Marg Attley was first elected to Mansfield Shire Council in 2005. Her advice on learning the ropes is to be patient with yourself and others, as you can’t learn it all at once at the beginning.
When you are first elected it’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve. You can’t be everything to everyone and sometimes I have seen councillors try to do so much in the first six months that they get disappointed at the rate of change. Just remember, you are one of a team and you can’t do it all by yourself. Your capacity to make a difference is fundamental to you being part of a wider team.
At the beginning, it’s important to understand what it is you need to know and get yourself skilled up in.
You will be able to access training and professional development from different organisations such as the VLGA (Victorian Local Governance Association) and MAV (Municipal Association of Victoria) and also council will run training as part of your induction. It’s really important to take advantage of these learning opportunities. I also joined ALGWA (Australian Local Government Women’s Association) as it was very beneficial to meet with other women councillors who had been on council.
By your second year you will have a better idea of what you need to know. It’s important to keep up your professional development and training and to keep learning. As a councillor, you are continually learning as things are constantly changing such as State Government changes on planning. You can also learn a lot by attending the formal meetings of other Councils and watching and listening to how those councillors speak, manage their meetings and observe their meeting by-laws. You might even learn some tips to bring back to your meetings on what to do or what NOT to do!
In terms of time management, I regularly put time aside to read as much as I can to understand what is coming before council such as policies and procedures. Then, I can ask questions in the briefings to give me a better understanding. Having a laptop is great, as you can get a lot of reading done – as long as you are not the driver!
The support of your family in doing the role is very important and can start way back from when you are first standing for council.
So, I also make sure I have time set aside for my family. You have to honour your commitments there too and keep in touch with family and friends. Your partner in particular needs to understand the time commitments and be there when you need him/her.
Don’t go into a meeting ill-prepared. Do your homework beforehand so that you know what people are going to be talking about. This goes for community meetings too, not just council meetings.
Remember, your council’s Executive Management Team is a great help and you can always ask them questions if you are not clear on something. Things will be explained at briefing sessions and this is a great opportunity to clarify matters before the formal council meetings. Fellow councillors who have been on council before are also a good source of advice, feedback and support, especially the very experienced ones.
At times I have found it very helpful to call on wise counsel from others who are experienced in either local government, my community or people I have worked with in the past. This support network, beyond council, has been crucial in providing wise, neutral advice.