CHAPTER 10 — BEING MAYOR
This is Chapter 10 in a series of articles — which I started in 2008 — written for this blog about my years as the mayor of Kamloops. It’s intended for anyone who has an interest in how civic government works.
“Do you live in a palace?”
- Favourite question from primary school class about being mayor.
“I need your advice,” said the man in my office.
His name was Reg (I won’t use his last name as there’s no way I’d want to embarrass him) and he had a problem. Usually, when people ask the mayor for advice, it’s their way of saying, “I need your help.”
Reg came to see me at one of my open houses in that first year in City Hall, the year 2000. I held them once a week, and advertised them as a no-appointments-necessary opportunity for anyone to talk to the mayor. I was a little surprised but pleased by the enthusiastic uptake, as I wanted to be accessible. I answered my own phone, went out and door-knocked every once in awhile (seeing a politician on their doorstep between elections tended to blow people away); one day I even stood out at an intersection with a “Have a Great Day!” sign. But that’s a story for another time.
Reg wanted a dog. More accurately, he wanted to save a dog, and he needed help to do it. He was in his 40s, still in his working prime, but had been unemployed for some time due to an injury suffered in the logging industry. He showed me how the scarred arm was slowly healing, but he had little use of his wrist, and he still had little strength in his hand.
As editor of the paper I was used to all kinds of people coming through the front door with many a story that turned out not to be true, but I believed Reg. He’d been to the animal pound and fallen in love with a big Husky cross. Trouble was, he couldn’t come up with the $75 the City of Kamloops wanted as an adoption fee. No $75, no dog.
“What kind of sense does that make?” he asked me. “I can give this dog a good home, yet if I don’t pay the fee they’ll put him down. How does that help anybody?”
I asked Reg to leave it with me. I went straight to the office next to mine, inhabited by Wayne Vollrath, the City’s corporate services administrator. Animal Control and Bylaws reported to Wayne, a friendly, low-key guy who was a true student of municipal government. At the end of a day, we’d often sit in his office or mine and turn seemingly mundane topics like civic finance and policy setting into philosophical discussions.
The "First Fam" as some people liked to call us — me, Syd, and Jacob — with friend Coun. Dave Gracy. Finding downtime for friends and family isn't always easy for a mayor.
Wayne was sympathetic, but he couldn’t support releasing a dog without payment of the fee. It would set a precedent of inequity in application of City policy.
I got that and didn’t push it — I never once asked for favouritism for anyone, whether it was a parking ticket or a bylaw or policy of any kind. Instead, I pulled out my chequebook and wrote a personal check to the City of Kamloops for $75, with the notation “Re: Dog — Reg.”
“Give him the dog,” I told Wayne as I handed him the cheque.
I came across that cheque not long ago. On the back is stamped, “Deposit to the City of Kamloops Animal Control. . . Animal 1/CWHITE.” It reminded me that the satisfaction of being mayor isn’t always about big announcements or public laurels. Nobody ever knew about Reg and his dog except him, me and Wayne. And when Reg showed up at the mayor’s open house day not long after with a big, beautiful, well-behaved — and very much alive — Husky cross, it was more than enough thanks.
The job description for a mayor can be divided into two parallel streams, roughly equal in load but clearly and separately defined. One is the administration of political office, the other is being the public face of the city.
I enjoyed them equally, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed the public duties of being mayor. I’m shy by nature, and being the centre of attention doesn’t come easily to me. I’m probably the worst schmoozer in the world. As a youngster, I had friends but I was definitely not Mr. Popular. In my teens, I was one of those guys who had to write out a script and worry for days before screwing up the courage to phone a girl for a date.
The one thing that saved me is that I’m not a bad actor on stage. I could sing a solo in a Christmas concert or play Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a lot easier than I could strike up a conversation with a stranger.
As a newspaper editor, I sat on many a panel and made quite a few speeches and was comfortable in front of a microphone. As mayor, public speaking wasn’t a problem. In fact, I love crafting a good speech and making a good delivery.
But the other parts were easier than expected. I soon discovered that when the mayor is invited to something, steps are taken to ensure he’s not left on his own. He’s met at the door, properly introduced, and made comfortable. You don’t have to walk in and take over the room; the work is done for you.
Over time, I became less and less apprehensive. I no longer felt edgy as I entered a reception, a wine and cheese, or a rubber chicken luncheon that are the staple of business and public life in any city. If I found myself alone, I could even interject into a circle of strangers without worrying that I might be butting in to some private conversation.
Walking down the sidewalk, I had to leave extra time to get from A to B because of the number of people who would cheerfully greet me as “Mayor Mel!” or stop to chat or bring up an issue. Even the street people called me by name, and some enjoyed a politically discussion as much as anyone.
I found that the mayor is the one people want at their important events. Councillors are welcome, but the presence of the mayor is what makes it. I worked hard to be there. My predecessor sometimes sent his secretary to represent him at sod turnings or ribbon cuttings and I didn’t want to be a sender of messages. One councillor complained that I wasn’t letting other members of council fill in for me often enough — how could I explain that if someone is opening a new store or announcing a new program or holding a fundraiser, having a councillor as the City’s representative is considered second best?
This was a good thing, because there was nothing I could have done about it anyway. Barrie Ogden, my administrative assistant, kept track of my appointments in a big book that sat on her desk (the age of electronic calendars hadn’t quite taken hold), and that book was full every day. I went from committee meeting to staff meeting to luncheon to ribbon cutting to wine and cheese to dinner and the day rushed by. Being a newspaper editor is a great career but in some ways it’s a desk job. As mayor, the constant change of scenery was invigorating.
Some mayors profess to be uncomfortable with being treated like a mayor. They act embarrassed when they have to don the mayoral gown and chain of office, and they eschew the “Your Worship” honorific as if it’s too pretentious. I didn’t. It’s not the person who’s being feted, it’s the office of being mayor, and it’s one that we should respect.
I had the names of every mayor of Kamloops, with the years they served, engraved on the backs of the links in the chain of office (there are two, a smaller one that’s been around for many years, and a bigger, more ostentatious one presented by then-Municipal Affairs Minister Dan Campbell when the City was amalgamated with surrounding towns in 1972. It’s a bit tinny, and I liked the older one better. The two mayors who succeeded me have both used the older one as well). When I put on the gown and placed that chain of office around my neck for some formal occasion, I felt proud to be representing the people of Kamloops. Maybe that sounds corny, but the feeling was genuine.
I dressed for the job, too. Casual is okay on Fridays but when you’re mayor it doesn’t cut it the rest of the week. I bought several new suits and wore a tie every day. A mayor should look like a leader. Staff would often notice that my car was still in its spot as they left work for the day, and I think they respected the fact that I made it a full-time job and then some.
So many things happen in a mayor’s day that are new and exciting and that just make life so damned interesting. For example, who holds a 100th birthday party for a centenarian without asking the mayor to bring happy birthday wishes on behalf of the citizens of Kamloops? And when the mayor does come, everyone is so pleased. What they don’t know is that the mayor is the one who’s honoured to be there, to talk with someone who so richly deserves recognition, to learn just a little bit about a life well-lived.
How about being piped into a banquet with the head table? Or riding in a convertible in a parade? Or being referred to as “Our beloved mayor” at an event held by one of our multi-cultural associations, or cutting the official Canada Day cake, or doing an Elvis impersonation in front of an exhibition hall full of seniors, or speaking to new Canadians as they take their oath of allegiance?
If that doesn’t do it for you, how about meeting mayors, governors, cabinet ministers, premiers, prime ministers, and spending a day with our governor-general? No? Then how about signing an international agreement at a ceremony at the Great Wall of China, or in a remote Sri Lankan village?
You think being mayor isn’t fun? It’s a perpetual joy.
NEXT: A busy first year.