Backroom Briefing Q: How do You Deal With Conflicting Ideas Between Politicians & Public Servants?

Q: How do you deal with the challenge of permanent professional staff who have conflicting ideas of how our City should run compared with a temporary and yet democratically elected Council? –Michael VanDerHerberg.

Goyette: Michael is an owner of the wonderful Silver Bean and the proprietor of He indicates that his question arises from a DBIA presentation on a new public square for Peterborough. It also goes to the heart of decision making in local government.

The three traditional branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial—enjoy separate and independent areas of balanced responsibility, all functioning at the will of and in support of the electorate. City Hall deals primarily with two of these branches: the legislative branch (elected City Councillors who make laws) and the executive branch (appointed public servants who administer laws).

The fundamental distinction is that Councillors represent the value laden and often short term views of municipal electors, while public servants represent the objective and often long term interests of the municipal corporation.

Of course, the two groups work together and are reliant on each other. In their working relationship, the lines of responsibility inevitably flex and blur, based largely on the forces of personality, culture and the corporate appetite for change. Manageable conflict can be expected to arise as a result of differing perspectives: short term interests versus long term interests; popular opinion versus professional expertise; popular spending versus prudent financial management; publicity versus privacy; innovation versus inertia; the fanciful versus the practical.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best decisions are obtained when the two branches are in comfortable balance. My own experience is that the executive branch—appointed public servants—are more likely to be dominant in smaller municipalities and those with part-time Councillors. With larger municipalities and full-time Councillors, the legislative branch tends to exercise more authority. 

As I see it, the City Peterborough is now experiencing a change in this balance involving a strengthening of its legislative branch. Elected Councillors now have computers, smart phones, tablets, IT support, their first-ever modest discretionary budgets, and staff dedicated to assist them in their work. This is, I believe, a very healthy trend that will provide Councillors with resources of the sort already made available to the local MP and MPP.

Like any relationship, the key to success is to ensure a fair balance of responsibility and to create conditions conducive to mutual respect and compromise. In the ultimate expression of that relationship, and to the extent that we value representative democracy and electoral accountability, City Council is always supreme.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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