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Even at the local level, political life is tough

The past few weeks have been a flurry of activity for local residents campaigning for a seat on Woolwich council. Hours upon hours have been spent creating campaign websites, distributing flyers, visiting voters’ front doorsteps and debating issues ranging from groundwater to green energy to gravel pits. Between the near-constant scrutiny by local media, fellow candidates and the electorate, it’s enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to go into politics.

“Typically people enter the world of politics because they want to make a difference and they want to influence change,” said David Docherty, professor and department chair of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. “They have views on how they think a city or a township or a province or a country should be run, and they want to influence those kinds of policy decisions. And, just as importantly, they want to help individuals.”

Why someone would choose this line of work can be split into two very different theories, he says.

Firstly, some believe that ambitious individuals know early on in life that they would like to be elected for a political position, so they begin very early on building these neighbourhood community ties by volunteering and engaging in order to build up a support network to run for local office later on.

Others have argued that most politicians began by doing small things; coaching their daughter’s ringette team for example. They then realize that they enjoy the organization of the league and seek to find more ways to continue providing leadership. Many see local office as a means to doing just that.

“I think the second theory has a bit more credibility to it,” said Docherty. “For example, you can start out as a part-time volunteer at your child’s school. Then a few years later you become more interested in the education system, and it becomes more than fundraising for school trips; it becomes ‘shouldn’t school taxes pay for this?’ to running for the school board to implement those changes. There is a logical progression for a lot of individuals that has less to do with personal ambition and more to do with changing policies.”

For current Ward 2 councillor Mark Bauman, who is up for re-election, the decision to run for council back in 2000 flowed from a specific issue at the time.

“I have a real passion for Woolwich Township. I have watched Waterloo march northward one farm at a time and I was looking for a way that I could make a difference – to stop St. Jacobs from being swallowed up by Waterloo,” he explained. “It was while I was sitting on a review committee for Woolwich Township’s Official Plan that I realized that serving as a member of Woolwich council is my best opportunity to help protect the green space.”

Upon joining a body like municipal council, said Docherty, many are surprised by the scope of the job, by all the things they weren’t aware of when they first decided to apply. Many are taken aback by the length of time it takes to make change in a community, or the sudden lack of privacy in their lives. And for many who run for municipal politics, the biggest surprise is just how long everything takes.

“If you are the kind of councillor who is just doing it for the sake of doing it and you don’t give proper time to your community, it won’t take long at all,” said Wellesley councillor Jim Olender.

“But if you want to be informed and know what the issues are and have an opinion on those issues, it takes quite a lot of time.”

For Wellesley councillors – all of whom were acclaimed for another term – the amount of time spent on municipal issues was between 15 and 30 hours per week.

“Councillors will start their jobs and soon after realize that they never have their nights free anymore,” added Docherty. “It’s not one night per week out like if you are coaching a sport; it’s probably four or five nights per week out. Your phone is always ringing and it’s ringing about a myriad of things – many of which you have no control over. Even at the local level, they live in a bit of a fishbowl and they don’t have a lot of time to themselves.”

In Wellesley, councillors almost unanimously agreed that the time spent on their role was more than they expected when they signed on.

“If you take into consideration all the time we spend answering phone calls, answering emails, attending events, attending meetings, it is all-consuming,” said Herb Neher. “You really have to love this job and the community you are working for.”

And the process begins even before a candidate is elected, with campaigning taking as much time and energy as an individual puts into it.

“I have knocked on 7,852 doors so far, and I am tired,” said Woolwich mayoral candidate Todd Cowan this past week. “But that is the way to hear from the people in the community, and I am hearing very clearly their needs and wants.”

Despite a common misconception, most politicians don’t go into public service for the money, emphasizes Docherty – especially at the local level.

“While the payment might supplement their income, there is not a lot of money to be made in politics,” he stressed. “If you worked it out on an hourly basis they would probably be better off working at a fast food restaurant than they would while serving on a local council or school board.”

But despite the efforts of the candidates and their election committees, their work is seldom appreciated and often not even recognized; voter turnout in Woolwich Township at the last election was a mere 27 per cent, and Wellesley fared only a little better at 31.4 per cent.

“While each of us has our own political views, I am of the opinion that the vast majority of people who enter political office do so for noble reasons,” concluded Docherty. “You are always going to find a few people who are just in it for themselves, and unfortunately they tend to give the larger majority of politicians a bad name. It’s too bad that the profession isn’t held in higher regard.”

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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