Rural Municipal Councillor Study

I recently came across a study that was just released by the Rural Institute of Ontario. It was titled ‘Municipal Councillor Profile’ and it’s purpose was to “set out to document demographic characteristics of municipal councillors, perspectives on barriers to candidacy and stories of successful strategies for encouraging civic engagement”. Though the study used province wide data, it focused specifically on rural communities. The study was 34 pages long and surveyed 606 councillors or heads of council throughout Ontario. For a copy of the study, you can email me at almaeaststreet@gmail.com.

Some of the statistics taken from the study were surprising, but most were not. For example, gender and age were two areas that were given more study. Ontario municipal councillors are on average predominantly older, male, high income and with more education than a typical average rural community resident. 75% of Ontario’s councillors are men, with men holding 83% of mayor or heads of council positions. The median age for councillors and mayors is 60, while the median age for Ontario residents is 40. Only 9% of Ontario municipal councillors are between the ages of 18 and 40. On an interesting note, these trends were consistent across both rural and urban municipalities. Some of the reasons for the age discrepancy stemmed from things like: daytime meetings held when younger people are typically working, young family commitments, low councillor salaries mean that a younger person may have to work an additional job(s) and an overall lack of time compared to an older person who may be retired or only working part time.

In 2014, 77% of candidates were men and only 23% of candidates were women. This gives a clear indication that women are underrepresented in municipal politics. Sadly, this trend is consistent across Canada as well. In 2010, female representation on municipal councils was only 24% according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. However, in terms of election success rate, women outperformed male candidates 43% to 37%. Some of the most common issues revealed by interviews and focus groups on the lack of women in municipal politics were: a lack of socialization for girls as leaders, too few female role models, a lack of self-confidence, a feeling of intimidation and a lack of comfort working in a male dominated work environment.

The study also showed that incumbents or returning councillors had a distinct advantage over new candidates. Incumbent candidates had a 62% success rate in the 2014 municipal election compared to new candidates who had a success rate of only 25%. This can be discouraging to many people who may see running for council as a futile effort. This can directly lead to a lack of quality candidates, making for both weak community engagement and a weak democratic process. Locally, this was even higher with all incumbent candidates being re-elected with two council spots being filled by new candidates simply because two members of council were retiring from municipal politics.

“Councils with a majority of longstanding incumbent members, re-elected over a number of terms, are seen by some to hold communities back, as councillors can become averse to change and restrict the adaptation that is necessary to meet evolving needs and opportunities”. Conversely, younger councillors are sometimes perceived as lacking experience, as wanting to re-invent the wheel and lacking in leadership skills that may be developed over a lifetime of experience.

Reading through the study, one important theme kept resonating throughout. That theme is that rural communities ultimately benefit from increased community engagement from a more diverse group of people. Better two-way communication & sharing of information, more opportunities for real public input and improved accessibility to members of council seem like good places to start. What would encourage you to become more engaged in the community?

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