After a few months in office, you may feel overwhelmed by the variety of matters demanding your attention. You may be challenged by complex issues, faced with controversial policies, or receive questions from constituents. Understanding your role as a municipal councillor, as well as the role of council and staff, will help you address these situations. In general, council and staff work together towards the common goal of serving the needs of those who live in the municipality.

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 the 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 operations.

Councillors may also be required to complete mandatory training as set out in other provincial legislation, including the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Role of council

In Ontario, a council is required to have a minimum of five members, one of whom is the head of council. The role of council is outlined in section 224:

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.

In other words, the key responsibilities as a councillor are to support the municipality and its operations while ensuring that the public and municipality’s well-being and interests are maintained.

Municipal councils have a broad range of responsibilities and may choose to organize their work using committee structures. Some municipalities may choose to use a committee of the whole structure, while other councils will often have a number of standing committees consisting of councillors only, or advisory committees made up of a mix of councillors and members of the public. These committees carry out 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 having open meetings.

In strong mayor municipalities, the head of council has powers to create, assign functions to and appoint the chairs/vice-chairs of committees of council. Read the strong mayor powers and duties section of this guide for more information.

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 Act remains the same, as outlined in section 225:

225. It is the role of the head of council,

  1. to act as chief executive officer of the municipality;
  2. to preside over council meetings so that its business can be carried out efficiently and effectively;
  3. 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);
  4. to represent the municipality at official functions; and
  5. 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:

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.

The head of council has a prominent and very 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 and special responsibilities.

Municipal decisions, however, are generally made by council as a whole. Each member of council, including the head of council, only has one vote.

In strong mayor municipalities, the head of council has additional powers and duties (see Part VI.1 of the Act) and may have more power than council over certain municipal decisions. Read the strong mayor powers and duties section of this guide for more information.

Role of the councillor

As a councillor, you have three main roles to play in your municipality: a representative, a policy-maker, and a steward. 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 four-year term of office, and should be made in the context of your municipality’s plans for the long-term health and welfare of your community.

Representative role

The representative role of council is clearly indicated in section 224 of the Act. At first glance, the representative role appears to be fairly simple and straightforward. But what does it involve?

On one hand, you were elected by your constituents to represent their views when dealing with issues that come before council. 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 that impact the municipality as a whole. You will have to consider conflicting interests and make decisions that will not be popular with everyone. Generally, evidence-based decisions are made by taking into account all available information.

Working as a team with the rest of council and staff will contribute to making your time on council a success. Disagreements among council members are common, but it is important to remember that you are working towards a common goal.

There is no single, correct approach to the representative role. On many issues you may find that you fall somewhere between two, sometimes opposing viewpoints. You will quickly develop a caseload of citizen inquiries that will need to be further investigated and, if possible, resolved. You may get 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 for handling public complaints and inquiries, and 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 council, and where it could be inappropriate for elected officials to interfere or be seen to be interfering. Examples of this include decisions made by statutory officers such as the clerk, treasurer, fire chief, chief building official or medical officer of health. These individuals may also be acting in accordance with accountability provisions under other pieces of legislation, which may impact their advice to council.

A councillor who has made promises that they cannot keep may lose credibility with the public and strain their 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. The Ontario Ombudsman encourages the development of local complaints processes, and you may wish to consult the Ontario Ombudsman’s tip sheet for developing a local process.

Policy-making role

Council’s role in policy-making is important to providing 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 the principles and direction that may determine the municipality’s future actions. These are often considered to be policy decisions. Some policies can be specific, such as a by-law 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.

Policy-making may involve a number of steps and requires council to:

  • identify an issue that needs to be dealt with
  • reach agreement on the facts of the issue, making sure the objectives are met
  • give direction to staff to research the issue, identify the available options and report back to council with recommendations
  • engage members of the public on the issue and consider their feedback
  • 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 workload. 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
  • the complexity of implementing policies and developing ways to monitor and evaluate them

Council is the municipality’s primary policy-making body. Staff can provide information and advice to help inform council’s policy decisions.

Municipal staff are responsible for implementing policies approved by council. As a result, your council may wish to develop appropriate reporting mechanisms so that council can follow implementation progress.

In strong mayor municipalities, the head of council has the power to direct staff in certain circumstances. Read the strong mayor powers and duties section of this guide for more information.

Stewardship role

Council’s objectives are to ensure that the municipality’s financial and administrative resources 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. Generally, council monitors the implementation of its approved policies and programs, but the practical aspects of its implementation and administration are a staff responsibility.

The chief administrative officer is a discretionary position whose responsibilities are set out in section 229 of the Act.

229. A municipality may appoint a chief administrative officer who shall be responsible for,

  1. exercising general control and management of the affairs of the municipality for the purpose of ensuring the efficient and effective operation of the municipality; and
  2. performing such other duties as are assigned by the municipality.

This approach, if chosen, can help separate policy making from policy implementation, with council concentrating on policy making and the chief administrative officer and others implementing the policy.

In strong mayor municipalities, the head of council has the power to appoint a chief administrative officer instead of council. Read the strong mayor powers and duties section of this guide for more information.

Before council can monitor and measure the municipality’s administrative effectiveness and efficiency, it may wish to become familiar with policies currently in place. With input from municipal staff, council can determine whether the policies are functioning well or if changes are necessary.

As part of this process, 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 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 Act
  • develop protocols for the flow of information between council and staff; and
  • consider establishing a protocol for sharing approaches with other local governments and indigenous communities that share a common interest in community health, culture and economy

To be effective in this stewardship role, council may wish to have processes in place 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
  • funds are being spent only as authorized, and the municipality’s resources (financial and otherwise) are being used appropriately and as efficiently as possible

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, ensure that policies are current and listen to issues raised by the public to represent the broader community interest.

Role of staff

A key feature of effective and efficient councils is an understanding of council-staff relations and the role of each. Just as section 224 of the 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:

  1. to implement council’s decisions and establish administrative practices and procedures to carry out council’s decisions;
  2. to undertake research and provide advice to council on the policies and programs of the municipality; and
  3. to carry out other duties required under this or any Act and other duties assigned by the municipality.

There are some specific legislative provisions that set out the duties of some officers of the municipality, such as the clerk, treasurer, and the chief administrative officer.

To help 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
  • make orientation mandatory for new staff
  • establish a staff training and development policy

As a councillor, you can also help staff by:

  • making yourself aware of the full range of duties and responsibilities of staff
  • treating staff respectfully and considerately
  • directing inquiries through the appropriate processes established by the municipality
  • providing clear direction to 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),identifying the costs and benefits for the community in human and financial terms
  • notify council immediately of any unintended or unexpected impacts of policy decisions
  • implement council decisions as effectively and professionally as possible

In strong mayor municipalities, the head of council has the power to direct staff in certain circumstances. Read the strong mayor powers and duties section of this guide for more information.

Council-staff relationship and roles

All municipalities should recognize 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 and encourage communication between management staff and council.

Councils and their administration have different roles within the municipality, but their roles have common goals and purposes.

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 staff provide leadership in implementing council decisions.

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.

Council-staff relationship policies

Municipalities are required to adopt a policy on the relationship between members of council and municipal staff. Municipalities have the flexibility to determine the content of these policies.

Sample considerations: council-staff relationships and roles

Municipalities may wish to consider the following, as they develop a council-staff relationship policy:

  • the appropriate roles of council, the head of council and other senior municipal officials – some roles are set out in legislation while others may be specific to the municipality, depending on local needs
  • job descriptions for all staff, which outline individual duties and responsibilities
  • appropriate processes for directing inquiries
  • complaint mechanisms
  • guidelines for respectful working relationships
  • ethical standards
  • establishing an ethics executive to promote an ethical and impartial public service
  • the reporting relationships between staff members and members of council

Municipalities may wish to consider how their policy on the relationship between council and municipal staff can complement their local accountability framework for council members.

Strategic planning

Strategic planning is a process by which an organization defines its strategy or direction, and makes decisions about allocating its resources – both financial and staff resources needed to pursue this strategy. Through the strategic planning process, a municipal council can develop strategies, goals, objectives and action plans to achieve the future it desires. Once a strategic plan is adopted, a municipality may wish to measure its success over time and review the plan periodically to ensure that it still aligns with current issues, challenges and realities.

There are many strategic plan models that have been adopted by municipal councils. In some municipalities, strategic plans are supported by other service or subject-specific plans that are more detailed. Examples might include: a recreation and culture plan, a transportation plan, a communications plan, or an economic development plan. These may all help to support council towards reaching its end goal and may help to link in policies, financial allocations, project planning and staffing needs.

A strategic plan is forward-thinking and proactive. Once adopted by council, it can be a guide to decision making, project planning and budgeting. If a municipality doesn’t know where it is going, how can it make sure that both council and staff are all going in the same direction?

A first step to developing a strategic plan is to identify the current state of your community. This can be accomplished with what is commonly known as a “Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis”. A successful SWOT analysis should engage the entire community, including municipal leaders, council, senior management, support staff, stakeholders, residents, local boards, the business community, and rural and urban interests.

Components of a strategic plan

A strategic plan could:

  • contain a strategic vision developed with community-wide public input, including input from municipal staff
  • align and prioritize strategic goals and initiatives with that vision
  • align municipal department business plans with the strategic plan
  • develop operational and project plans
  • ensure that the vision and goals are taken into consideration during budget decisions
  • implement operational and project plans, plans, monitor success, measure and report on the results

Once strategic goals have been set, they can be aligned with specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related (SMART) performance measures. These results can be a powerful tool to communicate and operationalize the strategic plan while also providing a way to monitor and evaluate success.

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

Becoming familiar with your municipality’s strategic plan is an effective way of understanding both the organization and the broader environment in your community. Your municipality’s administrative, financial and planning decisions should reflect and support the strategic plan.

Succession planning

Succession planning is becoming increasingly important as we see baby boomers age and move into retirement. Succession planning is the process of identifying an organization’s current and long-term staffing needs and developing internal talent to help meet those needs. For municipalities, succession planning can be carried out to help ensure that when key personnel leave, the municipality can continue to deliver programs and services with minimal disruption.

The succession planning process allows a municipality to predict where critical staffing requirements will be in the organization and provides the time to adjust programs, training, and recruitment to meet these requirements as efficiently and effectively as possible. Succession planning programs can offer challenging and rewarding career possibilities and empower current employees by helping them to develop the skills and qualifications they might need to move into more senior positions.

Succession planning should be linked to the municipality’s strategic plan. Without understanding the municipality’s strategic vision, it is difficult to develop an effective succession plan that is consistent with organizational objectives.

Sample considerations: succession planning

Councils may wish to consider the following suggestions as they develop a succession plan:

  • the scope of the succession planning program (designing a plan that works for your municipality)
  • growth expectations for the municipality
  • staff/human resource assessment (upcoming retirements, staff interested in skills development and workplace advancement)
  • key positions that are integral to the smooth operation of the municipality (chief administrative officer, clerk, treasurer, etc.)
  • recruitment and training strategies
  • resources to support succession planning

The responsibility for undertaking a succession planning program and preparing a succession plan is generally that of the chief administrative officer/administrator and management staff, under the guidance of council. The responsibility for implementing a succession plan including staff development initiatives rests with council, the chief administrative officer/administrator, management and the employees. It is important to note that a succession plan is not a static document and a municipality may wish to evaluate and revise it regularly.

Helpful considerations: section 1

  • Familiarize yourself with what policies or protocols are in place in your municipality for handling issues such as public inquiries and complaints, and the reporting relationship between staff members and members of council. You can consult your municipal policy manual, code of conduct for council and local board members, and municipal staff
  • Familiarize yourself with your responsibilities for matters relating to personal privacy and other confidentiality issues, as well as with the relevant legislation and policies
  • Remember that 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 municipal strategic plan can be an important part of municipal governance and municipalities are encouraged to create them. If your municipality already has a strategic plan, familiarize yourself with it
  • All municipalities, if they have not already done so, are encouraged to create an employee succession plan that is aligned with their strategic plan. This can help your municipality proactively identify and plan for staffing, training, and knowledge needs