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Municipal Councillor's Guide

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Role of Head of Council 


Representative Role 

Policy-Making Role 

Stewardship Role 



Council - Staff Relationship and Roles 





Your role as a councillor is intricate and involved. You will find yourself dealing
with a variety of complex and sometimes contentious issues. Even the most
seasoned councillor will encounter questions that are new.
Knowing where to go for information on the roles, requirements and
relationships of local government will help you to fulfil your role.

This guide covers topics that are important to know as a municipal councillor
throughout your term of office. It examines the role of council and the
councillor, governance and law-making in the municipal setting, the fiscal
context, land use planning and housing.The guide also includes references on where you can access more information

about municipal governance, and a checklist you can use to ensure you have
the documents and items that will help you fulfil your role as a councillor.
The information in this guide can help you meet your responsibility and the
municipality’s goals and objectives, satisfy provincial and federal requirements
and provide continued high-quality service to the residents of your community.
For more information about your particular municipality and your role, talk to
municipal staff.

Note for City of Toronto Councillors: The Municipal Act, 2001 does not
generally apply to the City of Toronto; the City of Toronto is subject to the City
of Toronto Act, 2006. All references in this guide are to the Municipal Act, 2001;
the guide does not reference the City of Toronto Act, 2006.
As many of the
issues are similar in both pieces of legislation, the guide should help provide
City of Toronto councillors with an understanding of many of their duties and
responsibilities. However, please be aware that the legislative sections are
numbered differently and, in some cases, there are differences in legal powers
or duties


After a few months in office, you may think that getting elected was the easy

part. You may feel overwhelmed by the variety of matters demanding your
attention. You may be challenged by complex issues, faced with controversial
policies, or questioned by constituents. Understanding your role as a municipal
councillor, as well as the role of council and staff, will help you address these
situations and manage your time effectively.

One of the first things you could do, if you have not already done so, is develop
a general understanding of the Municipal Act, 2001 (referred to throughout
this section as the Act), which is a primary piece of legislation applicable
to municipalities. The Act is a legislative framework for municipalities that
recognizes municipalities as responsible local governments with a broad
range of powers. The Act balances increased local autonomy and flexibility
with requirements for improved accountability and transparency of municipal


Section 224 of the Act is a good starting point. It outlines the role of the
municipal council as follows:

“224. It is the role of council,
(a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of
the municipality;
(b) to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality;
(c) to determine which services the municipality provides;
(d) to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures
and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to
implement the decisions of council;
(d.1) to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of
the municipality, including the activities of the senior management
of the municipality;
(e) to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality; and
(f) to carry out the duties of council under this or any other Act.”

Municipal councils have a broad range of responsibilities and work load. For
this reason, councils often have a number of standing committees consisting
of councillors only, or advisory committees made up of a mix of councillors
and appointees from the public. These committees carry out much of the work
of council and then report back to council with recommendations. Examples
of council committees include: planning, parks and recreation, public works,
finance, administration, personnel, etc.

A committee of council is often subject to similar legislative requirements as
council under the Act, such as open meetings.

The Act provides for broad delegation of council’s powers and duties to a
committee of council. (See Delegation)

Role of Head of Council

Depending on your municipality, the head of council may be called a warden,

chair, reeve, or mayor. Whatever title is preferred, the role of head of council as

set out by the Municipal Act, 2001 remains the same:

“225. It is the role of the head of council,
(a) to act as the chief executive officer of the municipality;
(b) to preside over council meetings so that its business can be carried out
efficiently and effectively;
(c) to provide leadership to the council;
(c.1) without limiting clause (c), to provide information and
recommendations to the council with respect to the role of council
described in clauses 224 (d) and (d.1);
(d) to represent the municipality at official functions; and
(e) to carry out the duties of the head of council under this or any other Act.”

As chief executive officer of the municipality, the head of council has special
responsibilities, which are set out in section 226.1 of the Act:

“226.1 As chief executive officer of a municipality, the head of council shall,
(a) uphold and promote the purposes of the municipality;
(b) promote public involvement in the municipality’s activities;
(c) act as the representative of the municipality both within and outside
the municipality, and promote the municipality locally, nationally and
internationally; and
(d) participate in and foster activities that enhance the economic, social
and environmental well-being of the municipality and its residents.”

With such responsibilities, the head of council has a prominent and highly
public profile. Many citizens within your municipality will have high and often
varied expectations for the head of council. The head of council must find a
way to balance these expectations.

Nevertheless, decisions of the municipality are made by council as a whole.
Generally, the head of council does not have any more power than any other
member of council to make decisions on behalf of the municipality.


As a councillor, you have three main roles to play in your municipality: a
representative, a policy-making and a stewardship role. These roles may often
overlap. You will be called on to consider and make decisions on issues that will
sometimes be complex and controversial. Many of those decisions will have
long-term consequences for your municipality that extend beyond your fouryear
term of office, and should be made in the context of your municipality’s
directions for the long-term health and welfare of your community.

Representative Role

Looking back to section 224 of the Act, you will see that the representative role
of council is clearly indicated in legislation. At first glance, the representative
role appears to be fairly simple and straightforward. But what does it involve?
On the one hand, you were elected by your constituents to represent their
views when dealing with issues that come before council. However, your
constituents have many views and opinions, and you cannot represent all of
them all of the time.

On the other hand, election to office requires you to have a broader
understanding of the issues. With many issues you will have to consider a
variety of conflicting interests and make decisions that will not be popular with
everyone. You may wish to use your judgment and base your decision on the
best interests of the municipality as a whole.

In practice, there is no single, correct approach to the representative role
and on many issues you may find that you fall somewhere between the two
opposing viewpoints. You will quickly develop a caseload of citizen inquiries
that will need to be investigated and, if possible, resolved. You may attract
these inquiries because of your background and interests or because of
the issues in your particular ward if your municipality operates with a ward

Understandably, you will want to try to help your constituents. However, be
sure to familiarize yourself with any policies or protocols that your municipality
may have for handling public complaints and inquiries. Although you may
want to find some way of helping, remember to consult municipal staff.
There may also be circumstances where decisions are made by designated
staff who operate at arm’s length from the municipality, and where it could
be inappropriate for elected officials to interfere or be seen to be interfering.
Examples of this would include decisions made by the fire chief, the chief
building official or the medical officer of health.

A councillor who has made promises that cannot be kept may lose credibility
with the public and strain the working relationship with staff. If your
municipality does not have a policy for handling public inquiries, complaints,
and frequently asked questions, you may want to consider working with
council and staff to develop such a policy.

Policy-Making Role

Policies provide direction for municipal operations. Policy-making is another
key council responsibility identified in section 224 of the Act.
Many council decisions are routine, dealing with the ongoing administration
of the municipality, but others establish general principles to help guide future
actions. Those are often considered policy decisions. Some policies can be
specific, such as a bylaw requiring dogs to be kept on leashes in public areas,
and others can be broader and more general, such as approval of an official

How is Policy Made?
Policy-making may involve a number of steps that requires council to:
• identify an issue that needs to be dealt with;
• reach agreement on the facts of the issue and the objectives to be met;
• give direction to staff to research the issue, identify the available
options and report back to council with recommendations;
• consider the information provided by staff, taking into account
demands on time, funding and other issues;
• make a decision based on the best course of action available and adopt
a policy;
• direct staff to implement the policy; and
• work with staff to evaluate the policy and to update or amend it as

In many cases council refers a policy issue to a committee of council to take
advantage of the committee’s expertise in a particular area or to reduce
council’s work load. A committee of council may follow the same steps outlined
above in making policy or making recommendations back to council.

In practice, however, policy-making is sometimes less orderly because of:
• a rapidly changing environment, the complexity of issues facing local
government, and the difficulty in singling out problems that require
more immediate attention;
• differing and sometimes strongly held views by stakeholders and
members of the public;
• the lack of time to identify all possible alternatives and to conduct
detailed research and analysis;
• the legal and financial limits on what council may do; and
• the complexity of implementing policies and developing ways to
monitor and evaluate them.

Council is the primary policy-making body of the municipality. The
administration is responsible for carrying out council’s policy decisions.
The two roles are distinct, but there can be much overlap. Although staff is
responsible for implementing a policy, your council may wish to develop
appropriate reporting mechanisms to help ensure that the policies are being
carried out as intended, and as effectively as possible.

Stewardship Role

Council’s objectives are to ensure that the municipality’s financial and
administrative resources are being used as efficiently as possible. The public
has come to expect the successful completion of these responsibilities from
council. To refer back to section 224 of the Act, part of your role, together
with the rest of council, is to ensure that administrative policies, practices and
procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council and to maintain
the financial integrity of the municipality. All of this can be promoted through
good policy and monitoring practices.

There is a fine line between council’s overall stewardship of the municipality
and the administration’s management of day-to-day activities. Generally,
council monitors the implementation of its approved policies and programs,
but the practical aspects of its implementation and administration are a staff

Several things should be done before council can monitor and measure the
municipality’s administrative effectiveness and efficiency. With input from
municipal staff, council may wish to:

• define corporate objectives and set goals and priorities;
• establish clear administrative practices;
• provide specific guidelines and directions to staff on the applications of
those policies;
• delegate appropriate responsibilities to staff to the extent such
delegation is permitted under municipal legislation;
• establish a personnel management policy that emphasizes the
recruitment, hiring, evaluation, training and development of staff;
• ensure that policies with respect to most operations of the municipality
are in place, with special note to mandatory policies required by the
Municipal Act, 2001;
• establish a policy and procedure for staff to report to council on
administrative activities;
• develop protocols for the flow of information between council and
staff; and
• consider establishing a protocol for sharing approaches with other
local governments and Aboriginal communities that share a common
interest in community health, culture and economy.
To be effective in this stewardship role, council should be satisfied that policies
are in place on staff reporting requirements and processes to help ensure that:
• policies adopted by council are being implemented;
• staff are administering services and programs as council intended;
• rules and regulations are being applied correctly and consistently ; and
• funds are being spent only as authorized, and the municipality’s
resources (financial and otherwise) are being used as efficiently as

Establishing and following such policies and guidelines helps council leave the
day-to-day details for staff to manage. Council is freer to:
• deal with exceptional situations;
• concentrate on ensuring that policies are current; and
• listen to issues raised by the public and represent the broader
community interest.

Accountability and Transparency

Accountability and transparency are a priority in maintaining public trust
in council and in the management of your municipality. Section 224 of the
Act explicitly includes ensuring the accountability and transparency of the

operations of the municipality as part of the role of council. Councillors are,
of course, accountable to the public every four years through municipal
elections, but it is important that procedures and policies are clearly set out
and accessible, and that the day-to-day operations of the municipality are

Documenting municipal policies is an important action of an open and
transparent council. Many municipalities have developed policy manuals to
provide a basis for sound decision-making and to help ensure that policies are
implemented and applied in a consistent way. The policy manual is a reference
and information source for council, the administration and the public. Because
the policies and procedures it contains may cover many of your municipality’s
functions and responsibilities, it can also be a valuable training and orientation
tool for new councillors and staff.

Section 270 of the Act requires municipalities to have policies on:
• sale and other disposition of land;
• hiring of employees;
• procurement of goods and services;
• when and how to provide notice to the public;
• how the municipality will try to ensure accountability and transparency
to the public; and
• delegation of powers and duties.

Section 270 also requires local boards to have policies with respect to sale and
other disposition of land, hiring of employees, and procurement of goods and

To help ensure integrity and accountability in public office, Part V.1 of the Act
(sections 223.1 to 223.24) provides that municipalities may pass bylaws to
• an Integrity Commissioner;
• a municipal Ombudsman;
• an Auditor General;
• a lobbyist registry and registrar; and
• a code of conduct for council and local board members.

The Integrity Commissioner reports to council. The Integrity Commissioner’s
role is to perform, in an independent manner, the functions assigned by
council with respect to the application of: (1) a code of conduct for members
of council and local boards; and (2) the application of procedures, rules and
policies governing the ethical behaviour of members of council and local
boards. The Commissioner’s functions may include conducting inquiries into
requests from council or a local board, a member of council or a board, or a
member of the public about whether a member of council or a local board has
contravened the applicable code of conduct. If the Commissioner reports that a
member of the council or local board has contravened the code of conduct, the
municipality may impose a penalty in the form of a reprimand or a suspension
of pay for a period of up to 90 days.

The municipal Ombudsman’s function is to investigate, in an independent
manner, decisions and recommendations made and acts done or not done
in the course of the administration of a municipality, local boards or certain
municipal corporations, as the municipality specifies.

Section 239.2 of the Act also provides that a municipality may appoint an
investigator to investigate, in an independent manner, complaints about
closed meetings. Should a municipality not appoint an investigator, the
Ontario Ombudsman is the closed meeting investigator, by default, for the
municipality. (See Open and Closed Meetings: Public Business)

The Auditor General may assist council in holding itself and municipal
administrators accountable for the quality of stewardship over public funds
and achieving value for money in municipal operations. The Auditor General
must also perform his or her duties in an independent manner. The Auditor
General’s responsibilities do not include the responsibilities of the municipal

The Act authorizes a municipality to establish a public registration system for
lobbyists and to do other things in relation to a lobbyist registration system,
such as establishing a code of conduct for lobbyists and prohibiting former
public office holders from lobbying for a designated time period.
Codes of Conduct

 Codes of Conduct

Some municipalities have codes of conduct for members of council and local

boards. They may also have other procedures, rules and policies governing
the ethical behavior of those members. It is generally up to the municipality to
determine the content of its code of conduct (if it chooses to have one) and its
style – for example a general set of principles, or a more detailed set of rules
on specific issues. Some common issues that codes address include use of
municipal resources, gifts and benefits and conduct at council meetings.
Other statutes may require specific or general codes of conduct of relevance
to municipal council as well. For example, section 7.1 of the Building Code Act,
1992 (BCA) requires municipalities to establish and enforce a code of conduct
for the chief building official and inspectors. The BCA outlines the purposes
of the code of conduct and requires that the code of conduct provide for its
enforcement. According to the BCA purposes of a code of conduct include:

(a) promoting appropriate standards of behaviour and enforcement
(b) preventing practices which may constitute an abuse of power; and
(c) promoting appropriate standards of honesty and integrity by a chief
building official or building inspector in the exercise of a power or the
performance of a duty under the BCA or Building Code.

The code of conduct must include policies or guidelines to be used in
responding to allegations that the code of conduct has been breached and
must set out the disciplinary actions that may be taken if the code is breached.
As well, the BCA requires the municipality to ensure that the code of conduct is
brought to the attention of the public.

(For more on BCA and codes of conduct, see: Section 6: Building Regulation)

Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014

The Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014 received
Royal Assent on December 11, 2014. The amendments in the Act for the
municipal sector will come into force on January 1, 2016.
This legislation builds on the current local integrity framework in the Municipal
Act, 2001 and the City of Toronto Act, 2006 (described above), which gives
municipalities the powers to develop local integrity frameworks based on local
needs and capacity. The amendments will provide the people of Ontario with
access to stronger accountability processes by making sure that everyone has
access to an ombudsman.

The Ontario Ombudsman plays a crucial role in enhancing transparency in
government. It is important to remember that the Ombudsman is there to help
serve our citizens better, and to help get government right at all levels.
The amendments will provide the authority for the Ontario Ombudsman
to investigate municipal matters. While the Ombudsman could not compel
municipalities to take action, the Ombudsman could make recommendations
to council and the municipality as part of his or her report. It is up to the
municipality whether and how to address any recommendations made by the

The Ontario Ombudsman’s office determines how to prioritize matters brought
to its attention through complaints. These changes will allow the Ombudsman
to examine broad systemic issues that impact a wide range of municipalities
and Ontarians.

The amendments will not require municipalities to appoint an ombudsman.
Only the City of Toronto is required to have a locally-appointed ombudsman,
as set out in the City of Toronto Act. All other municipalities could continue to
appoint their own ombudsman if they choose. If a municipality has appointed
an ombudsman, the Ontario Ombudsman could still conduct an investigation
into a complaint to the local ombudsman in that municipality, but only after
local ombudsman processes are completed.

The amendments will work together with local tools to ensure that
everyone has access to an ombudsman. Locally-appointed integrity officers
and municipal codes of conduct are an important part of Ontario’s local
accountability framework. The Ontario Ombudsman could investigate
complaints made to local integrity officers but only after their complaint
processes are completed. The Ontario Ombudsman could also include one
or more municipalities, including Toronto, in a systemic, broad ranging

There will be no change to the current meeting investigator role. Municipalities
will still have the power to appoint an investigator to independently
investigate whether a municipality or local board has complied with closed
meeting requirements under the Municipal Act, 2001 or the local procedure
by-law. The Ontario Ombudsman would not be able to investigate a closed
meeting complaint if a local meeting investigator is appointed. As is currently
the case, if a municipality does not appoint an investigator, the Ontario
Ombudsman acts as the meeting investigator.

A regulation under the amended Ombudsman Act will exempt certain local
boards in the municipal sector from the Ontario Ombudsman’s oversight. This
regulation will come into force at the same time as the amendments, January 1,
2016. This regulation recognizes that oversight systems already exist for these

The exemptions are similar to the municipal ombudsman framework in the
Municipal Act, 2001 and the City of Toronto Act, 2006 and will exclude the
following from Ontario Ombudsman oversight:
• children’s aid societies;
• boards of health;
• committees of management established under the Long-Term Care Homes
• police services boards; and
• public library boards.


A key feature of effective and efficient councils is a well-developed
understanding of council-staff relations and the role of each party. Just as
section 224 of the Municipal Act outlines the role of council, section 227 sets
out the role of staff:

227. It is the role of the officers and employees of the municipality:
(a) to implement council’s decisions and establish administrative practices
and procedures to carry out council’s decisions;
(b) to undertake research and provide advice to council on the policies and
programs of the municipality; and
(c) to carry out other duties required under this or any Act and other duties
assigned by the municipality.

There are also some specific provisions about the duties of some officers of the
municipality, such as the clerk and the treasurer.
Many municipalities realize the importance of council-staff relations.
Some councils have established programs that require employee input
into operational policies and procedures. Programs like this recognize the
experience and expertise of staff. They also encourage communication
between management staff and council.

To assist staff in meeting council’s expectations, council could:
• have a policy requiring comprehensive job descriptions for all staff that
specify individual duties and responsibilities;
• provide clear policy decisions and directions;
• develop policies in an open and consistent manner;
• adopt policies that complement and reinforce staff efforts to improve
administrative operations;
• consult with staff before deciding on policies and programs;
• direct that orientation be provided to new staff; and/or
• establish a staff training and development policy.
As a councillor, you can also assist staff by:
• making yourself aware of the full range of duties and responsibilities of
staff; and
• preparing for council meetings (reviewing the agenda, talking to
staff about the history and background of issues, and knowing your
constituents’ situations and concerns).

Staff, in turn, could:

  • provide well-organized agendas, with supporting materials;
  • provide sufficient, timely information and analysis to make council’s
    decision-making easier;
  • notify council of changes to legislation and programs;
  • • provide advice on policy (including options and recommended
    actions), identifying the costs and benefits for the community in
    human and financial terms; and




• notify council immediately of any unintended or unexpected impacts
of policy decisions.
Continuing education is important to municipal staff and councillors. Many
municipalities have developed a detailed policy on training and educational
opportunities for staff. Training, development and networking opportunities
are provided through:
• courses run by colleges and universities;
• conferences, seminars and meetings delivered by professional
• books and journals that are designed for municipal government; and
• workshops/information sessions and conferences offered by the
MMAH, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the
Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario
(AMCTO), the Ontario Municipal Management Institute (OMMI),
the Ontario Building Officials Association (OBOA) and other wellrecognized
municipal organizations.

Council-Staff Relationship and Roles

Councils and their administration have different roles within the municipality,
but their roles have common goals and purposes. In general, it is the role of the
elected council to represent the community and set the direction and policy for
the municipality, and it is the role of staff to manage people and resources to
achieve council’s vision.

Council generally sets the policy direction for the municipality, and staff
provides the research and expert advice to help council in their decisionmaking
process. Once council makes a decision, staff has general responsibility
to implement the policy of council, for example through administering and
delivering services and programs to the community.

The relationship between council and staff is a vital component of an effective
municipal government. Staff and council rely on one another to move the
municipality forward. Both staff and council provide leadership; council
provides political leadership, while administration provides leadership to the

Both council and administration are in their roles to serve the public. The
relationship between staff and council is intertwined and it is important for
council members and staff to respect one another’s roles so that they can serve
the public in an effective and efficient manner.


A strategic plan can be an essential part of municipal governance. It is a
document that looks to the future, clearly setting out the municipality’s vision
and priorities. Becoming familiar with your municipality’s strategic plan is
an effective way of understanding both the organization and the broader
environment in which you will be working. Your municipality’s administrative,
financial and planning decisions should reflect and support the strategic plan.

Decisions, both popular and unpopular, are more easily made when seen
in the context of your municipality’s broader, long-term strategy. The plan
is a framework that encourages consistency in municipal decision-making
among both councillors and staff. When developed with public input, the plan
represents a shared view of the municipality’s future and encourages public
commitment to achieving it.

Not all municipalities have a strategic plan. If yours does not, you may wish to
consider the benefits of a strategic plan to your community, and encourage
your council colleagues, municipal staff, and the public to work together to
develop and implement one.

If your municipality does have a strategic plan, you may want to find out when
it was developed and determine if the time has come to review the plan, and if
it needs to be updated.


Succession planning is the process of systematically identifying and forecasting
vacancies and then planning for future employee positions. It is becoming
increasingly important as we see baby boomers age and move into retirement.
For example, 43.8 per cent of the employees enrolled in Ontario Municipal
Employees Retirement System (OMERS) are aged 50 years and older (Source:
OMERS 2014) representing a significant loss in the Ontario workforce. This
is especially important for smaller and rural municipalities who often find it
difficult to recruit and retain educated and skilled employees.
Developing a strategic approach for succession planning in your municipality

will help ensure that you will have access to talent and skills when needed. It

will also help ensure that institutional knowledge and essential abilities will be
maintained, especially when employees in critical positions leave.
A succession plan that focuses on developing the talent of current employees
(career planning and advancement) provides for a smooth transition and
continuation of municipal services. Other benefits of having a succession plan may be:

• employees feeling valued and appreciated;
• enhanced knowledge transfer and skill set retention;
• identified source of replacements for key leadership positions; and
• savings to the taxpayer by avoiding temporary and costly external
staffing services.

It may be the role of the chief administrative officer to prepare this plan under
council’s guidance.

There are a number of factors to consider when creating your succession
management plan including: staff assessment (upcoming retirements, staff
interested in skills development and workplace advancement), recruitment and
training strategies and allocating resources to support succession planning.


  • Familiarize yourself with what policies are in place in your municipality,
    for example, for handling public inquiries and complaints, staff council
    reporting, municipal policy manual, code of conduct for council and
    board members.

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  • A municipal strategic plan can be an important part of municipal
    governance. If your municipality has one, familiarize yourself with it.
  • All municipalities, if they have not already done so, are encouraged to
    create an employee succession plan.