Small town politicians say the pandemic has increased job demands and vitriol


Politicians in big cities like Ottawa said the last term had been difficult for them, but members of smaller community councils – where members are only a phone call away from their constituents – say the tension of the last four years has been particularly trying.

“You’re in the public eye no matter where you go. You’re in the convenience stores, you’re in the Canadian Tires, the coffee shops,” said Rick Dumas, mayor of Marathon, Ont., a small northern town. Ontario town located 300 kilometers east of Thunder Bay.

“No one wants to run because the responsibility of a mayor and council is important and a lot of people don’t realize that.”

CBC compiled data from 414 municipalities holding elections for 2022 and compared that information to data provided by the province from 2018 and 2014.

The number of candidates for municipal elections has decreased and there are more council members running unopposed.

Dumas, who won acclaim ahead of the Oct. 24 election, says municipal governments are drawing the brunt of the local fire on issues even if they stem from provincial or federal decisions — the COVID-19 pandemic being a prime example.

“I personally, publicly, suffered attacks in the community, on the street, as well as on social media,” Dumas said.

The last four years also felt more like eight for Marg Isbester.

After one term as mayor of the town of Greater Napanee west of Kingston, 71-year-old Isbester has stepped down. She cut short her first retirement in 2010 to become a town councilor, but was unprepared for the scale of the work and how COVID would add to the burden.

“It must have been very controversial and it wasn’t just about trying to protect [people]. He was trying to push people who were against protection.”

Takes time “if you do this job right”

Isbester and Dumas got themselves in trouble for incidents unrelated to COVID: Dumas for responding to a Facebook post criticizing him by to show up at his critic’s door and shoutand Isbester for jokingly threatening burn down someone’s housean incident for which she had to apologize.

“I’m one of those mayors, stupidly sometimes, who picks up the phone and says, ‘Do you know how far off base you are with this?'” she said.

The hassle of “keyboard warriors” isn’t what drove Isberger’s exit. Instead, increasingly complex demands placed on city governments, coupled with a genuine desire to retire, drove her out for good, she said.

“If you’re doing this job properly, it’s very difficult to travel, to make sure you’re enjoying watching your grandkids’ football games,” she said.

“Put COVID in the mix and really this tenure, not just me as mayor, but everyone, has missed a lot.”

“Never know when a phone is going to ring”

Isbester’s departure opened the door for Terry Richardson, a retired police officer who has just completed his first term as a councillor.

Richardson submitted his name to be mayor and won without a vote – one of 139 mayors or reeves in the province this year who have been acclaimed.

Richardson was surprised to be acclaimed as mayor of the town of nearly 17,000, but understands the job may not be enticing.

He logged up to 30 hours a week as a counselor – earning just over $19,000 – and said that wasn’t a regular nine-to-five work day either.

“You never know when a phone is going to ring,” he said. “You process a lot of information where people are angry about things, and you try to help them as best you can. You think you have a lot of control over what’s going on and sometimes you really don’t. not.”

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Zac Spicer, an associate professor at York University who focuses on local government, says the role of city councils has extended beyond roads.

“These are complex organizations that are under immense pressure regulatory, financially, and you need people who can think about that,” Spicer said.

Dumas says raising the salaries of council members would also help overcome a barrier to entering municipal politics, which is that councils remain largely the domain of retirees and business owners who have the time and the financial flexibility to carry out a dual function.

Richardson, the newly acclaimed mayor of Greater Napanee, says he has racked up as many as 30 hours during some weeks as a councilman. (courtesy Terry Richardson)

Richardson, who is on a police pension and has time off, agrees “a lot of people don’t have that ability”.

He doesn’t think hiking council members’ salaries are the answer.

“You get involved in this profession for the love of the community,” he said.

Also this week

MONDAY: How many cheers are there this year?

WEDNESDAY: Challengers are pushing to prevent cheering in their local constituencies.


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