Facing relentless stress and workload pressure, and no way to share the burden with their peers, local politicians are seeking out counselling and other ways to cope with the demands of local leadership.
And they’re calling for patience and understanding from constituents when dealing with the level of government closest to the average citizen.
“It’s an important subject to talk about, because so many people, including local government, are suffering from trauma and stress right now,” says Silverton Village councillor and RDCK Director Leah Main.
Other directors agree, and the Regional District of Central Kootenay recently held an information session for its board members to talk about how to recognize stress in colleagues and themselves, how to maintain mental health, manage stress, and the kind of resources available to them. A similar workshop had been held earlier in the year for senior managers.
The Valley Voice reached out to area directors to talk about their experience, and several opened up about the pressures they’ve been facing.
“People’s stress level has been much higher, and sketchy behaviour has increased,” says Silverton’s Main. “The frequency of unacceptable behaviour and treatment has increased. Many local government politicians, many of my colleagues, have been forthcoming about the kind of aggressive, abusive behaviour that they and staff have been subjected to, and has escalated since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.”
Directors also talk about their workloads skyrocketing in the last year, calls at all hours from agitated constituents, and day-long meetings with agendas thicker than a phone book. The arcane details of municipal government can be overwhelming, they say, as more senior levels of government offload responsibilities on them. Then they’re the point-person when a community crisis hits.
“It’s been exhausting,” says Area K Director Paul Peterson, who spent days going full-tilt this summer during fire evacuations in his Arrow Lakes-area jurisdiction. “Between COVID and the fires… it’s hard to get anything done. Dealing with the Province, things never get done.”
It means that rural directors rarely get down time.
“We are the front line of politicians and in small towns, we are the first ones most contact with issues,” says Area D Director Aimee Watson. “And most often, it’s not via the phone or email; it’s when we are out grocery shopping, getting the mail or simply having lunch with our families. The public/private divide is gone.”
“There’s stress in our work environment, as a result of COVID,” agreed Area H Director Walter Popoff, who says his workload has close to tripled since the pandemic started. “There’s always stress in our work environment – but COVID has increased that level of stress. So I thought it was a good idea to have the meeting, in general, and it was a pretty good session.”
The monthly agenda for the RDCK board meeting – just one of many meetings the directors attend every month – often runs over 1,000 pages in length. Topics can range from structuring finances for landfills to barking dogs to encroaching buildings – and a vote one way or another could have significant consequences for quality of life or the property tax burden.
The meetings themselves, or at least their virtual nature, are now a cause of stress, say some participants. Directors have been, say, snippier to each other, or to staff in recent meetings.
“I’m hearing it during meetings, while debating motions and/or last-minute items coming up for late inclusion that were triggered by tension more than sound thinking on our roles and responsibilities,” says Watson.
Directors regularly choke up when describing intense situations they are managing with residents.
“There’s nothing wrong with expressing emotion or being emotionally involved in the issues we are engaging with,” says Main. “But the elected directors, councillors, and mayors and our reactions are stress-informed at this time. Many of my colleagues and I, when we speak to issues, are on the verge of tears, of throwing our hands up and saying, ‘I’m done, I’ve have had it, I quit.”
“On edge at the meetings? Me for sure,” admits Area K’s Peterson. “You listen in on the RDCK meetings, I hardly ever speak anymore. Sometimes I sit there fuming when I hear some directors. I cringe, I’m so uptight. Which is odd, because normally I’m more tolerant than that.
“I find that very frustrating, and I’m getting too old to articulate that like I used to be able to. So I get mad, so I don’t say anything… it is a sign of stress and anxiety. It is strange time.”
Human contact missing
Despite the frustrations of day-long Zoom meetings, it doesn’t help that directors have only met virtually for the last 18 months. They say meeting in-person has deep coping benefits.
“You’re not getting out, you’re not networking with people,” says Area H’s Popoff. “We’d always have a few minutes during meeting breaks for face-to-face meetings, and we’d get together for lunch during the lunch break and talk about issues – What’s happening in your area? What are you doing with the dog bylaw? – that sort of thing.
“We call each other on the phone now but it’s not the same as in-person.”
“We would share our trials and tribulations over lunches and it wasn’t until we could not do that that we realized how valuable that connection is,” adds Watson. “My observation has been that without our ability to network and connect during lunch breaks and be in person, many directors are feeling disconnected and haven’t had the ability to share the issues they are navigating.”
‘Tone it down’
While the information session helped directors recognize their stress and begin to address it, they continue to face mounting pressures, just like the general public. As communities and society becomes more fractious and divided, trust is undermined in local politicians.
“We are people, just like you, and do not always have the answers,” says Watson. “We are not the enemy nor the catch-all for issues you care deeply about. We are here in this role because we care and we are likely your neighbour. Respect has to be at the forefront of every exchange and it will be more fruitful than simply using us as punching bags because we are the closest elected official you could actually speak too.”
“We are all feeling the stress and the strain – our community is traumatized by what has happened over the last 18 months and the ever-changing nature of the pandemic,” adds Main. “We’re all rats running on the wheel and trying to figure out what we can do that will work.
“But they are trying. It’s not that elected officials and staff aren’t trying. We are. We all need to tone it down a bit. “
John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice