Categories: City Hall

So you want to be the mayor?

CEREMONIAL — Mayors are often accorded specific symbols of office such as the St. Albert chain of office, shown here.

Running for mayor, huh? Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?

Despite his years of preparation as a city councillor, outgoing St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse said he was still surprised by the complexity of his new job when he first took office in 2007.

“You’re responsible for everything from the potholes to the budget,” said the outgoing mayor, and everything about you – from what you eat to where you park – goes under a microscope.

“To do all that in public … makes it extremely complex.”

Outgoing Morinville Mayor Lisa Holmes said she didn’t expect to get yelled at in St. Albert for not shopping local when she became mayor, or to have to be on call all the time.

“I didn’t realize how stressful it would be.”

This is not a job for those looking to get rich or stoke their own ego, said Greg Krischke, who is stepping down this fall after four terms as mayor of Leduc.

“You have got to go in for the right reason, which is you want to be able to serve the community.”

To find out how, and why, you should be a mayor, the Gazette talked to three outgoing civic leaders about what it’s like to be the top dog on council.

The basics

To run for mayor, you have to 18 or older, a Canadian citizen, and have lived in the community you’re running in for the six months before the election, reports Alberta Municipal Affairs. You can’t run if you’re the community’s auditor, can’t have any convictions under federal or provincial election law in the last decade, and can’t owe more than $50 in taxes or $500 in debt to the local government.

While anyone can run for mayor, Holmes and Krischke recommend running for councillor first, as that role teaches you the governance skills you need to do this job well.

You’ll need people skills to manage the many meetings and personalities on council, for example, said Crouse, who is finishing his third term. You should show professionalism and ethics, and know how to read financial documents and speak off-the-cuff.

You also need patience and a high tolerance for different opinions, said Holmes, who is finishing her first term.

“You need to be a good listener, because I spend most of my time listening.”

While most community organizations will teach you these skills, Holmes said the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) Elected Officials Education Program was a good place to start.

The job

The mayor has all the responsibilities of a councillor, reports Alberta Municipal Affairs – they have to make policy, attend meetings, and act in their community’s best interest. The mayor also has to chair meetings, seek consensus on council, and be the community’s spokesperson.

It’s the mayor’s job to spell out a vision for the community and keep council on track, Krischke said. That means drawing out quiet councillors as a coach, reining in rambunctious ones as referee, and setting a tone for all of them as chair.

It’s not the mayor’s job to actually run the city, Krischke emphasized. Instead, you’ll set policy and craft budgets that direct those that run the city.

Nor is the mayor the one who makes all the final decisions, Krischke said. You’re only one vote, and if you can’t convince your peers to vote with you, you lose.

Holmes said she finds she actually has less of an individual voice as mayor than she did as a councillor.

“As the mayor, you have to be the voice of the community and council first,” she said, which gives little space for your own opinion.

Expect to get called to a lot of community events and meetings as your community’s spokesperson, Crouse said.

And it’s your job to be at those events, Krischke said.

“If somebody is celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary and I don’t even know who they are but they ask the mayor to come … that’s the most important event in their whole life, maybe,” he said, and he has to make sure he can go if he can.

“You have to be a cheerleader for the community.”

While you sometimes get a parking space, office and more pay ($110,000 a year in St. Albert, $42,000 in Morinville), there aren’t a lot of physical perks attached to being the mayor, say those interviewed for this article. You get to lead parades, meet foreign dignitaries, and invoke states of emergency. You also get to wear the chain of office (if there is one).

Crouse said you also get a lot of blame and credit you don’t deserve, as people see you as the person who’s in charge.

That also means you’re the one people turn to when they need help. Crouse said he got a Facebook message recently from a woman upset that a city department wasn’t calling her back, for example, and an email last night from another grieving over the loss of a family member.

“They just don’t know whom to turn to,” he said, but they know that the mayor will often help.

24/7 job

Being a mayor is a lot of work.

“Typically I’m here by 5 (a.m.), sometimes 5:30,” said Crouse, and he’s typically done at about 8 p.m. When he’s not chairing council, he’s attending meetings or community events, speaking with residents and developers, signing documents, reading, researching or preparing for the next council meeting. He also has his duties at the Capital Region Board, which take up about 55 hours a month.

“My hobby is my work.”

Holmes said she averages about 28 hours a week as a part-time mayor, with occasional spikes to 60, plus another 25 a week for her role as chair of the AUMA.

“Every other minute was taken up by the boys,” she said, referring to her two sons.

“I don’t think I’ve read a book besides ones for school for many years.”

Krischke said his job takes about 60 hours a week, which mean’s he’s home with his wife for about five meals a week.

“That can be a hazard of the job,” he noted – many an MP or MLA has seen their marriage crumble due to the time taken by their work.

Being mayor is a 24/7 job, say Crouse, Krischke and Holmes. If you’re out shopping or at a restaurant, you’re representing your community, and have to be ready to stop and talk with residents about their concerns.

“You can’t go downtown in ripped jeans,” Krischke said, and you have to watch what you say, as your words will be seen as those of the municipality.

“You aren’t a private citizen once you’re elected.”

You also have to make stressful decisions about the future of your community. Holmes said one of the worst she faced was the debate over the new Sturgeon School Division school site, as her kids were directly affected by it.

“It’s hard to sit there and be that very stoic leader when you have an emotional stake in the decision that’s being made.”

Holmes said your mental health is probably the most at risk as mayor – she saw a psychologist while in office to manage the stress – but all those pizza meetings can affect you physically as well.

The job’s not great for your ego either, Holmes said.

“You don’t get a lot of people telling you you’re doing a good job,” she said, which is why it’s important to have a network of friends (or other mayors) who will.

“You’ll get knocked down very quickly if you have a big ego.”

The upside?

So why would anyone want to be mayor?

You get to meet a lot of interesting people, say Holmes and Crouse.

“Eventually, you’re involved with every organization,” Crouse said, which is great for your sense of belonging and self worth.

You get to do some really cool stuff, Krischke said. He’s practised with athletes at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge, travelled to Germany, Korea, Japan, Malaysia and China, and met Bill Clinton, Stephen Harper, and Mickey Mouse.

“Most people will never get to do that,” he said.

There’s also the prestige involved. It’s fun to socialize, be part of the inner circle and see seats reserved for you at special events, Holmes, Crouse and Krischke say.

But the biggest reward is civic pride, the mayors agree. Krischke said it was incredibly rewarding to see his community grow 90 per cent in his term and have its new rec-centre become the heart of the community.

“Those are the kinds of things you look back on and say, ‘Yes, we did the right thing.’”

Contrary to popular opinion, most people who run for leadership roles don’t so to get rich or famous, Krischke said.

“They’re just ordinary people who want to make a difference.”

If you’ve really thought about it and you still want to run, you probably should, Holmes said.

“It is an incredible opportunity,” she said, and if you lose, there’s always next time.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.