Now you're a councillor

Now you're a councillor

A site for women councillors in Victorian local government

Mentoring is a big part of the job…

Melina Sehr learned about local government from her mother.  From about the age of 15, she watched politics in action in the family lounge room where the local resident’s association used to occasionally hold their meetings.  Melina describes her mother as an ‘informal’ mentor, whose life-long dream was to see her daughter become a councillor.  Melina says she laughed at her mother’s plans but it did not take long for her mother’s passion for local government to develop in Melina also. She was elected to Stonnington City Council in 2002 and is now in her fourth term.

“We had people connected with local government coming to our house all the time.  My mother was very passionate about community issues,”  Melina said.  “I was especially in awe when the councillors used to come over.  It was such a momentous occasion when they visited, like a famous person was in the house!  I always held them in such high regard and learned a lot from watching them dealing and responding to various issues.  They really helped me understand what the role involved and how to be a successful councillor.  Ironically when I was elected to council, a couple of them were still councillors so I actually got to work with them and they became my mentors on the job even to this day.  Things have a funny way of turning out.  Who would have ever guessed I would be on council with the very councillors I grew up admiring.”

After 11 years as a councillor and three terms as mayor, Melina now mentors men and women, helping them with their campaigns and teaching them how to be effective in local government.

“Mentoring is a big part of the job of being a councillor.  I don’t want to do this forever and I want to make sure I leave the council in good hands.  You need to always be on the lookout for someone to take over from you,” Melina says.

“People want to know what’s involved and I tell them it’s not as daunting as you think.  Women, in particular, underestimate their own ability – I do it myself all the time.”

“They say they don’t think they can make the hard decisions and don’t want to make people unhappy.  Women are often in nurturing roles and see their job as keeping everyone happy.  It is true that councillors need to make tough decisions and not please everyone, but as long as it is an informed decision, that is the best you can do.  People will respect you for that.”

Melina’s advice for prospective candidates is also relevant to new councillors:

  • Make sure whatever you promise you can deliver.  Don’t say you’ll halve rates – you can’t do it and it will come back to bite you
  • Community engagement is key to a successful campaign, whether doorknocking and visiting the railway stations while campaigning or staying in touch with community once elected
  • A good photo is really important. You don’t have to look glamorous but you need to look approachable, you may be a top notch candidate but a terrible photo will work against you

When someone she has been mentoring has made it to council, Melina advises them to take it slowly and proceed with caution.

“It is important to go through agenda items, exploring the pros and cons.  If you decide against an issue find the reasons that justify the refusal which are defendable, particularly in matters such as planning that may go on to appeal at VCAT. Remember, you can’t refuse everything that’s hard, you will lose credibility with the other councillors and residents, not to mention wasting ratepayers’ money.”

For new councillors Melina suggests:

  • Manage your communications, when responding to emails make sure you know who to refer matters to and always follow up with residents to ensure the matter has been resolved
  • Work with other councillors as a team, if you don’t it will not be an enjoyable experience.  Remember you will be spending the next four years working together
  • Use the council officers to assist you, they will prepare briefs and help you find out what you need to know

Councillor Sehr is an inspiration to busy women thinking about a career in local government.  She has three boys under 11; a menagerie of cats, a dog and turtles; and manages a full-time job and study.  She finds training for a black-belt in Karate helps keep the balance but says “I have fantastic family support and there’s no way I could do all this without it. My husband is amazing and patient and I appreciate this every single day.”

Council takes up to 20 to 30 hours each week.  “Thankfully I have an enormous amount of energy.  I’ve always been like this,” Melina says.  She adds “Local government is such a rewarding experience, despite the occasional challenges you face.  I highly recommend it to anyone that is passionate about their community and prepared to put the effort in to make a difference.  You never know where it may lead.  You might even become the Mayor one day.”