New council term a good time to take stock of priorities

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Newly sworn-in and basking in the holiday season, new councils in Woolwich and Wellesley had reason to celebrate this week. When they meet again for real starting in January, things won’t be so festive.

Woolwich councillors gathered Tuesday night at Lions Hall in Elmira for a bit of pomp and circumstance to mark the official beginning of a new term. Two of the six members are newcomers. Over in Wellesley, the new bunch is exactly the same as the previous term of council, so they’ll know exactly what to expect for the next four years.

Once the holidays are over, work begins in earnest, most notably with budget deliberations. Woolwich’s two new additions – Fred Redekop for Ward 2 and Scott McMillan in Ward 1 – will have the most catching up to do, as all the returned incumbents will have at least four budget periods under their belts.

But, as with the impending New Year’s resolutions, even the most experienced council members would be well served to use the start of a new term to take stock of what their roles mean. As with elected officials at any level, they’ll need to be cognizant of the fact they represent those who voted for them, those who didn’t, those who neglected to vote at all and the interests of the township as a whole. Often, the needs, wants and priorities of those various groups will be in direct opposition to each other.

Yes, the hard part is yet to come.

Councillors are, of course, aware of some of the most pressing issues already on the table, including the infrastructure deficit, rising operational expenses and levels of taxation outstripping inflation. Each of those will require council to take in a range of information and a variety of viewpoints. Decisions will not be easy.

The same is true of a host of other issues that are sure to arise over the next four years.

Ideally, citizens will see a more active body, working for the interests of the public rather than more passively administrative, more often dealing with staff reports than setting a policy agenda,

That would be a positive development, particularly in Woolwich, where there’s been a drift away from council’s representative function. In Woolwich, there are expenditures – some of the substantial – that provide few if any direct benefits to the public, but for the most part cuts would mean some service reductions to some residents. Leaders determined to set priorities would need to balance expectations with reasonable levels of taxation, essentially selling the merits of more prudent spending. That’s more work, however, than taking the easy road: spending more, and taxing everyone as a matter of course.

This is not a cue, however, for micromanagement; staff will continue to operate the “business” portion of the township. What should be different is the environment in which they’ll operate, one established by those elected to represent the will of the electorate, those who pay the bills and for whose benefit the entire structure exists.

In the early stages, the budget process is already underway, and that will be the most pressing issue after the holidays. The approach councillors take to prioritizing expenses should help set the tone for their term, letting township residents know just how serious they are about reflecting what’s important to the community.

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