How to run for municipal council in Ontario

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| Published , updated February 7, 2024

Every 4 years on the fourth Monday of October, voters across Ontario decide who will represent their interests and lead their communities by electing the members of their municipal councils and school boards.

Who is eligible?

To be eligible to hold office for a position as councillor or mayor, you must be:

  • Eligible to vote in that municipality,
  • A Canadian citizen,
  • Age 18 or older, and
  • Qualify as a resident or non-resident elector,

as of the day you file your nomination.

You can run in any ward – you do not have to live in a particular ward in order to be its councillor. However, if you run in a ward where you do not live, you will not be able to vote for yourself.

Who is not eligible?

The following people are disqualified from being elected to municipal office:

  • any person who is not eligible to vote in the municipality
  • an employee of a municipality who has not taken an unpaid leave of absence and resigned (see above)
  • a judge of any court
  • an MP, an MPP or a senator
  • an inmate serving a sentence in a penal or correctional institution

Council member job description

A member of council has to balance the dual responsibility of representing the interests of their constituents with ensuring the long-term well-being of the municipality. They must play 3 main roles:

These roles will sometimes overlap as you have to weigh complex decisions that have different advantages and drawbacks for the people vs the municipality, your ward vs the entire community and the short-term vs the long-term. Many decisions will have a lasting impact on the town long after your time in office.

Representative role

You were elected by your constituents to represent them, their views and concerns in office, but they will have conflicting opinions and interests on some issues so you will not be able to represent everyone equally, all of the time. You can, however, make their voices heard by responding to their inquiries, bringing the most pressing issues before council and ideally resolving them.

Your decisions may not be popular with everyone, but they are best made evidence-based and data-driven by taking into account all available information.

There may also be circumstances where decisions are made by designated staff who operate at arm’s length from the council, and where it could be inappropriate for elected officials to interfere or be seen to be interfering. Examples of this include decisions made by statutory officers such as the clerk, treasurer, fire chief, chief building official or medical officer of health.

As defined in the Municipal Act section 224, it is the role of council:

  1. to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality;
  2. to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality;
  3. to determine which services the municipality provides;
  4. to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council;
  5. to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality;
  6. to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality; and
  7. to carry out the duties of council under this or any other Act.

These individuals may also be acting in accordance with accountability provisions under other pieces of legislation, which may impact their advice to council.

If your municipality does not have a policy for handling public inquiries, complaints, and frequently asked questions, you may want to consider working with council and staff to develop such a policy. The Ontario Ombudsman encourages the development of local complaints processes, and you may wish to consult the Ontario Ombudsman’s tip sheet for developing a local process.

Policy-making role

Council’s role in policy-making is important to providing direction for municipal operations. Policy-making is another key council responsibility identified in section 224 of the Act.

Many council decisions are routine, dealing with the ongoing administration of the municipality, but others establish the principles and direction that may determine the municipality’s future actions. These are often considered to be policy decisions. Some policies can be specific, such as a by-law requiring dogs to be kept on leashes in public areas, and others can be broader and more general, such as approval of an official plan.

participating in debates and making decisions regarding by-laws, policies and proposed projects in council and committee meetings;

Policy-making may involve a number of steps and requires council to:

  • identify an issue that needs to be dealt with
  • reach agreement on the facts of the issue, making sure the objectives are met
  • give direction to staff to research the issue, identify the available options and report back to council with recommendations
  • engage members of the public on the issue and consider their feedback
  • consider the information provided by staff, taking into account demands on time, funding and other issues
  • make a decision based on the best course of action available and adopt a policy
  • direct staff to implement the policy
  • work with staff to evaluate the policy and to update or amend it as required

In many cases, council refers a policy issue to a committee of council to take advantage of the committee’s expertise in a particular area or to reduce council’s workload. A committee of council may follow the same steps outlined above in making policy or making recommendations back to council.

In practice, however, policy-making is sometimes less orderly because of:

  • a rapidly changing environment, the complexity of issues facing local government, and the difficulty in singling out problems that require more immediate attention
  • differing and sometimes strongly held views by stakeholders and members of the public
  • the lack of time to identify all possible alternatives and to conduct detailed research and analysis
  • the legal and financial limits on what council may do
  • the complexity of implementing policies and developing ways to monitor and evaluate them

Council is the municipality’s primary policy-making body. Staff can provide information and advice to help inform council’s policy decisions.

Municipal staff are responsible for implementing policies approved by council. As a result, your council may wish to develop appropriate reporting mechanisms so that council can follow implementation progress.

Stewardship role

Council’s objectives are to ensure that the municipality’s financial and administrative resources are being used as efficiently as possible.

There is a fine line between council’s overall stewardship of the municipality and the administration’s management of day-to-day activities. Generally, council monitors the implementation of its approved policies and programs, but the practical aspects of its implementation and administration are a staff responsibility.

The chief administrative officer is a discretionary position whose responsibilities are set out in section 229 of the Act.

229. A municipality may appoint a chief administrative officer who shall be responsible for,

  1. exercising general control and management of the affairs of the municipality for the purpose of ensuring the efficient and effective operation of the municipality; and
  2. performing such other duties as are assigned by the municipality.

This approach, if chosen, can help separate policy making from policy implementation, with council concentrating on policy making and the chief administrative officer and others implementing the policy.

Before council can monitor and measure the municipality’s administrative effectiveness and efficiency, it may wish to become familiar with policies currently in place. With input from municipal staff, council can determine whether the policies are functioning well or if changes are necessary.

As part of this process, council may wish to:

  • define corporate objectives and set goals and priorities
  • establish clear administrative practices
  • provide specific guidelines and directions to staff on the applications of those policies
  • delegate appropriate responsibilities to staff (to the extent permitted under municipal legislation)
  • establish a personnel management policy that emphasizes the recruitment, hiring, evaluation, training and development of staff
  • ensure that policies with respect to most operations of the municipality are in place, with special note to mandatory policies required by the Act
  • develop protocols for the flow of information between council and staff; and
  • consider establishing a protocol for sharing approaches with other local governments and indigenous communities that share a common interest in community health, culture and economy

To be effective in this stewardship role, council may wish to have processes in place to help ensure that:

  • policies adopted by council are being implemented
  • staff are administering services and programs as council intended
  • rules and regulations are being applied correctly and consistently
  • funds are being spent only as authorized, and the municipality’s resources (financial and otherwise) are being used appropriately and as efficiently as possible

Establishing and following such policies and guidelines helps council leave the day-to-day details for staff to manage. Council is freer to deal with exceptional situations, ensure that policies are current and listen to issues raised by the public to represent the broader community interest.

Where to learn about being a member of council

Here are a few starting points to learn what it takes to serve as a member of council:

Courses

The AMO offers a number of paid online courses:

Studies

How to run for municipal council

Here are some comprehensive guides on what it takes to run for municipal council:

Initial to do list

  • Collect 25 signatures – Candidates for municipal council in municipalities with more than 4000 electors must collect 25 signatures endorsing their nominations.
  • Pay nomination filing fee – $200 to run for head of council and $100 for all other positions
  • Open a campaign bank account – Before incurring any expenses or accepting any contributions of money (including a contribution from yourself or your spouse). You do not have to open a bank account if you do not spend any money or accept any contributions
  • Keep a record of all campaign financial activitiesForm 4 shows what details must be reported and therefore tracked
    • Receipts issued every contribution including date of contribution date you issued the receipt (issue receipts to yourself for any contributions)
    • Value of every contribution, form (money, goods or services), and the contributor’s name and address
    • Receipts and amounts of all expenses
    • Terms of any loan received

Contact the municipal clerk

Every municipality has a municipal clerk who is in charge of running the election. Contact your municipal clerk, municipal services office or town hall if you have questions about the election, such as:

  • interested in becoming a candidate
  • spending limits
  • filing deadlines
  • where signs can be placed
  • filing forms and statements
  • rules relating to third party advertising

How much does a campaign cost?

Unless you’re Hazel “Hurricane Hazel” McCallion whose name recognition from her 36 years as Mayor of Mississauga meant she didn’t have to fundraise, money will be an important piece of the puzzle to get your name and message out to the public by paying for:

  • Signs
  • Advertisements (Google/Facebook/Instagram, billboards, newspaper, radio, robo-calls)
  • Campaign literature (brochures/flyers)

As well as:

  • Office expenses
  • Campaign software
  • Salaries and benefits
  • Professional fees (accounting, lawyers)
  • Office rent
  • Bank charges

Mayor

For example, mayoral candidates in the City of Belleville (pop. 55,000) spent the following, with the successful candidate spending $39,883.03, just under the spending limit of $40,239.16.

CandidateVotes%Campaign Expenses
Mitch Panciuk5,23836.06%$35533.84
Taso Christopher3,68825.39%$23203.62
Egerton Boyce3,13221.56%$6689.13
Jodie Jenkins2,46917.00%$19864.05

Continuing the example, it was spent across the following categories:

For comparison, the mayor of Hamilton (pop. 579,200) spent $114,534:

On a different order of magnitude, Mayor John Tory’s spent $2,622,694.63 on his 2018 City of Toronto campaign.

Councillor

Those running for councillor positions in Belleville spent considerably less:

Ward 1 – CouncillorVotes%Campaign Expenses
Ryan Williams*6,16811.43%$15273.73
Garnet Thompson5,83910.82%$7954.42
Pat Culhane*5,59410.36%$6290.61
Chris Malette5,49810.19%$4192.08
Kelly McCaw4,9059.09%$8753.81
Sean Kelly4,7138.73%$2641.94
Tyler Allsopp3,8917.21%$4307.06
Carol Feeney2,9985.55%$3139.04
Paul S. Martin2,5674.76%$11273.85

As you can see, money doesn’t necessarily correspond with votes, but having more money at your disposal certainly doesn’t hurt.

For comparison, a sample of councillors in Hamilton:

CouncillorCampaign Expenses
Maureen Wilson$18933.00
Judi Partridge$13922.64
Jason Farr$19322.60
Nrinder Nann$20787.33
Sam Merulla$26423.12
Tom Jackson$27470.75
Esther Pauls$11909.48

Spending limits

The general spending limit is calculated as:

  • Head of council: Lesser of $7,500 + $0.20 per elector or $25,000
  • Councillor: Lesser of $5,000 + $0.20 per elector or $25,000

There is a separate spending limit for parties and other expressions of appreciation after the polls close which is 10% of the general spending limit.

If your contributions, expenses or both exceed $10,000, you must have an auditor review your financial statement and provide a report.

How much does a position on council pay?

As of 2017, the majority of councillors and heads of council in Ontario were paid less than $40,000 per year.

How much council members are paid and for what work varies by municipality. Larger municipalities are more likely to pay their councils a salary, and smaller municipalities are more likely to pay an honorarium or stipend.

The average council salary in small communities sits between $12,000 and $15,000 a year. In Belleville (2016 pop. 50,720) councillors made $30,851 in 2019 (part time) while the mayor made $82,964 (full time).

Compare that to Hamilton, ON (2017 pop. 579,200), where councillors made $97,357.26 and the mayor made $184,662.66 (full time) the same year. In 2020, they made $100,486.40 and $190,594.61 respectively.

No longer a tax-free portion

At the beginning of 2019, the federal government removed a perk for elected officials that had been around for 70 years: that 1/3 of their salary be tax-free. Members of council’s salaries were made to be fully taxable – effectively resulting in an immediate pay cut initiated by the federal government.

Many councils responded by voting to give themselves a raise – typically in accordance with how much their pay was cut, which depended on what tax bracket they were in.

Continuing the example, Belleville members of council raised their pay enough to keep their take-home pay the same. Councillors in Hamilton had already removed the perk back in 2015, voting in favour (8-5) of making their pay full taxable and increasing their salaries accordingly.

This change made by the federal government effectively took money from municipalities (increased salary expenses) and gave it to the provincial and federal government (through taxed owed on the salaries)

  • Increased the municipalities annual expenses by eg. $37,398 (Belleville), $434,245 (Hamilton) per year
  • The federal and municipal governments collects the added income tax revenue created by the increased salaries
  • Increases councillors’ pensions which are based on pensionable income to the tune of $1,453 per councillor and $3,074 for the mayor (Hamilton) for each year of service on council. For long-serving members, that’s pretty significant.

Reimbursed expenses

Belleville pays the mayor an additional $400 monthly as an estimate for travel expenses within the municipality. Members of council are reimbursed for reasonable expenses incurred while acting in their official capacity and an allowance of $0.52 per kilometer for use of their personal vehicle on municipal business.

Hamilton reimburses members of council’s expenses for business events, travel, hospitality, seminars, conferences and other business expenses incurred during the conduct of approved City of Hamilton business. This includes event tickets (fundraisers, galas, dances), business lunch meetings, $75 per diem for travel within Canada and $100 USD per diem for travel outside Canada. In 2020, the Mayor of Hamilton was reimbursed $3,574.10 for a flight to a mayors’ event, business meetings and fuel charges.

Benefits and pensions

Larger municipalities are more likely than smaller ones to provide optional benefits such as life and dental insurance, cell phone reimbursement or a pension contribution.

Source: AMCTO

The majority of municipalities provide mileage reimbursement, travel expenses, and dedicated funding for attending conferences, training
and professional development. Reimbursement or an allowance for cell phones are offered by 40% of municipalities, while group benefits are offered by 33%.

Approximately 16% of municipalities provide a pension contribution, while 14% provide a car allowance, and 8% provide a budget for printing newsletters and other materials.

As of 2019, Belleville pays for 100% of the premium for Life, AD&D, Extended Health, Travel, Semi-Private and Dental Insurance of the members of council.

Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS)

In addition to hearing, vision, and dental benefits and travel, life, and disability insurance, Hamilton council members participate in the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) alongside permanent full-time City of Hamilton employees (for whom enrolment is mandatory).

They contribute a percentage of their earnings from every paycheque and receive a lifetime pension protected against inflation starting as early as age 55 (early retirement) up to 65.

In 2022, the contribution rates were 9% of earnings up to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) earnings limit also referred to as the Year’s Maximum Pensionable Earnings (YMPE) – and 14.6% of earnings over that limit. These contributions are tax deductible under the Income Tax Act, which means that when they are deducted from your gross income, they reduce the amount of taxable income you will owe for that tax year (similar to contributing to an RRSP). Member contributions are matched 100% by the City of Hamilton.

The payout amount is based upon the average annual income during the five consecutive years during which you had the highest earnings and years of service and is calculated as follows:

1.325% x credited service years (up to a maximum of 35) x “best five” average earnings

For example, if a Hamilton Councillor served for 12 years (3 terms) on council and retired in 2022 at the age of 65, their annual OMERS pension would be roughly:

1.325% x 12 x $100,000 = $15,900

How much work does it involve?

In most municipalities, serving on council is a part-time gig. As of 2017, only 14% of municipalities have a full-time head of council, while only 6% of municipalities have full-time councillors.

  • Heads of council: 91% of municipalities with a population over 100,000, and 50% of municipalities with a population over 50,000 have full-time heads of council.
  • Councillors: 83% of municipalities with a population over 250,000 and 27% of municipalities with a population over 100,000 have full-time councillors.

A study of Guelph councillors found that they spend an average of about 20 hours per week on Council business. This is less than typical full-time employment, but it uses up so much time that it is difficult to see how a councillor could seek other fulltime employment or even pursue a regular, fixed-schedule part-time job.

  • Regular council and committee meetings
  • Represent council at meetings of local boards and agencies
  • Attending local events promoting the municipality

Should you run for municipal office?

Ask yourself the following questions to see if running for council is the right decision:

Are my family and friends on board? Public life can hard on loved ones as it means less privacy, less family time and greater expectations. Ask them what they think about you running and how involved (or not) they may want to be.

Will this affect my future career? If you win the election, you will likely have to take time off from your current position or even quit.

What effect will this have on your lifestyle? What are the salary, benefits and pension arrangements in the elected office you’re seeking?

Is there a reason I shouldn’t run? It’s safe to assume that you will be analyzed and investigated by citizens and the media. Are elements of your life that you wouldn’t want made public?

How to win a municipal election

Election success depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Intensity of competition
  • Name recognition
  • Funding

However, there is no single way to conduct an election campaign.

Most municipal campaigns by their nature don’t have a lot of resources. They also lack the ability to get started with any traction because they lack name identification with voters.

Know what it will take

Use the following information as guidelines/goals:

  • Funding – Find out how much successful candidates spent on their campaigns in the previous election by looking up their publicly available “Financial Statement – Auditor’s Report Candidate – Form 4”. These can be found on the municipalities website, CivicWeb portal or by contacting the municipal clerk.
  • Votes – Use Open Council to find out how many votes successful candidates received in the previous election.

In 2018:

  • 477 council members (120 heads of council) were acclaimed (uncontested/won by default) out of the 2,864 elected positions
  • New candidates captured 41.3% of seats available
  • Women made up 27% of the candidates (up from 22.6% in 2014), 29% of acclamations (election wins due to no contest) and 42% of those elected to office

Know the rules

  • Avoid automatic penalties
  • Voters are allowed to be absent from work for 3 hours in order to vote
  • Know where and how voters can vote: in-person, online and/or by mail.
  • Know what form of ID is required

Be involved

It is often said that elections are won between campaigns. Long before you submit your nomination, it is a major asset to be involved in the community – ideally in positions that indicate your commitment and ties to the area and keep you in the public eye. A few examples of community connections and involvement are:

  • Advisory boards for charities, non-profits and other organizations such as:
    • Public Library Board
    • Conservation Authority
    • School Board
    • Agricultural Society
    • Economic Development Commission
    • Humane Society
    • Alzheimer’s Society
    • Social Services
    • Community Centre
    • Food Bank
    • Umpiring/refereeing
  • Running a local business

Have useful experience

Just like applying for a job, it helps to have a resume full of recent and relevant experience:

  • Post-secondary education
  • Professional employment
  • Mentions in local paper
  • Volunteering on other past candidates’ campaigns
  • Past political experience

Seek out support and advice

Reach out to past members of council, community leaders and local organizations that align with your stances and philosophy and ask to connect, get their thoughts, mentorship or further networking opportunities.

Talk with any and all potential future constituents who are interested and willing to engage to collect their opinions, concerns and thoughts about the current and ideal future state of the community. This could be your neighbours, coworkers, through your volunteer work and any groups to which you belong.

Have a clear and straightforward message

Show an awareness of the issues currently facing municipal council, a desire to do something about them and have at least a general idea of what actions or initiatives could help enact change.

“Why are you running?” will be one of the most frequently asked questions (it’s also one of the questions in our candidate interview), so be prepared to answer it clearly, confidently and concisely.

Finish the sentence: I’m running for office because…

Raise funds

Asking people for money doesn’t come naturally to many people, but it does create opportunities to talk with voters.

Candidates also hold various meet-the-candidate fundraisers, commonly barbecues, cocktail receptions, dinners and other social events throughout the campaign. In general, people donate money due to the following motivations:

  • Projects that interest or challenge them
  • Philosophy they think is right and good
  • Personality that sways them
  • Power they feel when donating and being affiliated

Contributions can come from individuals who are normally resident in Ontario. Corporations, clubs, associations, residents outside Ontario and political or public parties or organizations are not allowed to make contributions to municipal council campaigns.

Contribution limits

The maximum you or your spouse can contribute to your own campaign is:

  • Head of council: Lesser of $7,500 + $0.20 per elector or $25,000
  • Councillor: Lesser of $5,000 + $0.20 per elector or $25,000

Cash donations of $25 or less are not considered to be contributions and therefore you are not required to keep track of who gave them to you, but you must still report the total amount of these donations.

Contributions over $25 must be made by cheque, money order or by a method that clearly shows where the funds came from (such as certain debit, credit or electronic transfer transactions).

The total value of all contributions from each individual cannot exceed $1,200 ($2,500 in the City of Toronto).

Canvassing (door-to-door and telephone)

Canvassing is the most important campaign activity and way of communicating with voters. Depending on resources, aim to complete a full door-to-door canvas. If that isn’t possible, focus on the areas where you expect strongest support based on voting in previous elections. If resources aren’t an issue, a second (or even a third) door-to-door canvas in addition to a telephone canvas can make a big difference.

The purpose of canvassing is to promote the candidate, their priorities and collect the following data:

  • Are they going to vote for you, or another candidate?
  • What issues are important to them?
  • Are they interested in receiving more information about your campaign?
  • Can we put a sign on your lawn?
  • Are they willing to volunteer on your campaign?
  • What is their contact information?

Codes can be used to simplify data collection. For example:

  • 1. Supporter
  • 2. Likely to support
  • 3. Undecided
  • 4. Not likely to support
  • 5. Opposed
  • NH: Not home
  • NV: Not voting
  • NE: Not eligible to vote

Phone calls

Services such as MightyCall and OpenPhone offer online, app-based phone lines for calling and texting that are affordable and powerful (phone menu, forwarding, voicemail transcriptions).

Send a letter

Try to get at least one piece of literature to every door in your area. Software such as PostGrid will let you send a letter or postcard that can act as both outreach and fundraising.

Campaign lawn signs

Giving out signs creates additional touch points with voters and is visible proof of support. While unlikely to solely put you over the the top, candidates have lost due to a poor sign campaign. Be sure to follow local by-laws relating to sign size, placement, content and display dates.

Create a website and online presence

A large and growing proportion of Canadians get their news and information online and from social media, whether it’s Google, Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

It’s important to have an online presence so people can look up who you are and what you believe in, without you having to answer the same basic questions more than you have to, and to be able to engage with people and get involved in online discussions on the most important issues.

Candidate (and councillor) websites should include:

  • Biography
  • Issues/views/priorities
  • Frequently asked questions
  • How to volunteer, donate
  • Calendar of events
  • How/where to vote
  • Contact information
  • Email/newsletter subscription

Building a website is a great way to make your bio, priorities and personality available. You can also create a profile on Open Council by giving an interview and answering a standardized set of questions:

Get active on social media

Have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you are going to use your existing personal accounts, review their privacy settings and past posts to ensure they only include information you’re willing to show to the public.

You can also reach thousands or even tens of thousands of local Reddit users (“Redditors”) by taking questions from on your city’s subreddit (eg. London, ON or Kingston, ON) by hosting an Ask Me Anything (AMA). For example, this one by London-Fanshawe NDP incumbent Lindsay Mathyssen or this one by Dr. Waji Khan Green Party Candidate for Kingston and the Islands. Be sure to follow the subreddit’s rules (found on the sidebar) and when in doubt send a message to the mods (link also in sidebar).

Keep a database

Keep records in database of voters you encounter, along with any pressing issues they talk about. This could be in something as simple as a Google Sheet or Excel spreadsheet or in a powerful all-in-one software such as NationBuilder. Details collected could include name, phone number, email address, physical address, issues and classification (supporter, opponent, undecided).

This will help you build a list and help you recognize trends in what issues matter most in your community and why. Consider publishing policy statements on the most pressing topics.

Over to you

We’re interested to know – have you considered running for council? Is there anything you’d like to know that we missed in this guide? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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