by Michael Scheidl, Inter-municipal Mediator, Alberta Municipal Affairs

“We have a problem with our council. We cannot get along and are not able to make many decisions because of this. What can we do?”

This is a question that comes up when a council cannot co-operate or work effectively together. The issue of council co-operation has been around as long as there have been municipal councils. 

The good news? There are some useful strategies for councils who do not work effectively together to create an environment of co-operation. This does not mean that everyone has to have the same opinion or even like each other. It does mean, however, that everyone respects each other’s opinions and allows those opinions to be heard. Over the past ten years, Alberta Municipal Affairs staff has talked with many councillors about how to create a respectful and cooperative environment. Based upon our experience, there appear to be five common areas that need to be addressed. These areas are remarkably similar to those identified by the AAMDC Advisory Committee on Council Conflict Resolution Report in 2000.

The five areas are:

  1. Vision for the municipality;
  2. Clear and consistent policy application;
  3. Clear decision-making process;
  4. Respectful interpersonal relationships; and
  5.  Land use planning.

Specifically, it is necessary for council to look at what causes each conflict and how to constructively deal with each area.

Vision for the Municipality

A common vision creates a framework for making council decisions. Often, a vision and strategic plan are used to evaluate and judge future decisions. A lack of vision causes conflict within a council, creating a void with no common focus or agreement on the municipality’s direction. It becomes very difficult to make decisions on controversial items when each councillor and senior manager has a different idea about where the municipality should go. There needs to be a common perspective and understanding between council and senior management.

Another common cause of conflict is having “one-issue” councillors. This is particularly prevalent after a general election, when a councillor has campaigned on one issue and is not able to look beyond it to focus on the municipality. Each councillor needs to be open to examining how their issues fit into, or affect, the greater good of the municipality. This does not mean minimizing the issues that each councillor brings. Rather, it means having the council as a whole look at how each of those issues relate, affect, or influence the municipality’s vision.

Developing a vision and strategic plan for a municipality after each election provides the necessary focus for the next three years. The vision and strategic plan should be reviewed on an annual basis with council and administration. This is commonly done at a retreat, and should include all councillors and senior administration. An annual review is an opportunity to create a common understanding of the goals and priorities for the next year. It also provides a venue to discuss any issues that have arisen.

Policy Developing and evaluating policies are part of council’s main roles and responsibilities (see section 201 of the Municipal Government Act). It is the responsibility of administration to implement the policy. In order to create an environment of co-operation, councillors and administration must understand and agree to their respective roles. It’s hard for a council to be high-performing if it disagrees fundamentally on its role. Having unclear policy, or council not following approved policy, creates conflict between council and administration. It is important to review policies with the entire council at the start of a new term to ensure that the policies are clear, concise and relevant.

Decision-making

Many conflicts we see within councils revolve around decision-making.

Councils need clearly-defined decision-making processes to ensure they have adequate information to make informed decisions. It is important at the first organizational meeting that council determine how to make decisions before actually having to make one. The decision-making process should include having administration develop a request for a decision report. This may include recommended courses of action, strategy and a timeline for review and evaluation.

Councils and administration need to cooperate to ensure that council has the information needed to make decisions. They must also ensure that the time spent on any one decision is consistent with its importance. Decisions having clear motions and questions create an atmosphere of co-operation and understanding.

It is important that both councillors and administration respect the decision of council. Councils should choose a formal spokesperson and agree that when they are speaking to the media or in public, they will only comment on their own position and refer other questions to the spokesperson. Information regarding the spokesperson and the rationale for decisions, particularly very controversial ones, should be shared with municipal staff. Having rationale helps quell any speculation as to why council made a particular decision.

Respectful inter-personal relationships 

Respect and trust are the foundations on which relationships are built. It is the responsibility of both the municipality and individual councillors to build and develop these productive relationships. Councillors should respect each others’ opinions and positions, and they should seek to understand each other as individuals. Each councillor brings a unique background and history to council. This diversity generally creates better decisions.

On a corporate level, there should be regular opportunities to gain a better understanding of the different divisions or wards within the municipality. Each division has its own unique characteristics and needs. Many municipalities will go on road tours and have retreats to facilitate this understanding. These also serve to help each councillor get a sense of the issues on a municipality- wide basis, and help when setting the vision and priorities for the whole municipality. 

At the beginning of term, and perhaps at the initial retreat, council members should discuss their expectations and come to an agreement on how they will treat each other. This agreement can be used as a protocol to guide them throughout the term.

Land Use Planning

Land use planning is another area of potential contention. Conflict can arise over zoning, lack of planning, lack of experience with a particular planning issue, or differing values and expectations related to development. Establishing short and long-term plans is essential to dealing with these issues. Various land use planning documents can address a multitude of issues in the community, such as transportation and recreation. Councils need to identify and determine how they want to address emerging conflicts related to residential, commercial and industrial development. Researching solutions found in other municipalities often helps in developing a plan and deciding how to deal with highly contentious and volatile situations. Engaging the public and other stakeholders to get their input into land use planning helps council understand and manage the competing interests of ratepayers. Information helps council make an informed decision on where it wants the municipality to go.

Conclusion

A council that is able to work effectively together is likely to achieve its goals and makes the job easier for the individual councillors and administration. The first meeting or retreat that a council has is pivotal in laying a foundation of co-operation over the next three years. These meetings provide an opportunity for the councillors to get to know each other and to start to appreciate the unique issues they face in their division. Once there is an understanding of the municipality’s current issues and situation, a council can then address them through its strategic plan, vision and priorities.

Planning land use in a municipality is an important function and, if dealt with in an effective manner, will significantly reduce tension. Land use planning processes and documents provide the necessary guidance and policy to deal with those contentious issues. The planning process provides a forum to have a respectful discussion with the councillors, public and staff. The process allows the gathering of information so the council can make an informed decision.

Even with all the best policies, planning and processes, it still takes the individual efforts of councillors to be respectful with each other. Successful councils create opportunities to gain a better understanding of the different divisions, and provide a forum for discussing expectations and agreeing on protocols. If these conditions are in place it is more likely that a council will have success in becoming a highly effective governing body.

For More Information and Resources

There are services through the Dispute Resolution Peer Network, which is made up of elected officials and administrators who provide coaching on intra-council cooperation. For more information, go to www.peernetwork.ca. Alberta Municipal Affairs provides assistance through its Regional Collaboration Program for intra-council cooperation. For more information, visit municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/MDRS.cfm.

There are also many written resources, samples and templates that can be accessed from other municipalities, municipal associations and Municipal Affairs.

-- Originally published in the Fall 2010 Edition of Rural Routes Magazine (AAMDC)