The case for letting small town mayors and councillors work - The Orca

The case for letting small town mayors and councillors work

G Wickstrom Photo

Gaby Wickstrom: mayors and councillors of smaller centres face a double bind: they don’t make enough to make a living, but often can’t work on the side.

I’ve debated whether or not to write this. I’ve been thinking of a way to communicate my thoughts without sounding whiny. But I think it’s important to share a side of rural, political life most are not aware of.

I’m going to start by saying I love my community. I’ve been an active volunteer, and consider myself a community builder. There’s very little I wouldn’t do to see our region flourish.

Because I care so much, six years ago I started on a journey of education. I wanted to give myself the credentials behind all of the experience I had gained over the years. Three years ago, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from Royal Roads University.

Since graduating, I have applied for quite a few contract positions. I was honest and told people my aspirations to run for mayor. Each job I applied for, I was told the same thing: I was qualified and interviewed well, but was not going to be offered the contract, because of perceived and potential conflicts of interest.

This has been intensely frustrating. Being mayor of a small municipality does take up substantial time, but your income needs to be supplemented. It’s impossible to live off the wage, much less save for retirement.

Let’s just talk about that for a moment. Have you ever wondered why there isn’t a more diverse crowd around the council table? Where are the single parents? Where are the youth freshly out or university? A lot has to do with the fact that a person can’t make a living – or anywhere near it – on what they receive for pay. That’s why so many of us on councils are businesspeople, retired, or semi-retired. We are lacking diversity because no one wants to talk about the pay.

The Mayor of Port McNeill (pop 2,400) makes just over $19,000. With a seat on the Regional District table, that income is supplemented with an extra $9,000, for a total of approximately $28,000.

These details are important, because small municipalities have a limited pool of qualified people to draw upon for various jobs and contracts. And in a smaller population, where everyone is more likely to know everyone else, it’s worth asking what happens when the subject of conflict of interest isn’t so cut and dried, or based more on perception than reality.

I made a significant investment to earn a master’s degree, and it has been extremely frustrating to put my name forward over and over, only to be turned down because I bring the title of Mayor. Nobody has a problem with volunteering your time to execute a project or initiative, with never a mention of conflict of interest. But if you charge for your time and expertise, suddenly there’s a problem.

I’m raising this issue to start a conversation. I don’t think the average person is aware of the limited options for elected representatives in small, rural communities. Municipal politicians often get lumped in with our federal and provincial counterparts, who make much more money, have pension plans, and where conflict of interest issues can run deep.

The dilemma in a small town is that you only have so many qualified people. Some of those people who have credentials, experience, local knowledge, and connections sit on council. Excluding them from many of the limited options to make a living not only restricts who can realistically serve, it ensures more contractors are brought in from elsewhere.

A person from outside the community comes with shortfalls when bidding for local contract positions. Small towns need local people with local knowledge and understanding of the complex issues we face. They need people who have deep-rooted connections; otherwise we’re left with another expensive study that remains on a shelf.

When we fear navigating through conflict of interest issues, we lose out – and the money doesn’t get recirculated back into our local economy.

Instead, we continually take the path of least resistance, default to the possibility of conflict of interest, and watch dollars float away from our communities. If we don’t have those hard conversations, we need to keep contenting ourselves with second best.

I want more for our communities. Don’t you?

Gaby Wickstrom is Mayor of Port McNeill, North Island resident for 25 years and served on council for 6 years prior to becoming mayor. She is the Vice-Chair of the Mount Waddington Regional District and Vancouver Island Regional Library, secretary of the Mount Waddington Community Futures board and past Port McNeill & District Chamber of Commerce President and Executive Director. Gaby is a wife, mom to three children and grandmother to three grandsons.