why are there four of them doing the work you think needs only one? Check the legislation governing worker safety.


Nothing is simple

Nothing is ever simple. You may wonder how I know this. When I took a leave of absence as mayor of my town to become the worker/manager the most helpful, knowledgeable people who stepped in to bail me out were the water and sewer people from the adjacent communities. And kind … let’s not forget kind! The managers were generous with advice and staff. I discovered a wealth of knowledge and a system of support among the management and staff of those towns and my own that I was surprised and delighted by. They never patronized me, never took advantage of my lack of knowledge and were only too happy to contribute to my education.

The system of staff that run your towns are for the most part, smart, helpful, knowledgeable and kind … can I say that again? Kind. There is a sense of generosity and shared purpose that elected officials could take a lesson from.     

Donna Thistle is the outgoing mayor of Steady Brook. She is also a business owner in Corner Brook and has or currently serves on the boards of Flowers Canada,  Revenue Canada Advisory, Junior Achievement, Marble Mountain Development Corp, Board of Referees for HRDC, Rotary Club of Corner Brook, Writers at Woody Point and many others. She has considerable experience in governance on a national and local level.       




Organizations: Flowers Canada, Revenue Canada Advisory, Junior Achievement, Marble Mountain Development Board of Referees for HRDC Rotary Club

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Steady Brook, Woody Point

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Recent comments

  • glenn bonnell
    September 16, 2013 - 14:15

    I have been working with Municipal staff and elected officials for 40 years and could not agree more with Donna.Excellant Arcticle.