Do Municipal Politics Matter?

There are any number of things which transpire in life about which we have little or no concern. It is however equally true that if we were to suffer the deprivation of those same things we might find ourselves up in arms. The fact of the matter is that we take a great deal for granted and just assume that there is a hidden management which is taking care of what are important but otherwise uninspiring details of daily living. I am here talking of municipal politics. With the exception of very few constituents, and except when there is a particularly hot topic which occasionally engages the momentary interest of the populace, most people haven’t the time for what is seamlessly happening in their own backyard and under their noses.

It is only fair to excuse the disinterest of the so-called “average citizen” by acknowledging that there is already sufficient to occupy him or her. There are not many who have nothing better to do than to stew over such dry matters as the annual cost of dealing with pot holes ($3,496,755.00), garbage collection ($1,555,713.00), libraries ($479,617.00), fire trucks ($669,624.00), council administration ($948,890.00), policing ($1,683,204.00) or even the county and schools ($9,991,340.00). It may indeed surprise you to know that the Chief Administrative Officer of the Town of Mississippi Mills and the elected Council are handling an annual budget of about $22,000,000.

It is normally only at the time of an election that interest is sparked in local government and even then the involvement of the electors is often confined to an “All Candidates” evening or perhaps a brief chat with a prospective councillor on the street or at one’s front door (admittedly a rare event). The elector is badgered into moderate activity by the embarrassment of civic duty and electoral privilege. But this is a passing admonition and one which is easily expiated by casting a vote on election day or at one of the advanced polls. Once that duty is accomplished the constituent can safely ease back into private matters for another four years.

As neglectful as most of us are of the mundane processes of municipal affairs it is oddly true that if asked almost everyone has a strong opinion about what should or should not be done. The involvement is traditionally selective and as a result is frequently out of context, rather like assessing a buffet on the strength of one dish. Nonetheless politics is very much like any other primal appetite in that its appeal if any derives from immediate need or instinctive interest – such as road maintenance or realty taxes. Technical commotions relating to proposed zoning changes or minor variances of by-laws are virtually negligible unless promoted by your next door neighbour.

I would be hard pressed to deny that municipal politics is generally considered the least absorbing of the three levels of government. To lapse into dismay about this state of affairs is hardly worth the effort. Imagining that there is a realistic chance of heightening a sustained interest in local government is akin to retailing the Christmas spirit all year long. The attraction is bound to be short-lived. Nonetheless I believe that in politics as in all other spheres there is advantage to be derived from knowledge. It is a mistake to assume that the questionable curiosity of the masses will be sustained by politicians merely doing their job. Government, being as it is so closely aligned with the legislative process, must, like the administration of law itself, not only be done but must be seen to be done. Accountability like sunlight is not only a disinfectant but also an inspiration. Constituents will I believe respond favourably to disclosure about community administration.

Once the interest of people is tweaked it remains to stimulate their involvement by encouraging communication. Opinions fuelled by knowledge can reveal some delightful ramifications. No longer is it sufficient to presume that the pubic is unamused by the business of the municipality. More than ever the importance of the democratic process and the supremacy of the majority have strengthened the need for and desirability of public participation. If nothing else in a community such as ours the incredible intellectual resources of our citizens is not to be diminished or disregarded.