This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.
Maybe the Saint City News was right, after all!
Back in 2007, the departing editor of the News wrote an editorial that argued it was going to take full-time jobs and professional salaries to attract candidates of the highest calibre to St. Albert city council.
I was a candidate for council at the time, and I wrote a cranky letter to the editor – quite well received by a number of voters – that scoffed at this proposition. I argued that one reason campaign budgets for full-time councillors in Edmonton and Calgary routinely top $50,000 is that the pay is too high.
“One effect of this is to eliminate many excellent and thoughtful candidates who do not have the personal wealth or the employment opportunity to be full-time politicians,” I wrote. “Another is to make corporate and organizational fund-raising — and the sense of obligation to donors that goes with it — a full-time necessity for all candidates, with a harmful impact on policy decisions. … Another is that taxpayers have to pay the freight for these expensive full-time elected officials.”
I suspect it was that last line that scored me the most points with voters.
I said then, as I still believe, that no observer of provincial and national politics in Canada can conclude that very high corporate-style political salaries encourage better people to run for office, or result in better public policy. I ended that letter, however, with the grudging concession reasonable full-time salaries for councillors in larger cities were “probably a necessary evil.”
Alas, grating as it may be to ratepayers who must pay top dollar for a service that brings them little joy, and as painful as it is to me to admit I was wrong, we have reached that point in St. Albert.
Now, I am not arguing that local politicians (or for that matter, senior city officials) in a community the size of St. Albert should be paid the extremely high salaries associated with the corporate sector. On the contrary, good people will come forward out of a sense of public service and work for reasonable pay.
But we do need something better than what we have now, which is a city government dominated by well off retired folk and business people who are insulated from the financial pressures faced by ordinary working people. The result is decision making that is too frequently also out of touch with the hard reality of what the people who live here can afford.
As things stand, virtually no one who holds a full-time job is able to run for city council in St. Albert. Council pay is too low to replace most people’s regular jobs, and the work is too demanding – and too important – to do as a hobby.
St. Albert’s current city council has made this situation worse by scheduling important council business at times when no working person can get away from their “day job.”
The solution, I’m afraid, isn’t more representation from groups who already dominate council. It’s the recognition, whether we like it or not, that being a councillor in a city as big as St. Albert is full-time work.
Does that mean we’d get some councillors who don’t deserve their full-time salaries? Of course! What else is new? But it also means we’d be opening the door to many people with energy, vision and common sense.
All of which is a long way of saying that I won’t be running for city council in 2010. I like to think that I would have brought some of that common sense to council’s deliberations. But I’ve reached the unhappy conclusion that I just can’t do two full-time jobs properly without falling down on both. Neither can anyone else.
The good news from my perspective is that I can continue to write this column. Next time – now that readers know I’m not a candidate – I’ll start by grading our current city councillors.