Update: the motion was withdrawn.
I read that Councillor Jaimie McEvoy has brought forward a proposal that Council is considering that would allow for up to $40 a day in childcare expenses. According to that report, the move is designed, in part, to bring younger people to public office. Right now, Councillor Jonathan Cote is the only City Councillor that would benefit from this proposal but the idea is by adding this benefit into the compensation and benefits package that are offered to our elected Council, it might just be the trigger that encourages young folks to get involved.
I initially wrote a very long post about why I think this proposal misses the point. I talked about the fact that having children is a choice, and that childminding doesn’t always have to cost because family and friends will often sit for kids for traded services or because they want to spend time with their favourite grandkid or niece. I also pointed out that no one was covering my costs, and I wouldn’t think to ask my employers to do so.
But I’ve been thinking this one over and I’ve deleted the bulk of my post because the issue here isn’t about a paltry sum of money. Offering to cover a few bucks a month for an occasional babysitter only brushes the surface of a much larger problem: young people don’t view working as a City Councillor as a desirable position or a viable income. If the proposal is aimed at getting younger people into office, then let’s talk about how we do that, because $500 a year for a babysitter isn’t going to make me go running to City Hall to put my name on the ballot.
The compensation of a New Westminster City Councillor has been set for 2011 at $34,711. The wage is not enough to raise a family in this city in my opinion, and relying on additional streams of income (another job or a pension) seems to be the only way it can be done. I wondered how the City came up with that number in the first place. From the City’s website:
Council’s remuneration is determined by a mathematical formula that uses remuneration data from several Metro Vancouver municipalities and economic indicators. The formula calculates a minimum and maximum increase. Historically, Council has tried to maintain an annual remuneration rate close to the Metro Vancouver average.
I’m not picking on Councillor Cote here, but as the only one who would benefit from the proposed childminding benefit, I’m going to use him as my example. It’s well known in our city that Councillor Cote works in insurance and is also going to school. I am sure it is a balancing act on his schedule to fit in family time, school, and his obligations to his two sources of income. I think many working parents struggle with time poverty; that is, never having enough time to do everything identified as needing doing. A higher wage at a single job could free up some time and make a position on City Council more attractive to younger people with families, more so than a few bucks for a babysitter. If all of what little free time you do have is taken up by the needs of public office, then public office becomes a detested chore and its attractiveness diminishes.
I think the other main contributing factor is a growing disconnection to one’s community, and to a certain degree, voter apathy. Briana blogged in 2008 regarding New Westminster’s performance at civic elections, and frankly, it’s flat out sad. Less than 30% of us bothered to show up for the election in 2005. Yikes! I’ve lived in New Westminster for over 15 years now, having transplanted from Vancouver Island. At first, it was just a place to live and go to college. But it wasn’t until I purposefully plugged into my community a half a dozen years ago at the age of 30 that I started caring about the development of genuine community.
I think people who jump on board to be a City Councillor are motivated, in part or in whole, by the desire to help create a better place to live and a desire to surround themselves with caring people in the community. It takes a special someone to be okay with a public life. I know many details about our City Councillors they don’t know about me. For instance, I know where a good number of them live, where they work, what charities they support, and what assets they have. And not everyone is comfortable with such a level of transparency. You have to be committed to the cause to put yourself in that position.
So, what if we start actively encouraging younger people to develop a deeper sense of community? What if people graduating from high school were already plugged into New Westminster and were already volunteering their time and energy into making this a better place? What if teenagers were encouraged to have a voice in the City? What if working in the public realm is seen as worthy and desirable? Neil talked about what a hard decision it was to decide to run for Council in his recent article. How do we get young people to see the benefit of contributing to their community when they are young, rather than have an epiphany as they hit their 30s, 40s, or later?
I have two good friends that moved here from another area of the Metro Vancouver area. They bought a great condo in a great location at a relatively good price. They’ve told me time and time again they struggle to understand the long history and complicated relationships that make up the fabric of New West. There is far too much that one needs to intrinsically know in order to “get” New Westminster. Briana talks about this in her post from August 2009 - Be Not Deterred by the Wall of Plaid.
I say, as a community, it should be our duty to represent New Westminster – both online and in real life – for what it is, what it can be, and what we want it to become. We need to act in a positive way and be welcoming and encouraging to both new residents and young people. We need to find ways to connect with others at community events, within community groups and by using new languages and channels like Twitter and Facebook.
Those of us who already feel protective of our genuine community need not hoard it for ourselves, but should feel empowered to share it. I believe this act would change the face of City Hall more than $500.