By MEL ROTHENBURGER
“I firmly believe we the new Council have a strong mandate to do certain things. Fundamentally, we’ve been handed an assignment to work in close consultation with the people of Kamloops. . . . To that end, I’m convinced that we as Council have a duty to create new opportunities for the residents of Kamloops to access civic government. Our job is to make it less intimidating, more inviting. We have to make people more comfortable with City hall, and we have to take civic government to the neighbourhoods.”
— Inaugural address, Dec. 6, 1999.
Sunday morning. But not just any Sunday morning in November. The day after election day.
The fact that you are the mayor-elect of Kamloops is hard to grasp. It seems more concept than reality. You lay there in bed, wrestling with it, trying to reel it in, as if it were something you could grab hold of and sit on, but you can’t. You try to freeze this moment in time, to store it, to identify and describe the feeling as best you can, so that you can call it back later on, as though you were naming and saving a file in your computer.
Those things went through my head in the early hours of Nov. 21, 1999. I savored the moment as best I could. It was a different moment than the night before, when Syd and I had walked into the Mel For Mayor campaign headquarters to cheering and loud music and celebrated until 2 in the morning.
This was quiet time, but I remember becoming aware that there was a smile on my face as I lay there allowing myself to enjoy the sensation. Thinking back on it now brings a hint of sadness at knowing the fleeting reverie of that self-indulgent few minutes on that Sunday morning nine years ago is gone forever.
On election night, I’d told one reporter that this was “the beginning of a process.” As it would turn out, that process was both wonderful and frustrating, joyful and hurtful, and always rewarding. And during the next six years, the reality that I was the mayor of Kamloops never fully sunk in.
That there was much work to do that Sunday — mainly driving all over town helping collect campaign signs — was a good thing, because it helped burn some of the excess energy I was feeling.
There were media calls to take, too. Having spent most of my working years in the media, I was ready for it, knew how reporters’ brains worked, understood what they were after.
(Nevertheless, I know now that over the next several years I didn’t give the media as much of my time as I probably should have. I often put them at the bottom of my callback list, attending to “more important” things in the work day.)
They asked about what would happen with the outgoing council’s decision to impose water meters on every home owner. I repeated my longstanding position against mandatory universal water metering.
They asked about plans for a parkade on the front lawn of Royal Inland hospital. I said I would oppose amending City bylaws to allow its construction.
I was asked about my priorities. I said I would carry through on my campaign promises. “I’m not a charismatic-type leader or a populist,” I said. “You set your own style and priorities. One of my priorities is to reach out to the community as much as possible and spend a lot of time out of the office.”
I would also carry through with establishing a red tape report card on City Hall efficiency, and invite businesses to a round table to talk about the local economy and specific business issues.
What mayor or former mayor would I compare myself to? Maybe Al Thompson, the first mayor of the amalgamated City of Kamloops in 1973, I said. “He was a consensus builder.”
I would not be sworn in as mayor for two more weeks, but I wanted to put the time to good use, so I set up shop in a cubby hole under the stairs at City Hall.
Cliff Branchflower was very helpful filling me in on the way things worked, including the internal politics of the City. And staff happily piled thick binders of policies and bylaws on my temporary desk.
KIB Chief Manny Jules kindly invited me for a talk at his office on the reserve, and it signaled a very cordial relationship between him and me, and between the City and the Band. Unfortunately, that relationship headed south later on when he was succeeded by Bonny Leonard, and took some time to recover when she, in turn, was succeeded by Shane Gottfriedson.
There was a lot of other work to be done. For example, I’d promised a task force on the sex trade after AIDS Society coordinator Mary Ann Sandrelli had challenged me to “embrace” prostitution. I wasn’t about to embrace it, but I sure wanted to make it less visible and less dangerous.
I’d also talked about a Team Kamloops concept, bringing together local political reps at all levels to help promote the city, and that required a lot of discussion.
My media background left me amazed that the City had no communications strategy, absolutely none. Today, we take for granted the frequent press releases and press conferences called by the City to explain various initiatives but, at that time, there was no strategy for telling the City’s story. City Hall simply reacted to whatever came at them; by then, the perception battle was often lost.
Most surprising, perhaps, was that council had no strategic plan whatsoever. Yes, it had something it called a “strategic plan,” but it was nothing more than a wish list of points the council felt it should check off for the year. There was no particular direction to it, no sense of mission, no priorities, and certainly no vision.
On the evening of Monday, Dec. 6, 1999, the new council assembled with invited guests and other members of the public in the Parkside Lounge (now Sports Action Lounge) at Riverside Coliseum (which has, of course, gone through a couple of name changes since then).
It was a pretty exciting thing, especially for the new members of council including me, as we were piped into the room and the ceremonies began.
Branchflower, as the outgoing mayor, had the honour of giving a farewell address, thanking his family, City Hall staff and the public. He’d been in the mayor’s office since 1991, and he pointed out that during that time the city had seen the beginning of its tournament capital program and international relationships. Of course, he couldn’t resist offering a bit of advice.
“It’s a fact of life that the people who immediately know exactly how a job should be done have never had the responsibility of doing it,” he said.
“Before I was elected to Council for the first time, I was supremely confident I could fix everything I perceived to be wrong in short order. Nineteen years later I realize that while I might have made some minute difference, there is still plenty to be done.”
After the swearing in, the robe and chain of office were placed on my shoulders, and I was officially the mayor. There’s something surreal about such a milestone. One moment you aren’t quite one thing, the next moment you very much are.
The fact that I and the councillors were taking office at the turn of the millennium didn’t escape me, and I made reference to it in my speech. But, I said, that was simply a footnote.
“I don’t think any of us sought election because we wanted our names to dutifully be entered in the ledgers as being the council of the Year 2000. . . . I firmly believe we the new Council have a strong mandate to do certain things,” I said.
“Fundamentally, we’ve been handed an assignment to work in close consultation with the people of Kamloops. The significant increases in voter turnout, and the feedback we all received during the campaign suggests that the public’s commitment to civic priorities runs deep and that people want an opportunity to get information and to tell us what they think when they get it.”
But I also talked about the mandate to become involved in the economy, and announced the Mayor’s Task Force on Red Tape. “. . . . It’s only a first step but an important one in making Kamloops as business-friendly as possible without throwing all the rules out the window.”
At the same time, I said, “we need to achieve a balance between working to achieve a prosperous economy, and meeting social needs such as low cost housing, activities for youth, safe places for victims of abuse, and addressing panhandling and the sex trade. . . .”
If we can finish what we set out to do, I concluded, “those achievements will be our legacy for future generations.”
One of the neat things about giving a speech at the City council’s inaugural meeting is that it’s saved, verbatim, for posterity in the minutes of that meeting. You can go to the City’s website or paper minutes and look at speeches made at past inaugurals going back decades.
As I re-read that speech, I can’t help but note the similarities to the situation the city finds itself in today. Candidates still talk about the economy and jobs. In 2017, it’s very much an issue. And in 2008, the economy was sliding, but what about a plan? On that evening in 1999, I publicly proposed a task force to deal with it, quickly.
One of the most important jobs of the mayor is to bring people together to tackle tough issues. There are so many ways to do it, and the mayor commands enough respect by virtue of his office that when he or she says “let’s get together,” people get together.
In 1999, I had all kinds of ambitions for bringing the community together on issues, because I felt it had been out in the cold for too long. Maybe I was guilty of what Cliff said — I was too confident that I could do things better.
On the other hand, I might fail, but it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.