Some questions for City Council candidates

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Oct 06, 2016

As I’ve talked to candidates running for City Council, read bios and introductions to voters, and asked supporters why they’ll be voting for this or that particular candidate, I’m struck by how much character matters. I often hear stories about who these candidates are, what motivates them to want to serve on council, and so forth.

It won’t come as a surprise to my regular readers that I want more data before deciding whether to support a candidate. I want to know how they will govern. Which is not to say that character isn’t important, but character alone does not make an effective city councilor.

Rockland is at a turning point, and we need effective, thoughtful and integrity-driven leadership.

When we elect councilors, we should ask how they approach the role of government and how that understanding influences their approach to proposing legislation. In this column, I propose questions to the candidates that tease these issues out and, if we ask them when we talk to candidates, can help us understand how a candidate’s assumptions might direct their actions if elected to City Council.

Questions about the role of government

• Nick Isgro, Waterville’s mayor, recently proposed that the role of municipal government was simple and limited: “Educate our youth, maintain infrastructure and respond to emergencies. If your city or town is spending your money elsewhere, it’s time to ask yourself who it's benefiting.” Many of the most controversial decisions that Rockland has made recently — the rejiggering of the Recreation Department, the use of TIF funds, and the role of the city in promoting specific businesses — have arisen because our community has divergent views on the role of government: whether it is more limited, providing only essential needs, or whether it represents an expansive force for social change. As a potential councilor, what do you believe is the role of municipal government?

• The discussion about whether Rockland has a “vocal minority” unfortunately ignored two difficult and fascinating questions: how do you solicit or evaluate public opinion on an issue, and to what extent should public comment or meeting attendance factor into a councilor’s decision? In other words, how do you make choices for the entire community when faced with competing ideas and voices?

Questions about specific issues Rockland faces

• We frequently hear that Rockland needs more good-paying jobs and economic development. Is this something that local government can directly affect? If so, give an example of an ordinance that you would propose to improve jobs or encourage development. Is there an ordinance that would do the same that you would not support? For example, larger towns have proposed laws that protect workers in their community: mandatory sick leave, minimum-wage increases, requirements around shift scheduling.

• Rockland also needs more affordable housing. To what extent can local government directly address the housing crisis? Give an example of an ordinance you would propose to improve access to affordable housing, as well as one that you would not accept.

• We frequently hear the criticism that City Council and government favor businesses over residents. What is an example of an ordinance that strikes an appropriate balance between the business community and the residents? What is an example of an ordinance that does not balance these concerns but is still, in your mind, beneficial?

• Do you think Rockland’s mill rate is too high? If not, to what extent should councilors assist those who can’t afford to pay their taxes? If so, what steps should council take to reduce a mill rate? (Caveat: "Cut each city department by 5 percent" is not allowed as an answer! It’s unrealistic and shows someone hasn’t been paying attention during budget season. It also misunderstands how a municipal budget works — budgets must be about services and numbers.)

Questions about personal perspectives

• What is an unpopular belief that you hold? In this current political climate, this is a difficult question to answer — too often, we either decline to support people who disagree with us, or we expend a great deal of energy convincing them they must agree with us. The answers to this question might be interesting, but the question really is a challenge to us in the audience: an invitation to engage in a political process, to strive towards consensus, to allow people the dignity of disagreement. But there’s also a value in listening to the answer: a thoughtful answer means that the candidate can stand by an unpopular opinion with integrity and conviction.

• One of the primary tasks of councilors is to propose new legislation. Where would you get your ideas for ordinances?

Final questions about preparation

• How frequently have you attended or watched City Council meetings over the past year? What is an ordinance that is currently on the agenda? Describe your thought process as you decide how you would vote on it if you were elected. It’s reasonable to expect that a new city councilor will be informed about recent meetings, rather than being a last-minute contestant; be informed and have clear policy proposals rather than being merely frustrated with how city government works.

These questions help screen out the noise from second-guessing decisions council has made or focusing on personal pet issues. Instead, they reveal core philosophies that would direct people’s actions on council, helping us evaluate how prepared a candidate is for the job of city councilor.

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