Spicer: If we want better city politicians, we should pay better salaries

The vocation of a local councilor can be challenging 24/7. However, in many parts of Ontario, this job is considered part-time.


Campaigning for the 2022 Ontario municipal election is underway, as is British Columbia.

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Four years ago in Ontario, 6,658 candidates submitted their names for 2,864 local council seats. It’s safe to assume a similar number will do so again, but that also begs the question of how many considered running for office but chose not to.

It’s impossible to know, but one of the main impediments to gaining new board representation is the structure of the job itself. Being a city councilman is tough.

There are two main parts to the job. The first is the formal component, namely the council and committee meetings. This is where councilors publicly state their positions, openly debate and make decisions on behalf of their constituents.

This also includes doing the work needed to resolve local issues, such as ensuring property standards are met, responding to property tax inquiries, or supporting people trying to access local services and programs.

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The second, the informal component, is primarily social and involves attending community events and celebrations. Counselors are called to bring greetings, support various functions, and generally be present in the life of the community. Between those two responsibilities, the job can be exhausting.

It becomes even more exhausting if you have a family or another career. In these cases, the pressures of work are combined with the stress of raising a family or taking a leave of absence from a profession you have been pursuing for years. Due to this pressure and stress, it may surprise many to discover that city council members are underpaid.

In 2017, the Ontario Association of Municipal Managers, Secretaries and Treasurers conducted a survey of councils across the province, requesting information on compensation.

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In many municipalities, councilors are considered part-time and are paid as such. Many municipalities with populations of less than 100,000 have part-time councillors. They are all paid, but not all with a salary. Only 42 percent of council members are salaried, with the rest receiving a stipend or fees.

Compensation levels vary considerably. According to the association’s survey, most council members are paid less than $40,000. Of course, there is some variation in size, with council members from larger municipalities earning more than those from smaller communities.

Even with that said, those representing municipalities of 100,000 to 250,000 people reported taking home a median salary of $35,442. Those representing communities of more than 250,000 people earned an average of $75,085. In Toronto, Canada’s largest and most expensive city, councilors receive $120,502. (Editor’s note: In Ottawa, where councilmen are full-time, they are paid just under $106,000.)

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In return, councilmembers are expected to work council meetings that often last several hours, serve on various committees, respond to constituents in a timely manner, attend various hearings and tribunals, be available for media requests, and review reports. relevant and information presented by staff. The job can be challenging at the best of times.

The picture painted so far is a bit bleak: a lot of work, low wages and constant stress. Nonetheless, those 6,658 people thought the job was good enough to apply for during the 2018 municipal election season.

Clearly, the job is attractive to enough people. However, if we dig a little deeper, we find some signs of trouble.

Four hundred and seventy-four candidates were acclaimed in 2018. Only 27 percent of all candidates were women.

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In 2016, the Ontario Rural Institute explored the demographics of those elected to serve on Ontario councils. They found that 75 percent of those elected in Ontario were men. The median age of council members was 60 in rural communities and 61 in urban areas.

Only two percent of those serving on rural councils identified themselves as a minority of color. In short, city councils tend to be older, male, and white, making them unrepresentative of the communities they serve.

How do we make councils more representative? Increasing the salary of council members would be a good starting point.

Ontario councils have a higher bias primarily because most are considered part-time workers, with associated pay. The work, however, is often not part-time. The duties are immense and the casual part of the role extends into evenings and weekends, making local council jobs much easier to do if you are retired or independently wealthy. It is very difficult to fulfill this role and at the same time have a full-time job or a young family without receiving adequate compensation.

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Even in municipalities where councilmembers work full-time and receive higher compensation, pay often falls below what many who are considering running for office already make, or could make if they didn’t interrupt their careers.

Attracting new voices means paying more for the role.

Not only would it properly acknowledge the amount of work councilmembers do, it would allow some to justify putting their careers on hold or allow them to organize existing work commitments so they can spend time with their family and serve their community. It would also help ensure that local councils truly reflect the population.

Zachary Spicer is Associate Professor, Public Policy and Administration, at York University. A version of this article first appeared on The conversation.

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