Just before 9 p.m. on November 15, Nelsonites received the news that Deb Kozak would serve for the next four years as the community’s first female mayor. Having served on council since 2005, Kozak defeated both incumbent John Dooley and challenger Pat Severyn with a final tally of 1,756 votes.
The Star sat down with Kozak on Tuesday afternoon to debrief on her historic achievement, and to hear about her plans for the next four years.
WHO IS DEB KOZAK?
Debra Eddy was born in Rosetown, Saskatchewan. She grew up in small towns across the prairies, along with her siblings Darin, Pam, Heather and Randy. Their father Terrance was a bank manager, and along with their mother Kathleen they lived in a variety of prairie communities.
“I don’t remember ever not knowing how to swim. I grew up around swimming pools, went to the lake in the summer time. We were always camping,” she said. “It’s funny, people think when you grow up in the prairies it’s a dry, windy place. People in BC especially are a bit skeptical about how idyllic it is.”
Though her brother Randy was killed at 21 in a car accident, she had a fairly routine upbringing and eventually found work as a swim instructor. When she graduated from high school she headed to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“That was before they had education counsellors. I thought ‘gee, a bachelor of arts isn’t going to get me much’ so I flipped over to the Kelsey Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences.”
That’s where she would meet her future husband Peter Kozak, who was in the same recreation program. Within a few years they were dating seriously.
“We laugh a lot together. We’re very different in our personalities in a lot of ways, but we have a lot of respect. And we love each other.”
The pair were married in 1977. After two children and a few moves, they ended up in Nelson in 1983.
“Laura was about two months old when we moved to BC. We packed up Terry, he was about two and a half, and we’ve been here ever since.”
While she was raising her kids, Kozak took on a variety of paid and volunteer roles in the community. She was the business manager for Ward Street Place, she worked with Nelson CARES, sat on boards and upgraded her education, all while continuing to immerse herself in the community.
She ran once for council unsuccessfully before getting elected in 2005.
When she decided to take a run for the mayoral spot, she asked her family for their input.
“I talked to Pete and he said `I believe you have the capacity to do it’ and when I told him the community expects more from the mayor and it will take more time, he said `I think you’ll be a great mayor. I support you whatever you want to do’.”
Her daughter Laura, who recently gave birth to Kozak’s grandchild Aizlinn, had this to say about her mother’s campaign: “Good for you, Mom! Go for it!”
A NEW ERA OF COLLABORATION
During the election, Kozak claimed Nelson is ready for a “new era of collaboration”. She campaigned on her ability to host difficult conversations, and to listen to the myriad voices of the community.
“I’ve seen ideas never make it to the table for full discussion, like the proposal by Nelson business owners to lift the dog bylaw for a trial period, or whether or not to allow backyard chickens,” she wrote on her campaign website.
Kozak said now she’s at the helm, these issues will get the attention they deserve. And since the new council members almost unanimously agreed that it’s time to lift the dog ban during a recent forum, she thinks it should be lifted temporarily by early in 2015.
“What I’d like to see is, with the support of the business community, if we can temporarily lift the ban and see how it works. The business community has been ready to go for years,” she said.
One of the most controversial large-scale endeavours she will be commandeering is the ambitious Stores to Shores project, which is intended to create a pedestrian-friendly corridor from Kootenay Lake up to Baker Street.
Though the project will be costly, she considers it worthwhile and important.
“As you look into the future with what’s going on with Nelson Commons, with the revitalization of the Civic Theatre, things are going on in that area that are fantastic. If we can get that corridor up, and have people enjoy that walk while also doing our needed infrastructure changes, everyone wins.”
The revitalization will also include fixing the “hairy” intersection at the entrance to the Nelson & District Community Complex and looking at pedestrian safety at intersection of Hall and Vernon.
“You have to be nimble in Nelson,” she said.
Kozak plans to be flexible about how exactly Stores to Shores progresses, and on what timeline. The recent delay has given council and staff additional time to consider feedback, including concerns about how the project will affect traffic flow in the area.
“It’s a concept, and with a concept people have the opportunity to turn it around, look at it in different ways,” she said. “We want to hear all the voices in the community.”
That goes for the revitalization of Railtown as well. She welcomes everyone in the community to contribute ideas for how to develop the area.
“There are people who come into this work with a single issue, and as soon as you enter the world of municipal government you realize how much you’re responsible for,” said Kozak. “There’s a work load that would kill a horse.”
But she doesn’t feel daunted by that.
“I’m feeling quite energized. I’m anticipating the work and feeling good about it.”
Collaboration also means increased communication with the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK), neighbouring communities, and other levels of government.
Kozak said this was one of Dooley’s strengths, and she plans to follow in his footsteps, which will include working closely with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other granting agencies.
“I’ve developed many of those same relationships, and I think I can maneuver that quite well. Though we have issues like affordability to deal with, I don’t think they’re insurmountable. We will overcome those. We’re going to tackle big issues like climate change, social issues, in the best way local government can to grease the wheels and look forward to the future.”
In recent days there has been speculation about the impact of Sensible BC’s endorsement of Kozak. She told the Star she was happy for the support, but has little relationship with the initiative otherwise.
However, she does support moving towards legalization and encouraging police officers to de-prioritize marijuana arrests.
“When I think about our emergency personnel and our police, and how we want their valuable services used, that’s not how I want them used. We want to fund the investigation of real crime,” she said.
Kozak will now sit on the Nelson Police Board.
“I know that we have laws of the land and we need to uphold them, but I also know police officers and emergency personnel are given latitude and discretion in how it’s applied,” she said.
She said she doesn’t want to be remembered as the “pot mayor”.
“That’s not who I am,” she said.
SOCIAL JUSTICE AND TAXES
Kozak said the driving impetus behind her political career has been social justice.
“I think it’s important for us to look after each other in the community. I believe in the whole community. I don’t think we should be split up into sectors. When I’ve seen things hum and change is when all that energy comes together to create something new and wonderful.”
A perfect example is the Nelson Civic Theatre, which Kozak treasures. She said she can facilitate these cross-sectoral relationships, including on the newly revamped cultural development committee.
“I’m a connector,” she said.
But she does have her mind on the bottom line as well, and is aware of the hardship taxes are putting on Nelson residents.
“Every council I’ve worked on, that’s been a number one priority. We look at the level of services we’re providing and then look for efficiencies or other revenue streams we can access. Unfortunately, we’re very limited…We need taxation reform on a broader level in this country.”
She plans to actively investigate ways to relieve the burden, and said she was horrified by a recent Basin report about the low average income in the area.
“I’m totally aware of the hardship and alarmed,” she said.
Throughout the campaign, Kozak also called attention to the need for affordable housing. She pledged her support in finding creative ways to provide residents with safe, reliable shelter and to encourage homeowners to install suites. She plans to explore offering tax breaks, incentives or special perks for those willing to contribute in a positive way.
She invites any curious residents to introduce themselves. She’s planning to start hosting community lunches to increase her accessibility.
“I’ll be spending a lot of time with people talking, getting to know them. I am so excited to be your mayor.”