When the Peer Network was created in 2004, then-AAMDC President Jack Hayden said that, “municipal staff and councillors have a great deal to learn in the first few years, and this program gives them easy access to the support and advice of others who have gone through similar experiences.”

In order to learn what sort of advice the Peer Network mentors offer, the AAMDC spoke with two mentors: CAO Al Harvey of Lamont County, and retired city manager Norbert Van Wyk. Al Harvey has seen much of Alberta over his municipal government career. He has certificates in local government, Senior Executive Fellows, Local Government Leadership, and a National Advanced Certificate in Local Authority Administration. He is well known as a strong communicator and active listener.

Norbert Van Wyk has worked in public administration since 1971. In Alberta, he has worked for both the City of St. Albert and the City of Red Deer, retiring as Red Deer’s CAO in 2006. Norbert takes a proactive approach to peer mentoring. At conferences and meetings, he seeks out small groups and individuals, engaging them in discussing issues. He also picks up the phone when he hears about a municipality experiencing a problem. “Municipal administrators are a very small community,” he notes. “We hear very quickly about what is happening”.

Can you tell us briefly about your experience as a Peer Network mentor?

AH: For me, this was a continuation of a normal practice, dealing with day-to-day conflict within a municipality. I liken it to the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” phone-a-friend lifeline. I enjoyed training in mediation and conflict resolution, which has given me a better perspective on municipal relations.

NV: I’ve been an advisor since 2004, and continue to take advantage of the many training opportunities when they’re offered. Mentoring is approached by both elected and appointed officials across all Alberta municipalities. Some of it’s carried out formally, some of it very informally. As a Peer Mentor, I try to provide a route to a solution, rather than the solution itself. Usually, my work is done over the phone, so I have to spend a lot more time at it to be in a position to offer a solution. I need to get a good understanding and, in speaking with an individual, help them with the process to find their own solution. 

What have you learned about conflict and municipalities working with the Peer Network?

AH: Three things: a) conflict’s normal; b) conflict’s natural; c) working through conflict instead of against it is often a better ways to deal with issues. I don’t believe that I learned a lot about municipalities being different. The core municipal issues, whether within or between municipalities, remain consistent. I’ve learned this through having worked for five different communities in both urban and rural settings over the past 28 years.

NV: There’s a lot of conflict within and between municipalities. Certainly there’s a common thread; very often it has to do with people not understanding their particular role.

What makes conflict resolution through the Peer Network more valuable for a municipality than an outside arbiter or court?

AH: True mediation allows parties to find their own answers, rather than having someone else find answer through a judicial or legal forum. At the end of the day, I’d suggest that when two parties have a chance to resolve together, their conflict resolution winds up being more permanent. I’ve found that injuries fester with arbitration, leaving people with deep-rooted issues that continually re-emerge. A lot of people forget that resolution is about building relationships and attitudes about relationships. There is no divorce in municipalities: they’ll continue to be near each other, dealing with one another’s values, beliefs and interests.

NV: I think we represent a vast wealth of experience. Mentors are able to draw from that, as most of us have been in very senior positions in more than one municipality. That variety of experience can be applied to a range of situations. Also, the Peer Network is confidential and free. If a mentor is successful, then hopefully they’ll have learned something to apply in future situations. 

With new councils coming in the following month, what sort of advice and support do you expect to offer?

AH: There will be many conflicts and issues. People will run on various platforms, with different views of representative democracy: “do as I say” or “I elect you because your views align with mine.” From that, there’s always opportunity for conflict and debate. I recommend that people look at things with curiosity. 

What is it about the issue that’s personal? How has it become so important?

AH: A lot of problems evolve because people look at things from an individual perspective; we need to remember what’s beneath the surface. I like the iceberg analogy: you only see a small fraction of what’s actually going on beneath the surface. I recommend that councils be courteous, seek first to understand, then to be understood.

NV: With new councils, it’s really important that newly-elected and existing councillors really understand the role, because if they don’t, they’ll find it a source of conflict. The role of a municipal elected official is different than any other role. Some may have been business people, some working from home. However, they must determine what their role is on council and how it’s different from the CAO’s role.

In your experience, what are the most common conflicts within councils?

AH: There is a lot of conflict regarding roles, perceptions of duties, and the differing views on the best way to move forward. Even at the municipal level, there is the chance for partisan politics to spark.

NV: Councils, in my view, should try to act as a team. You may have a council where individuals don’t accept that they’re in a policy role; they see themselves as managers. There’s also the “I” factor: when a person’s campaigning for office, they’ll promise to do things once “I” get elected. Individuals don’t understand that on council they only have one vote, and it’s more about their ability to work together as a team to find consensus. You have to influence others in a civil way, through persuasion, or you’ll find yourself on the losing side of a lot of votes.

What would your advice be to new councillors as they enter their first term?

AH: Don’t try to nip conflict in the bud. It’s natural, ongoing and creates change. It’s not conflict itself that’s bad, but how you manage it. How you react is most important. You can’t control others, only your own reaction, so be courteous and understanding. For new councillors, especially, they want to understand their role. I’d ask if they’d gone to an orientation, or maybe talked to peers? It’s a learning curve. People walk in with preconceived notions. At the end of the day, my belief is that it’s best to approach things as a team. Not everyone needs to agree, but when council’s made a decision, it’s a decision of council. New councillors need to know that being part of council is recognizing that you’re stronger as a group. The more time you spend trying to improve, work and encourage development, the more opportunity there will be to move forward.

NV: Understand and accept your role as a policy maker. This role is outlined within clear legislation. Councillors should review the Municipal Government Act (MGA) and really understand and accept the limitations of what they can and cannot do. Within council, voting as a group has all of the authority, individual councillors have none. If they become a group of individuals, then they’re in for a frustrating few years on council.

What can councils do to reduce or remove sources of internal conflict?

NV: Councillors can work together, and understand their roles. I think it’s important that individual councillors actively participate in creating a strategic direction. From a policy standpoint, that’s where a councillor will have the most significant influence on what happens over the course of the term. I think if that’s accepted by all on council, that’ll remove a significant source of internal conflict. It’s also important that each councillor accepts the views of others and recognizes that they may not be the only person on council with something worth saying.

Do you have other thoughts you wish to share?

AH: I wish that everyone had the opportunity to get training on conflict resolution, because it’s not just municipal: it happens with spouses, kids, neighbours, etc. Conflict’s there all the time, so the more people have an opportunity to look at it, the better opportunities there will be to deal with issues. It’s not just about your rights, but your responsibilities to your team.

NV: Another piece of advice to new councillors: it’s really important to develop a good relationship with the CAO, because the CAO can be an excellent source of guidance, information and advice. Also, they should ask for an orientation on policies.

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