The Town of Pelham has a new Town Council. This is the time when members of council feel pride at having been elected, and hope for all the great achievements that a new council will accomplish. The pride and hope are justified because council has a great deal of authority over the municipality, but there are limits to that authority. This is the first of a two-part series that will discuss both the positive things that council can do and some of the limitations on its authority.
Let’s begin on a positive note by discussing what council can and should be doing. First and foremost, a council has an opportunity to be a place-shaper. This phrase was coined or at least popularized by Sir Michael Lyons in his report on local government in the United Kingdom in 2007.
Place-shaping refers to the role that council plays in creating the broad environment in which residents live. It refers not only to physical structures like buildings and roads, but also to a sense of community and belonging that people experience in a community. Council has a major role in shaping this place called Pelham.
At the beginning of a new term, all members of council should spend some time thinking about what they want Pelham to look like ten or 20 years from now, and relating that to what they need to do in the next four years to go down the road toward that longer-term goal. As soon as meetings begin, council will be asked to make all sorts of detailed decisions about specific situations. These details are important, because those small decisions add up to major changes. However, council should not get so distracted by these minor decisions that they forget their role in place-shaping.
One way to get on a broader track in the face of distractions is to have a strategic plan. A strategic plan identifies the specific priorities that an organization wants to focus on in the long, medium, and near terms. It is a way of keeping the organization on track in the face of day-to-day distractions. In the case of local government, it is also a way for council to provide guidance to staff about where council wants the municipality to go.
This is also a good time to discuss with staff the activities that are permitted within the scope of the municipality, and those that are beyond the grasp of a local council. It is important that councils and local residents understand these limitations.
However, having 15 priorities really means that you have no priorities. The list of realistic priorities needs to be kept reasonably short.
The most difficult part of a strategic plan is identifying the three or four priorities on which the council wants to focus. In any municipality where there is a large number of issues, the temptation is to identify 15 or 20 priorities. However, having 15 priorities really means that you have no priorities. The list of realistic priorities needs to be kept reasonably short.
In discussing place-shaping, Lyons pointed out that council has direct control over some things such as municipal infrastructure and planning decisions, but council could accomplish a great deal more by working with civic organizations such as neighbourhood groups, recreation associations, business groups, and service clubs. Council has a strategic position that allows it to provide leadership in place-shaping to all these local associations.
Many councils begin their term by preparing a strategic plan for the municipal corporation. That’s important because it gives a council some direction, and it gives staff guidance about what council wants to accomplish. However, what about a strategic plan for the entire municipality? What about bringing together all those civic groups mentioned above to talk about a strategic plan for the entire community? What sorts of changes could the municipality and these groups accomplish by working together? What should the municipality do to move toward those goals? What can XYZ service club do to contribute to the overall goal?
The beginning of a council’s term is a great time to think about all the opportunities that lie ahead. A municipal council that approaches its four-year mandate with a positive attitude can accomplish a great deal. However, next week’s article will strike a somewhat different tone by focussing on some of the limitations that councils face.
David Siegel is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Brock University.