The hours are long and the paycheck is short, but Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird told a crowd of about 65 in Comox that serving your community through local government can be a rewarding experience
About 65 people interested in the future of the Town of Comox and the upcoming Oct. 20 municipal general election turned out for a public forum this week on the roles and responsibilities of a council member.
Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird shared her experiences during 28 continuous years of public service with the crowd at a forum organized by a citizens’ group called Comox Tomorrow.
Kathi Woodley also spoke on behalf of the Council of Canadians, Imagine Comox Valley and the Global Awareness Network, who are co-sponsoring a Sustainability Forum on May 24 to raise the profile of sustainability in this year’s municipal elections.
The purpose of the May 8 forum at the Comox Golf Club was to increase participation in this year’s election campaigns and provide information about “life on a municipal council” for those who might be thinking about running for office.
Incumbent Comox councillors Russ Arnott, Maureen Swift and Hugh McKinnon attended along with Courtenay councillor and mayoral candidate Bob Wells and Cumberland Councillor Jesse Kelter.
Baird told the audience that despite the extra hours spent in meetings and reading reports, serving your community through local government was a rewarding endeavor.
Asked what qualifications were required to run for municipal office, Baird said there really aren’t any.
“I was a mother and I had a job,” she said about her initial step into municipal politics. Adding that the learning curve is steep and that you essentially know nothing when you’re first elected.
Last year, the Village of Cumberland had 495 pages of agenda that represented additional volumes of required reading for council members.
“The most frightening thing for a mayor is when a councillor shows up and hasn’t opened their meeting package,” she said.
“There will be hard times, especially when your community is divided,” she said, referring to the controversial development proposal by Trilogy Properties Corp. in the mid-2000s. “But it’s worth it, because you’re helping your community.”
And she said council members shouldn’t beat themselves up over tough decisions like that.
“You go with your decisions based on the information you have at the time,” she said.
But the Cumberland Council and Mayor Baird go out of their way to address citizen’s ideas and complaints personally. The council holds Village Hall meetings several times every month without an agenda, and they regularly survey local residents on delicate issues.
Baird said she meets face-to-face over coffee with every resident who sends an email complaint to the village.
“I don’t see them as criticisms, but as opportunities,” she said. “You always get a better product in the end through discussion … with colleagues or citizens.”
The mayor did, however, express some frustration over people who complain about how the council spends taxpayers’ money.
“And then we hold many public budget sessions and nobody shows up,” she said.
Baird was asked several questions from the audience about how much time she spends on village government business and was the financial remuneration worth it.
Baird, who is retired, says she goes to the village office every day, spending approximately 30 hours a week on council matters. Comox Council members Arnott, Swift and McKinnon agreed generally with that time estimate.
“And then there’s the grocery store,” McKinnon said, referring to casual conversations with constituents. Baird agreed, saying it takes her forever to get to the post office because she stops to have conversations with people on the sidewalk.
Baird and the other council members present said the compensation wasn’t a factor in their decisions to run for public office. The Cumberland mayor estimated that she makes less than 50-cents per hour for her time.
Arnott, who is seeking re-election this year, said he receives roughly $900 per month after taxes.
Toward the end of the meeting, Comox resident Don Davis announced he’ll be running for municipal office in 2018, as he has every year since 1990.