Being Mayor, Chapter 2: Damn the Torpedoes

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
July 31, 2017 - 6:14am
Campaign manager Barb Duggan at work at Mel For Mayor HQ, 1999.

KAMLOOPS — This is the second in a series on my experiences as the mayor of Kamloops from 1999 to 2005, first published in 2008. With a by-election for mayor and two council seats scheduled for Sept. 30, I offer it for some insights into what goes on in City Hall. The original series ended at Chapter 10 but I'll update them and add new chapters to complete the story.

Chapter 2 — ‘Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead’

By MEL ROTHENBURGER

“We’ve got to make it easier for people to go about their lives and businesses in Kamloops — we’ve got to clearly define red-tape problems and then do something about them.”

— Guest editorial, radio CHNL, October 1999

There’s a big difference between thinking about something, even planning for it, and actually committing to it.

While I’d thought about running for mayor for a long time, until I asked Barb Duggan early in 1999 to be my campaign manager, it was a “what if” proposition with no risk to it. But when she said yes, I was basically past the point of no return.

Barb never believed in going halfway on anything that was worth doing. When, as a business consultant, she submitted a report to the Thompson-Nicola Regional District on the issue of setting up a film commission, she entitled it, “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead.” That was her approach with the campaign from the day we agreed to work together on it.

But before I would be ready to make any announcements, or even put a team together, there was a lot of work to be done. For one thing, I’d have to relinquish my duties at The Daily News. I was prepared to resign, though the prospect of being without work, especially if I lost the election, was not attractive.

There's also a bias within the media industry against journalists being involved in community affairs, especially politics. It's the the old conviction that journalists must remain separate and apart from their communities in order to be objective. I've never agreed with that notion but I wasn't sure what to expect when I broached my plans to my boss, publisher Dale Brin.

I was blown away when he offered up a leave of absence. It would work like this: I’d start a leave as soon as I publicly announced I was running. If I lost the election, I could come back to The Daily News right away. If I won, the leave would extend to the end of my first term.

To this day, I’m grateful for that gesture of generosity and community spirit. Giving somebody a three-year leave of absence to go off and get involved in politics is no small thing for any company, but Dale believed what I wanted to do was important. It took a huge weight off my shoulders, I can tell you.

There was another potential hurdle that eventually worked out but one that caused me quite a headache for awhile. Back in 1998, Syd and I had applied to the City for a boundary extension to take in our property on Barnhartvale Road.

The reason was entirely practical: located one lot outside City boundaries, we had no fire protection. If we could get our home inside City limits, we’d have that protection. At the least, the cut in fire insurance premiums would negate any tax increase, and B.C. Assessment assured us the change wouldn’t affect our property assessment. (The latter turned out to be oh so wrong, but that’s another story.)

Now that I was working toward a run at the mayor’s chair, the boundary issue became doubly important. In B.C., you don’t have to be a resident of a city to run for office there. It might seem odd, but it actually makes perfect sense in rural areas, especially in the north, where communities are small and spread far apart. Limiting public office to municipal residents would severely reduce the candidacy gene pool.

Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, if I was going to ask people to vote for me as mayor, I wanted to assure them I’d be a resident.

The boundary extension required approval by City council, and it took staff months to process our application and get it in front of council for a vote. When it finally got there for initial approval, the vote was 6-3 in favour, with Shirley Culver, Sharon Frissell and Russ Gerard against.

By the time it came up for final approval, it was almost election time. This time, the vote was 8-1 in favour — Coun. Sharon Frissell was the only one against it.

She insisted it might cost the City money despite the fact we’d agreed to put covenants on the property against receiving City services.

While council’s approval was a relief, our application now had to receive an OK from the provincial government, and the issue was destined to drag on for another eight months. Talk about bureaucratic red tape. The next day, in response to an editorial from Jim Harrison, I read the guest editorial excerpted at the top of this chapter.

Frissell’s resolute opposition to our request may have been a harbinger of things to come in our relationship on council. In the six years we were on council together, I was never quite sure which Sharon Frissell I was going to be dealing with, the wise-cracking charmer or the one that could leave you bruised and bleeding and wondering what just happened.

On one occasion, Sharon initiated a particularly strident and baseless public attack against me that turned into a bit of a media circus. I’ll explain that one later.

She and Coun. Pat Wallace were close friends and Sharon tended to follow Pat’s lead on issues. Pat has always had a gift for sensing which side to take on issues.

Pat is not only a savvy politician, but a genuinely kind and thoughtful person. When Jacob was born, she bought him a big teddy bear. When our boundary application came in front of council, she raised the question of water, ensuring we would not be excluded from future water service because, she said, everyone has a right to have a good water supply.

You don’t forget things like that. While Pat and I clashed several times, sometimes pretty strongly, neither of us has held grudges, and there were times she was the best ally I could have wished for. We had some decidedly rocky moments back then, but today, in 2017, we not only are colleagues on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board, but regularly make a point of having lunch together to catch up.

June — specifically, June 16 — looked like a good time to announce my candidacy. For one thing, it would get me out in front of the pack and give me the summer to campaign in advance of the traditional starting time of September. For another, I had enough owed vacation built up that it would take me through to election day.

NEXT: “Let’s Unlock the Doors to City Hall”

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