Behind Closed Doors — Life At City Hall Chapter 9



Chapter 9 — Reality Check


This is the ninth in a series of articles written for this blog about my years as the mayor of Kamloops between 1999 and 2005. It’s intended for anyone who has an interest in how civic government works. This chapter picks up the story in the weeks after the new council was elected.

‘You are not in charge around here; we are.”

—   A senior City manager to the new mayor.


It’s a universal piece of wisdom that change is difficult, especially for those who have become used to doing things in a certain way for a long time.

I fully expected there to be some resistance to the changes I had in mind for City Hall, but I was surprised at just how strong it turned out to be. The change I wanted to effect, and felt I had a mandate for, centered on the main theme of my campaign — open, transparent government.

 Given the barriers that had to be passed in 2000, you will perhaps appreciate why I’m so disappointed about the records of mayors and councils since I left civic politics, beginning with the way they’ve closed the doors once again on that most fundamental of corporate exercises — strategic planning.

 As I explained in the previous chapter, prior to 2000 the City of Kamloops hadn’t even had a strategic plan. What it had was a shopping list of things of things to do; it actually looked like something you’d scribble down in a spare moment before heading for the super market to buy groceries.

 In the newspaper industry, I was used to setting aside a weekend with the senior management group to hammer out priorities for the coming year and the next five years. Those priorities had to be articulated as fundamental principles and priority actions. Success in achieving objectives had to be measurable.

 There was no such blueprint in the City. There was no sense of vision, nothing about energy and spirit and taking Kamloops in an upward direction. I wanted a document with some feeling, in which mayor and council could speak to those things, provide direction for staff, and which could be the basis for an appended corporate strategic plan that staff would then use to carry out defined goals.

 To get there, I figured it was time to open up that strategic planning session to one and all, anyone who wanted to hear firsthand what their civic leaders had in mind for the city for the next three years.

  With six new members of council, there was clearly a mandate for change. 

Joe Leong was a council veteran, and I always found him to be supportive of what I was trying to do. He seldom stood out from the crowd, but he was a good team player.

 The two other incumbents, Pat Wallace and Sharon Frissell, were close friends. I didn’t know Frissell very well, but found over time that she tended to follow Pat’s lead — if Pat took a particular side on an issue, Sharon usually supported her.

 Pat was the well-respected veteran of the council. Cliff Branchflower referred to her as “Her Majesty.” I’d known her for some 20 years, since before she got involved in municipal politics. It’s impossible not to like Pat Wallace. She’s generous, funny and smart.  In the years to come, we would disagree on many things, but we would get over any hard feelings and move on. Though she treated me badly at times, and she felt the same way about me, she could be as formidable an ally as she was an opponent.

 As a newspaper editor, I’d often written things she didn’t appreciate, and I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. I recorded in my journal that I invited her to lunch to clear the air because she’d backed Pat Kaatz for mayor and I was hearing gossip about things Pat was supposedly saying about me.

 “Of course, this got back to me and so I met with her to try to straighten her out,” I wrote. “I asked her to please stop, and commented that, ‘We don’t have to like each other, but we should at least try to get along.’

 “That would come back to haunt me.”

 In hindsight, that was not the smartest thing for me to say, because while I said it as a reflection of what I thought was her opinion of me, she took it to mean I had no intention of being friends. She remembered it, and quoted my own words on occasion when we disagreed on something.

 And, it didn’t take long — about as long as it took to make committee appointments.

 Appointments are a tricky thing because nine different people all have their wish lists, all have different schedules, and they all have different sets of experiences and talents.

 Spreading nine people among more than two dozen different committees with varying mandates and workloads is a challenge, let me tell you.

 In other words, all have different demands. However, I met with everybody and worked on it for a couple of weeks and was pretty pleased with my first attempt.

 That is, until Pat, who had left on a trip before I completed the list, got back in town, and all hell broke loose.

 I’d left her off the Yellowhead Highway Committee, which turned out to be one of her must haves. I hadn’t realized that, through a previous appointment to that committee, she’d been elected to the board and badly wanted to stay on it.

 When I was informed of this I immediately corrected it, but Pat considered it an intentional slight. 

 Even some of the newbies were nervous about this radical notion of open government. Frissell talked to Peter Sharp, who backed her up in rejecting an open planning session.

 “You will NOT allow the public to attend,” he informed me in an email.

 After a few back and forths, I compromised by scheduling a short in-camera session as part of the agenda, but would go no further. If any councillor didn’t like it, I decided, he or she could stay home.

 On the Saturday of the meeting, I wasn’t sure if I’d be the only one in the room, but they all showed up, though they didn’t all like it. Dave Gracey, who I came to know as a very intelligent, creative man with a strong sense of right and wrong, called for a break-out discussion about the role of the mayor. Without me.

 It rattled me for a moment, but I figured, what the hell, let’s get the showdown over with. I knew our facilitator Greg Scriver would keep things on track so I retired to another table and wrote down what I thought the role of mayor should be, how he should go about leading the “team.”

 Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in wanting to shake things up, and when councillors came back with their report on the discussion, it was pretty close to what I’d written down on my sheet of paper.

 It wouldn’t be the last time I’d find myself facing down the pack, and councillors weren’t the only ones reluctant about change. A few steps down the hallway from my office was that of the chief administrative officer, Joe Martignago. I liked Joe, and got along fine with him, but it became clear there was a culture in City Hall that encouraged the mayor and council to rely heavily on staff. Administration seemed to be setting policy instead of just carrying it out — at least more than I was comfortable with.

 Joe preferred members of council to make appointments if they wanted to talk to him. He had a disconcerting inability to make eye contact when having a conversation — his eyes would be focused somewhere below your chin as he talked, and the first time it happened to me I thought I must have spilled soup on my tie.

 This was my somewhat less-than-auspicious introduction to City Hall. Nobody ever said leadership is a bowl of cherries.

 NEXT: Being mayor.

About Mel Rothenburger (9122 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.

5 Comments on Behind Closed Doors — Life At City Hall Chapter 9

  1. Shane Dyck // May 18, 2010 at 9:14 PM // Reply

    Where are the first 8 chapters of your story Mel and what do you think closed the doors of transparency?

    • Mel Rothenburger // May 19, 2010 at 10:45 AM // Reply

      To find the earlier chapters, just type in Behind Closed Doors in the search box. Behind Closed Doors is sort of a double entendre — One of my main objectives as mayor was to open the doors and make City business more transparent. As well, the series is intended to give a sense of what goes on at City Hall that the average person doesn’t see.

  2. Ida Makaro // May 18, 2010 at 6:35 AM // Reply

    Very interesting. I have always found the most interesting stories are “Between the Lines.”

  3. Bill McQuarrie // May 17, 2010 at 1:03 PM // Reply

    Thought you might have given up on “Behind Closed Doors” as I hadn’t seen anything for quite some time. Glad to see you’re back with this…….or have I missed something?

    • Mel Rothenburger // May 19, 2010 at 10:40 AM // Reply

      Behind Closed Doors was on hiatus — for about a year. I’m hoping to find the time to churn out a new chapter on a relatively regular basis.

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