Neil Powell Voices reflections on running for City Council in New Westminster

Voice New Westminster President Neil Powell (photo submitted)
Voice New Westminster President Neil Powell (photo submitted)

This is a guest post by Neil Powell, written in response to a call I put out to several politically active members in the community to share advice about running for New Westminster City Council. Neil is the current president and founding member of Voice New Westminster, which I would describe as an electors’ group that acts as the “unofficial opposition” to the District & Labour Council candidates (and aspires to turn the tables on the DLC of course!). Neil is also an active member of the McBride Sapperton  Residents’ Association. His is the first in a series of posts leading up to the next municipal election in November 2011. Those of you who are considering throwing your names in the ring may gain some insight from Neil’s experience. Watch for a follow-up post with information on the mechanics of how to run for city council, among other things. – Briana.

Making the decision to run for municipal office, be it council, school board or mayor, is not an easy decision to make.

Running a campaign, and being elected to municipal office, certainly cannot be considered a wise financial decision. It costs a fair amount of money and lots of time to run a campaign and the amount of time that those elected give to the community would certainly not equate to a very high hourly wage.

Our elected municipal officials give many hours of their time to do a job that is often not recognized or valued by the public. This is time that is taken away from family relationships. It is often also challenging for a person to juggle a career and their involvement in municipal politics. One has to balance a career and elected office as you can’t survive in this city on a councillor or school trustee’s financial remuneration. These were some of the things I, along with my family, had to consider before we made the decision that I would run for council in 2008.

Before we as a family made the decision that I would run in 2008 I also had a few good long conversations with a few elected friends, both in New Westminster and elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, who have spent some time in municipal politics. I asked them about the number of hours required per week for community meetings and how long a councillor would expect to spend at City hall on Mondays. I also asked if they thought it would be possible to balance council and family responsibilities. One of the big challenges to doing so is reading through the many reports that council are presented with prior to meetings. In order for council members to be able to make informed and wise decisions they need to familiarize themselves with a large amount of background reading material and staff reports.

The ability to make sense of such a large amount of often complex material is one of the qualities I believe one needs in order to be a good councillor. I also believe it is important to know the history of issues and to be familiar with the many issues within our city and the myriad of regional pressures we face.

In the past running a campaign in New Westminster was a little different than many other Lower Mainland municipalities in that New Westminster did not have municipal elector’s groups or slates. That is, there were no officially recognized or blatant elector’s groups. When Voice New Westminster formed the organization identified and exposed the DLC wizard behind the curtain of politics in New Westminster. Anyone who was the slightest bit politically astute had already noticed though that there was an unofficial District Labour Council (DLC) slate. The DLC funded the campaigns, often the lion’s share, of most of our successfully elected councillors and school trustees. That is not to mention the behind the scenes support they give in operating phone banks, etc.

Since its inception Voice New Westminster has valued transparency and we believe that begins with disclosing the true nature of your campaign and the agenda of your financial backers. When one looks at the diversity of Voice campaign contributions it is clear to see that our support has been wide and varied and that we have the interests of all of our community in mind.

Voice New Westminster gave the electorate another viable option. Certain councillors and trustees who had been working hard in this political climate saw the value of working as a group with other community minded individuals and chose to run as part of the Voice New Westminster team. The Voice council and trustee team recognized the importance of organizing resources so that candidates weren’t working independently to cover all of the election tasks on their own. Being able to support one another along the campaign trail is yet another advantage of being part of a slate. As the 2008 municipal election results clearly show, to be successful in New Westminster municipal politics today, one has to be part of a slate.

Voice candidates are not ideologically bound to certain ideas. We want what is best for our city and neghbourhoods and what will make us a truly “livable” city. The DLC demand things like “no contracting out” and looks out for the interests of the city and school district’s employee groups whereas Voice looks for and supports candidates that can look out for the community’s interests, including those who work for the city and school district.

Voice doesn’t direct the voting of its elected members, we entrust them to approach all questions with an open and unencumbered mind and commit to transparent, accountable public processes. Voice does not expect that everyone will always agree on issues, but we do expect that a positive way forward will be found and a consensus achieved that is broadly supported by the New Westminster public.

After spending so much personal time and finances on running a campaign what is truly discouraging is voter apathy. It is alarming, and even surprising, that given the fact that for most people their most regular interaction with government is municipal government that only 25% of eligible voters did  actually take the little amount of personal time required to vote. Perhaps apathy has been created by the traditional lack of forthrightness among candidates in the city who claim to be “independent” and the long list of candidates the voters have had to whittle through.

It is my hope that given Voice New Westminster’s open and new way of doing municipal politics in New Westminster that more people will take an interest in being part of our upcoming election and get involved in a candidate’s campaign. Most of all though I really hope that people use our democracy and VOTE.