The recently re-launched Guelph Civic League website (which is pretty sleek looking by the way if you haven't clicked over to it yet) posted a "Policy Lab," an item requesting feedback from the community concerning important issues and/or policy. A new posting ponders the question of full-time versus part-time city councillors, the latter of which we currently have, and is really more of a qualitative definition as opposed to a quantitative one.
Given the heavy burden of responsibility placed on our part-time city councillors, should Guelph move to a full-time councillor system? Would our city be better governed? If yes, how do you envision the current ward system evolving,? (If at all.) If you think full-time councillors are a bad idea, why is that?
It's a question that's kept recurring as Guelph has grown bigger and bigger. Now tipping the scale at nearly 115,000 people, it makes sense that the Royal City asks itself if it might be better served by something more akin to six full-time councillors as opposed to 12 part-time councillors. However, a 2008 study found that only 8 out of 31 municipalities with populations over 60,000 looked at had a council made-up of politicians employed on a full-time basis. Meanwhile, Toronto this past summer had a vote to determine if the number of full-time councillors they have now should be cut by roughly 40 per cent. The motion, of course, lost soundly.
So far, only one city councillor has responded to the proposal. "I believe a full time focus would benefit the residents greatly," wrote Ward 4 representative Cam Guthrie. "Also, I believe Councillors would have a better pulse of the goings’on down at city hall."
Further, Guthrie suggested that his work load is definitely more like that of a full-time job than a part-time one. "It’s not a 'side job' or something you do as a 'hobby,'" he explained. "It should be treated as a full time commitment to responding to the residents who elected you and immersing yourself into the daily life of city hall. Customer service will increase, communication will also increase and response time should be better."
In theory, Guthrie might have a point. Of course, I don't know how many hours that he or his fellow councillors put in through the course of a week, but it seems to me that one full-time councillor might have roughly the same amount of work as two part-time councillors, and not have an exceeding amount of extra time on top of it. I have a strong suspicion that a city councillor can have one of those time-turners from the Harry Potter books and still not have enough minutes in a day to finish everything they need/want to get done.
Guthrie's other suggestion, a city council of 10 full-time councillors, six from the wards with an additional four at-large councillors is interesting, but still flawed. The problem with having at-large councillors is specialty, or rather lack of it. Who would they represent, and how would they be elected? I suppose those questions would be answered in due course, but there is a certain symmetry in two councillors for one ward, or one councillor for one ward as the case may be.
Guthrie's right though, a full-time city council would be able to give the city, and the citizens they represent, their complete attention, but would that necessarily translate into better service? Good question, because now we're talking about career politicians. We're talking about people who embrace the "job" aspect of being councillor over the "calling." We're talking about people who, in a way, have to be more assured of their commitment because the odds are that they maybe walking away from their careers for four years, or maybe they're taking up a whole new career. Will people be more inclined or more inclined to run for council give that circumstance?
Of course that's not to say that career politicians are bad, or that they're all corrupt. Some are competent and effective public servants, but this is a bigger question than just cutting the number of councillors and giving the remainder a pay raise, it's about changing the whole culture of local governance. While posting a question on a civic engagement website is a good place to start, I'd hate to limit the conversation there, and if this is really going to be a big point of discussion as Guthrie implies in his post, then I'd like to see some debates and perhaps even a referendum about it in the next election.