Councillor Anna Speedie was first elected to Wodonga City council in 2005 and since then has served two terms as Mayor, in 2016 and two-year term in 207-2018. As Mayor of a 7-member council Anna serves a community of approximately 40,000 people in the north east of Victoria.
The best thing is to get out in your community. Go to the tennis AGMs, the Landcare plantings and visit schools. Don’t stay in the council ‘ivory tower’. Let residents see you as a ‘real person’, not just what they see on the TV or in the paper. When you’re seen to be ‘one of them’ you can be much more approachable.
My best advice is to get to as many different types of community groups as you can; from aged care facilities to schools. They all have different messages but you need to get a feel for the community character and understand the issues. You can’t get that ‘feel’ just from emails or letters to the editor of the local paper.
When I became Mayor, I made a commitment to spend 50% of my time in my local community. So, even if I work 70 hours a week, half of it will be spent within my municipality. At the beginning of the year, I committed to visiting the top 100 businesses in my council. I also planned to visit every school at least twice in the first 12 months. In this way, it helps to ‘get my hands deep in the soil’ and really understand what’s going on.
Subsequently, my ability to pick up the phone to different community groups and businesses and ask, ‘what’s going on?’ and get feedback on council issues, becomes much easier. I can check in and say, ‘let’s meet for a coffee and you can tell me your thoughts about….’
It’s helpful to have at least a dozen people across your community you can ring at any time and seek their feedback on council issues. I get an understanding of how well council is communicating a message, and if people are hearing the message. It also helps me understand if council is heading in the right direction.
I think as women councillors we can sometimes be more approachable for community members to get in touch with. For instance, I am a mum so when I go to visit schools, I have that background.
Women are also more open to saying, “I don’t know’ when something comes up that they may not be completely sure about. It’s OK to say you don’t know, and that can be a real strength. For me, after 13 years being a councillor there’s still things I don’t know and I am not afraid to say that and ask the questions.
I think also maybe women have less ego attached to things like status of the role or the mayoral robes. I don’t wear them, or the chain. I am still a member of the community and the robes and chain have the potential to separate me from my community. I don’t need those things to gain respect.
Sometimes I have had negative comments about being a woman in leadership, but most of the time if you’re doing a decent job, the community are happy – whether you’re a female or a male councillor.
Sometimes you can get the so-called squeaky wheel groups in the community that may be loud voices on certain issues. Often this may not be based on facts. While you need to listen to the often-robust commentary, you don’t have to take it personally. Have mentors you can talk with at challenging times. Also, reach out to your reference people and other groups in the community who you can ask ‘is this a real concern? Is it serious?’
I think staying true in tough times can be a challenge for every councillor, particularly when council may be under attack from a noisy group in times of making a tough decision. I’ve always promised myself that I would remain true to my values and stay true to who I am, especially in the tough times.
I can still manage to have a laugh and a giggle when I need to. That’s me and I hang onto that!