Without taking a class, learning the ins and outs of being in politics from departing town councillors may be the next best thing.
Two Town of Ponoka councillors are stepping down this year and both took some time to share their experience for those interested in taking the plunge. Councillors Shayne Steffen and Izak van der Westhuizen have openly said they are not running again. Steffen successfully campaigned during the town’s byelection at the end of 2011.
Steffen joined because he has always been interested in municipal politics and he enjoyed being a part of this council and working with administration. “Everybody’s trying to work together for the betterment of the community.”
There was quite a learning curve at first; partly in dealing with the Municipal Government Act (MGA) and being able to compromise on issues that mattered to him.
“It doesn’t always go the way you think it’s going to,” said Steffen.
He referred to the recent land sale proposal with Cervus Equipment that supported. Despite some disagreement over the offered price with councillors, Steffen believes this proposal will help the Town of Ponoka. “It may be some short term pain for long-term gain.”
His biggest piece of advice for potential candidates? “Make sure you have enough time to do it.”
The main reason he is not running again is because of the time commitment. Out of 20 vacation days 13 were used up for council business. Councillors do receive an honorarium for their time but Steffen and his family made time sacrifices to ensure he could handle the work.
“I have a young family and I’m not willing to sacrifice them for that,” explained Steffen.
Conferences, committee meetings, council meetings and conversations with residents take up more time than he expected. And making decisions for the community is not always met with open arms. The liquor hours bylaw council passed this year is one Steffen sees as a decision not everyone favoured.
He does feel the bylaw will mitigate some late night drinking issues.
Steffen recommends all candidates prepare themselves for the job with these steps:
• Get a copy of the MGA. “That’s basically your book of guidance.”
• Talk with other councillors about their experience.
• Prepare for the time commitment.
• Council’s job is to deal with policies and bettering the community. “They’re not there to be involved in the day-to-day operations of it.”
The plus side of being on council
There are benefits to being a councillor as well; elected officials can be part of driving change and growth in the community. Councillors should ensure “a focus on growing, not just the status quo,” said Steffen.
Being a doctor and having a family has taken its toll on van der Westhuizen. “Time commitment is my first and foremost reason for not running again.”
He ran for council because he wanted to develop new policies in the Town of Ponoka. The experience has given him a greater perspective on what it means to be councillor.
“There was a group of us that felt there was change needed in the regime,” said van der Westhuizen.
Change is slow going with politics and he feels the results of his actions over the last three years may not be seen. He feels privileged to represent residents and their needs, whether or not everyone agreed his council’s decision. “Some days were easier than other days because you always have to make decisions that you hope is in the best interest of your constituents.”
Whether someone agreed with the decision van der Westhuizen says his primary concern was for the residents as a whole. He believes there has been growth in businesses coming to the Southwest Industrial Park.
“Our biggest accomplishment was the fact that we brought new businesses to the community,” explained van der Westhuizen.
His biggest challenge was listening to people complain about council’s decisions. He feels those who speak up the most don’t devote their time enough to the community and its endeavours. “I found it hard to face critique from those groups.
“I would like to encourage those people that always have negative things to say to go out into their community and volunteer their time,” he added.
Van der Westhuizen gives this advice to candidates:
• “It is a privilege that is bestowed upon you if you get elected,” he said.
But there is also a certain power with the position of councillor. Van der Westhuizen suggests the best decision should be one that benefits the community.
• “Not all days will be easy,” he admonished.
Councillors are required to make difficult decisions and can prove a challenge.
• Much time is required to take on the job.
Despite these challenges, van der Westhuizen enjoyed his term on council and looks forward to Ponoka’s future. “We live in a community with tremendous potential…We are strategically located.”
He feels steady and sustainable growth for the Town of Ponoka is how the community should grow.