Councillor Ruth Gstrein and former mayor of Corangamite Shire Council was elected in 2002. Ruth has a strong recall of what it was like in the first year of being a councillor.
“During your campaign you have gone through a raft of experiences and emotions: the deliberation and decision about your nomination; the anxiety and exhaustion of campaigning; the elation of being elected and now the apprehension, and no doubt enthusiasm, of the challenges that lie ahead.
To even consider putting up your hand for nomination is a big step. As an active member of the wider community you probably have been canvassed by a number of groups or individuals to take that step. Now that you have been elected as their representative on council, it is important to keep in touch with your community and represent all interests in your ward fairly.
This can sometimes be a difficult task, with opposing groups lobbying for your support. Many groups are well organised and you may receive letters, phone calls and personal visits on controversial issues. In an issue that involves the wider community, you may have to actively seek alternative arguments. To gauge the opinions of the whole community, talk to individuals and local interest groups. Often, it is only the vocal minority that gets heard.
The voters have put their faith in your judgement and your ability to consider both sides of the issue and make a rational decision on their behalf.
Getting out into your ward is important. l regularly attend the local Progress Association meetings, which keeps me in touch with the business sector and equips me with accurate information on shire issues.
As a mum of two school-age children, l am involved in the school council and the Parents’ Association. This gives me an insight into a broad spectrum of the community and, more importantly, makes me accessible to a range of people.
Quite often I am asked council questions at Monday school assembly by other parents or hear about youth related issues when working in the canteen.
After election you may feel overwhelmed by the workload and tempted to sever ties with organisations you were previously involved in. If you can, reduce your involvement but try to stay in touch – these groups will be valuable information gathering sources in the future. On the other hand, don’t be tempted to rush out and join new groups, it’s important to keep a balance and manage your valuable time.
My life has usually focused on children and the many committees and organisations that come with them, such as playgroups, pre-school and sports committees. I felt there was a need to establish links with the older members of the community. Every few months l go along to the senior citizens group and local Probus clubs. I sit in on their meetings, give them a run down on council news then have a cuppa.
Older people have a wealth of knowledge and life experience and l value their input.
A monthly ‘Meals on Wheels’ run also puts me in touch with older people who use many of council’s aged services, but who often don’t get out of their homes or have the opportunity to participate in community debate.
Over the past three years, I have written a monthly column for the local newspaper. Although much of the content may have previously been reported via Council’s media releases, l like to put the information into my own words, unedited by council staff or the newspaper. I have received a lot of positive feedback from the community who appreciate the information minus the jargon.
Finally, it is important to be as accessible to your community as possible. Your trips to the supermarket or hardware store will now take twice as long! Be as open and honest as you can with people. After all, you are their voice on council. But most importantly – enjoy the experiences of the next four years.