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Email this pageSECTION 1: Role of Council, Councillor and Staff

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 assist you in addressing these situations and managing your time effectively.

One of the first things you could do, if you have not already done so, is to develop a general understanding of a primary piece of legislation that is applicable to municipalities, which is the Municipal Act, 2001. The act is a legislative framework for municipalities that recognizes municipalities as mature 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 operations.

Role of Council

Section 224 of the Municipal Act, 2001 is a good starting point, as it outlines the role of the municipal council:

“224. It is the role of council,

  1. to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality
  2. to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality
  3. to determine which services the municipality provides
  4. 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
  5. to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality and
  6. 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 subject to similar legislative requirements that council is subject to under the act, e.g., open meetings, procedure bylaw, etc.

Previously, councils generally delegated only administrative matters to committees. Now, the Municipal Act, 2001 provides for broad delegation of council’s legislative powers and duties to a committee of council. However, further delegation is subject to certain restrictions and requirements discussed in more detail under the subheading “Delegation” in Section 3 of this guide.

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,

  1. to act as the municipality’s chief executive officer
  2. to preside over council meetings so that its business can be carried out efficiently and effectively
  3. to provide the council with leadership
    (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)
  4. to represent the municipality at official functions and
  5. carry out the duties of a 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 Municipal Act, 2001: “226.1 As chief executive officer of a municipality, the head of council shall,

  1. uphold and promote the purposes of the municipality
  2. promote public involvement in the municipality’s activities
  3. act as the representative of the municipality both within and outside the municipality, and promote the municipality locally, nationally and internationally and
  4. 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. The head of council does not have any more power than any other member of council to make decisions on behalf of the municipality.

Role of the Councillor

As a councillor, you have a representative, a policy-making, and a stewardship role to play in your municipality. Often these roles will overlap. You will be called on to consider and make decisions on issues that will sometimes be complex and controversial. Most of those decisions will have long-term consequences for your municipality that extend beyond your four-year 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 Municipal Act, 2001, 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 as closely as possible 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 should use your judgment and decide based on the best interests of the municipality as a whole. In practice, there is no single, correct approach to the representative role and

on most issues you may find that you fall somewhere between the two opposing viewpoints. You will quickly develop a case-load 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 structure.

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 in place regarding the handling of complaints and citizen inquiries. Although you may want to find some way of helping, remember to consult municipal staff.

Furthermore, there may be circumstances where decisions are made by designated staff that operate at arm’s length from the municipality, and where it would 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.

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

However approachable or sympathetic you try to be, you represent your constituents by providing the services and programs that they need, not everything they want.

Policy-Making Role

Policies provide direction for municipal operations. Policy-making is another key council responsibility identified in section 224 of the Municipal Act, 2001.

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 plan.

How is Policy Made?

Ideally, policy-making involves 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.
  • Work with staff to evaluate the policy and to update or amend it as required.

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 often 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
  • 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
  • the complexity of implementing policies and developing mechanisms 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 would appear to be distinct, but there can be much overlap. Although staff are responsible for implementing a policy, your council should develop appropriate reporting mechanisms to help ensure that the policies are being carried out as intended, and as effectively as possible.

Accountability and Transparency

Accountability and transparency are paramount in maintaining public trust in council and in the management of your municipality. Section 224 of the act explicitly includes accountability and transparency 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 be clearly set out and accessible, and that the day-to-day operations of the municipality be transparent.

The importance of documenting municipal policies is becoming more and more apparent. 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 cover most 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 Municipal Act, 2001 requires municipalities to have policies on:

  • sale and disposition of land
  • hiring of employees
  • procurement of goods and services
  • when and how notice is provided to the public
  • how they try to ensure accountability and transparency to the public
  • delegation of powers and duties

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

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 establish:

  • a code of conduct for council and local board members
  • an Integrity Commissioner
  • a municipal Ombudsman
  • an Auditor General
  • a lobbyist registry and registrar

The Integrity Commissioner reports to council and performs in an independent manner. His or her role is to perform the functions assigned by council with respect to the application of a code of conduct for members of council and local boards as well as 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 complaints from council or a local board, a member of council or a board, or a member of the public. 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, recommendations and actions of a municipality, local boards or certain municipal corporations.

In addition, section 239.2 of the act provides that municipalities may appoint investigators for closed meetings. Should a municipality not appoint an investigator, the Ontario Ombudsman is the closed meeting investigator, by default, for the municipality (see Public Business is the Public’s Business below).

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’s responsibilities do not include the responsibilities of the municipal auditor.

The Municipal Act, 2001 authorizes a municipality to establish a public registration system for lobbyists and to do other things in relation to the 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.

Other statutes may require specific or general codes of conduct 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. Municipalities may choose to include the code of conduct in their building bylaw. The BCA outlines the purposes of the code of conduct and requires that the code of conduct provide for its enforcement. 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 necessary disciplinary actions. The BCA also requires the municipality to ensure that the code of conduct is brought to the attention of the public.

Stewardship Role

The public may view council as responsible for ensuring that the municipality’s financial and administrative resources are being used as efficiently as possible, and in a way that is consistent with council’s objectives. To refer back to section 224 of the Municipal Act, 2001, 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.

Specific legal standards may be set out in legislation. For example, section 19 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002 states that owners of municipal drinking water systems shall exercise “the level of care, diligence and skill in respect of a municipal drinking water system that a reasonably prudent person would be expected to exercise in a similar situation.” This statutory standard of care is expected to come into force on January 1, 2013, and would carry potential penalties for those who fail to carry out their duty.

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 everyone is being treated equally.
  • Funds are being spent only as authorized, and the municipality’s resources (financial and otherwise) are being used as efficiently as possible.

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

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.
  • 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.

Establishing and following such policies and guidelines enables council to leave the day-to-day details for the staff to manage. Council is then more free to:

  • Deal with exceptional situations.
  • Concentrate on ensuring that policies are current.
  • Listen to issues raised by the public and represent the broader community interest.

Measuring performance in key program areas is another excellent way that council can better understand and make improvements to the way your municipality delivers services to residents. Under section 299 of the Municipal Act, 2001, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has established the Municipal Performance Measurement Program (MPMP), which collects and reports information from all Ontario municipalities on the efficiency and effectiveness of municipal services.

The Municipal Councillor and the Strategic Plan

A strategic plan can be considered 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 should consider all the ways that having a strategic plan in place would benefit 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 perhaps update it.

Role of Staff

A key feature of effective and efficient councils is a well-developed understanding of council-staff relations, more specifically the role of each party. Just as section

224 of the Municipal Act, 2001 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,

  1. (a) to implement council’s decisions and establish administrative practices and procedures to carry out council’s decisions;
  2. (b) to undertake research and provide advice to council on the policies and programs of the municipality; and
  3. (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.
  • 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.
  • 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) that identifies the costs and benefits for the community in human and financial terms.
  • Notify council immediately of any unintended or unexpected impacts of policy decisions.

Continuing education is increasingly important to municipal staff and councillors. Reflecting this trend, 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 associations
  • books and journals that are designed for municipal government; and
  • workshops, information sessions and conferences offered by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the Association of Municipal Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO), the Ontario Municipal Management Institute (OMMI), the Ontario Building Officials Association (OBOA) and other well-recognized Municipal Organizations