Behind Closed Doors — Life At City Hall: Chapter 1

This is the first in a series on my experiences as the mayor of Kamloops from 1999 to 2005. I offer it for the interest of anyone who cares about civic politics and our community, and who might be wondering — as we approach a civic election Nov. 15 — what really goes on in City Hall.  


Chapter 1 — ‘I’d Like to Be the Mayor of Kamloops’


Sometimes, as I’m driving home late at night, I become acutely aware of every building, street light and stripe on the pavement. And I say to myself, “I’m the mayor of Kamloops. This is my city.” And the awe of it comes over me again.

— Personal Journal, April, 2000.

  There is no feeling in this world that comes close to winning an election for an important public office. It’s not better than your wedding day, or the birth of your children, but it has an intensity and a special sense of jubilation all its own. At the moment of victory, excitement is mixed with contentment, that, right now, at this moment, all is right and everything else that has happened in your life was for this. For me, it reached its height as my wife Syd and I walked into campaign headquarters the night of Nov. 20, 1999 to the enthusiastic cheering of supporters. As they applauded and hugged us, I spotted our nine-year-old son Jacob, who had spent the day with my brother and sister-in-law. “Does this mean we won?” he asked above the din. I nodded, realizing he hadn’t yet been told. “We’re going to be the mayor!” I said. I’d thought about running for the mayor’s job for a long time. I remember visiting a friend at the Coast many years before, and telling her, “I think I’d like to be the mayor of Kamloops some day.” Everyone has his or her own reasons for wanting to go into politics — a special cause, ego, a belief things could be done better. Some of those reasons are totally unselfish, others are not. In my case, my interest in politics and City Hall in particular was driven by some 25 years of covering City councils here. At one point, prior to the forced amalgamation of 1973, I covered the councils of Kamloops, Brocklehurst, Dufferin and Valleyview, all at once, which literally kept me on the run. You don’t spend a few thousand hours sitting in council chambers and talking to municipal leaders on a daily basis without becoming a student of local government. In 1998 and 1999, when I began thinking seriously of finally running for mayor, my ideas of what local government should look like were being severely tested. City Hall was not an open place. Too much business was being done behind closed doors — in fact, once a month, council brazenly went into secret session for its entire regular meeting. One meeting out of four — 25 per cent. Those meetings were supposed to be held in the open. There were many other in-camera meetings, too, and no system of accountability for them was in place. To add insult to injury, they had a habit of trucking off to out-of-town resorts for “strategy” sessions. In secret, of course.

The incumbent council vigorously defended the status quo. Secret meetings were necessary, they said, because they didn’t have to worry about “saying something stupid.” They were needed in order to get things done, they said. I begged to differ, and railed against them in my Daily News columns.

I envisioned nothing less than a makeover of how City Hall did business, a new relationship with the public that would be the precursor to economic renewal and growth, growth that would enable Kamloops to escape its image of just another industrial town and develop a new sense of pride.

I had some specific ideas on just what that would entail, but we’ll get into that more deeply a little later in this series.

What made me think I could be the mayor who could pull it off? After all, the incumbent mayor, Cliff Branchflower, was popular and much respected. I’d known Cliff for many years, had served on the school board with him, and knew him to be a solid, unflappable guy with a wry sense of humour.

But as much as I seconded the positive sentiments about him, I didn’t see Cliff as a leader in the sense of being able to raise new ideas, get council onside, and make things happen. On the issue of those secret meetings, for example, he said he didn’t particularly like them but had to go along with the rest of council. Later, he defended council’s record on meetings.

Cliff’s philosophy was that the mayor is “just one vote” and must “learn to count to five.” That was worlds apart from what I thought the mayor should be.

I’d come to learn from years hanging around City Hall — and it would be confirmed during my firsthand experience in the mayor’s chair — that City councillors don’t come up with a lot of new ideas. I don’t underestimate the importance of what they do but they are, after all, disconnected from City Hall most of the time, coming together once or twice a week for a meeting and attending public functions as required.

Assuming the City council is not dominated by administration, the link between council and the bureaucracy has to be the mayor. He or she has to lead, to develop ideas, strategies, directions, and get the support of council and the public, and buy-in from staff. That requires a lot more than raising your hand to vote on motions.

It was both a daunting and an exciting prospect. It meant that if you didn’t do it right, you could be a real dud and rue the day you ever thought you had the right stuff. On the other hand, it also meant that, as mayor, you could truly get things done. You could take a good idea, rally people around it, go through the process of developing it into reality, and accomplish something real and good at the end of the day.

That, as I would find out, is like a narcotic to anyone who loves being at the centre of activity, who enjoys being in a position to influence what happens in a community rather than just be a witness.

It had also become clear to me that the mayor had to be a full-time job. Kamloops had grown to the point where the mayor had to be at work every day of the week.

I started preparing almost a year in advance. One of the first things to do was to find a campaign manager.

I’d met Barb Duggan through some consulting work she’d done for the Thompson-Nicola Regional District on the issue of establishing a film commission.

Barb had a marketing pedigree a mile long and now ran a company called Business West. While she’d landed in Kamloops for lifestyle and personal reasons, during her career in marketing she’d counted as clients the likes of Bank of America, the State of Hawaii, ABC Television and the Stanford University Medical Centre. 

But Barb was also a seasoned political campaigner. She’d won 12 out of 13 elections for her candidates in local, regional and national races in the U.S. In one election she’d brought a candidate for the Oregon House of Representatives from 14 points back to win. The Representative-elect gave Barb the credit.

She once jokingly told me her proudest moment was getting a certifiably insane candidate elected to a major political post. That’s the kind of person I wanted running my campaign — if she couldn’t get me elected, nobody could.

I invited her to lunch one day at Chapter’s, and asked if she’d consider being my campaign manager. I wasn’t sure what to expect, asking a professional who’d run elections at the highest levels to now run a mayoral campaign in a small city as a volunteer. I was thrilled when she not only agreed, but immediately and enthusiastically began talking about the upcoming campaign.

Barb is the kind of person some people call a “political animal.” I like the term “political junky” better — someone who lives and breathes politics as much for the process as for the results.

Now, all we had to do was put together the best campaign committee ever, develop our strategy, articulate my platform, and raise a whole bunch of money.

NEXT: ‘Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead’

About Mel Rothenburger (9652 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on Behind Closed Doors — Life At City Hall: Chapter 1

  1. Kevin A. Skrepnek // September 13, 2008 at 5:53 PM // Reply

    A very interesting read, Mel. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

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