John Dooley turns in his gavel on Monday

Parting words from Nelson’s outgoing mayor

John Dooley speaks about the highs and lows of being mayor, what he thinks cost him the election, and what he hopes his legacy will be.

Nelson mayor John Dooley thumbed through a pile of old business cards this week while cleaning out his office at city hall. Nine years of meetings and memories were tied up in those bits of paper: names and addresses of other politicians, dignitaries, and executives. Each had a story.

Here was Erin Stewart, a young, aspiring politician from Thompson, Manitoba with whom Dooley once shared a bus ride. He encouraged her to run for council. She did and was elected, later serving on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities board.

Here was Colin Mayes, MP for Okanagan Shuswap, who helped find funding to renovate the Selkirk College dormitories.

Here was Colin Hansen, the BC health minister whom Dooley once met with in hopes of landing a CT scanner for Nelson.

“There’s no money,” Hansen told him.

“Do you think there’s enough to operate it?” Dooley asked.

“Probably,” Hansen replied. “But we’re not going to buy one.”

“We’ll buy it,” Dooley impulsively told him, not knowing if that was even possible.

Soon after, Dooley received a call confirming that if the community raised $1.5 million in capital costs, the government would pay for its operation.

Many on council felt it was a provincial download, but Dooley nevertheless convinced them to donate a city-owned property in Rosemont where a house could be built and sold to benefit the hospital foundation.

And here was John Walsh, then vice-president of real estate for the Canadian Pacific Railway, who was walking down the hall at the company’s Vancouver office when he spotted senior executives meeting with a Nelson delegation.

The city was negotiating with the company on several fronts, trying to entice it to donate its historic but derelict railway station to the Chamber of Commerce, and do something about its equally derelict diesel engine shop (seen at left in 2008).

A Google Earth image of the Nelson rail yard was projected on the wall. Walsh poked his head in, introduced himself, and asked what they were looking at. Dooley, who noted what a “terrible eyesore” the diesel shop was, asked Walsh if he’d ever been to Nelson.

“You should visit us,” he said. “It’s a beautiful area. Nice big lake if you like to fish.”

Walsh said he didn’t have much time for fishing anymore, but maybe he would stop by one day. When Dooley returned home, he wrote Walsh a letter, thanking him for the meeting and inviting him again to visit, not expecting he would accept.

A few months later, however, Walsh phoned while en route from Vancouver to Calgary and said he was coming to Nelson. When he walked into the mayor’s office, he said: “Nice to see you, Mayor Dooley. I have to agree with you. That diesel shop doesn’t look good on you, it doesn’t look good on us, and we’re going to tear it down.”

If Dooley prided himself on anything in 15 years of local politics, it was his ability to develop relationships with people from all walks of life, from senior government officials and ambassadors (he’s seen below with Chinese consul general Liang Shugen) to ordinary folks in coffee shops.

Dooley, 67, came to Canada from Ireland in 1967 and to Nelson with wife Pat — an educator and Kaslo native — in 1976. He spent his working life in construction, latterly running his own drywalling business.

He was first elected to city council in 1999, re-elected in 2002, and became mayor in 2005, defeating incumbent Dave Elliott. He was easily re-elected in 2008 and 2011, but narrowly lost last month to councillor Deb Kozak.

Dooley and his councils had a hand in creating Touchstones Nelson, building the community complex, expanding the hospital emergency room, and upgrading the city’s infrastructure.

None of which, he quickly points out, can he take single-handed credit for. “I don’t like to brag too much because you can’t do it on your own. But you can set the tone for success.”

As staff at city hall told him this week: “You raised the bar for the municipality and the community.”

During a candid one-hour-and-45-minute interview, Dooley spoke about the many highs and few lows of being mayor, what he thinks cost him the election, and what he hopes his legacy will be.

Why did you first run for city council?

We live near the graveyard. There was a proposal to put a crematorium there, which was a good idea, but they wanted to put it by the front gate. A neighbourhood meeting was called and we said “We’re not opposed to this, but we don’t want it at the gate.” We made a presentation to council. Gary Exner was mayor at the time. That was my first dive into how the political system works, and how you can get your message across.

I was involved with youth soccer and minor hockey, and people said “You know, you should run for council. We could use new fields and a new arena.” I thought about it and talked to Pat. She said sure. She’s always been very supportive. I talked to a group of friends and said if 20 of you show up at my house and are willing to support me, I’ll put my name forward. And they did.

You came to the fore in 2001, in anticipation of the new Liberal government’s so-called core review, trying to stave off government job losses in Nelson.

I worked really hard on that. It mattered to save those jobs. They pay well. They allow people to buy a home and raise a family. Nelson was once the centre of provincial government in the interior.

The council of the day was centre-right, so it wasn’t totally opposed to some of the decisions coming out of Victoria. I thought, I don’t care, this is not going to benefit the community. It’s important that we stand up. And we did. I was just learning how local government worked. I think we put together a pretty damn good package. It had to offer solutions rather than just “Hang on, this is the wrong idea.” I have to thank [former city manager] Victor Kumar and Gary Exner. Exner helped me a lot because he was well-connected in Victoria in those days.

A lot of management people in government helped as well. They understood the impact that decision was going to have. Even they thought it needed to be revisited.

But your proposal wasn’t accepted.

Some of it was, but a lot of it wasn’t. It was the beginning of the end for a lot of good jobs in the community and for the shift in health care as well. I was really disappointed with the change of the name of the Trail hospital. I thought once they named that hospital the regional hospital — before it even had facilities to become a regional hospital — that was a nail in the coffin [of Kootenay Lake hospital]. There’s a lot to be said for a name. In that case, it was … tough.

Was your decision to run for mayor related to the civic lockout of 2004?

No, that was completely a coincidence. I was part of the group that made that decision. I wouldn’t back away from it. We had information that got us to that point, and I believe we were put in a position where we had no other option. In the end, concessions were made by everybody and we came up with a reasonable solution.

I spent my time as mayor working very hard to rebuild that trust. It took a long time. I went every month to every department and talked to the employees, thanking them for the job they do. I think I was able to do that because I came from that background myself.

So what did prompt you to run for mayor?

I didn’t get along that well with [then-mayor] Dave Elliott. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t a good mayor. He was the right guy at that time. He had a different personality than me. But for some reason I couldn’t see eye-to-eye with him. I was frustrated.

I made a few changes when I became mayor. As an example, mayors before me delegated various portfolios, in many cases based on their allegiance or alignment with the mayor’s thinking. I didn’t think that was beneficial to the councillors or local government. When I became mayor, we sat down together, and each person said what they’d like to do.

Consequently, you had people placing themselves in portfolios they were passionate about. If you look back over the nine years I was mayor, every one of those portfolios delivered the goods. Look what we’ve done for arts and culture. We’ve literally put millions of dollars into it in our community. We have Artwalk, created a cultural ambassador, hired someone to look after culture, and it will only get better. Same thing with recreation and sports.

You were one of the biggest advocates for building a new arena.

Absolutely. I was the only one at times. From the beginning, the arena and soccer fields were among my pet projects. I kept pushing it forward and keeping it on the agenda, despite the defeats and pushback.

You learn how government works and understand just because there’s a defeat, doesn’t mean you give up. You say “Okay, that didn’t work. Why not? What did people not like about this? Was it political? Social? The cost?” You break it down into little pieces. The regional participation was a big piece of that puzzle.

The other thing that became evident is it needed to be driven by the community. I realized if a community group has an idea and you can enable and help them, it will probably be successful. But if it’s your idea — even the exact same idea — and you don’t have some community buy-in, it’s tougher. Funny how that works. But maybe it’s better that way.

I learned from that arena project. Consequently, most of the good things that have happened in my term have been because of community groups. The skatepark is a prime example. When we were dabbling in it at a political level, we just couldn’t get there. When we stepped back and let the Rotary Club and skatepark society carry the ball, guess what? All we had to do was facilitate and enable. I was able to work with the province to get $400,000. Definitely that was a political side that was needed, but in the background, not the foreground. That applies to a lot of things.

You were the most outspoken critic of buying the White Building and turning it into city hall. How do you feel about it now?

That’s one thing I don’t think I did enough homework on. I got caught in the emotion of leaving [the old city hall, now Touchstones]. I thought that building was symbolic. It looks like a city hall. I couldn’t get my head around the numbers, that they would add up. And they did add up. It took a while. But it was a very good move.

I would credit Dave Elliott with staying on task on that project, because he understood it. I didn’t. I’ll admit that. I didn’t give it a fair hearing and I regret that. It’s benefitted the municipality and taxpayers. It’s been a lot of work to keep it going. I’ve had to work very hard with the provincial government with different ministers down in Victoria to keep the shared services concept alive.

I think it’s an untapped resource for local government. An example is the regional district proposal we made. That was a lost opportunity. I think it would have saved them money and better served the public. It was a clear opportunity to demonstrate that local government was really looking at efficiencies. I also regret Service Canada didn’t come in here. We made a proposal to them as well.

When you look into the future, there has to be a shift. What we’re doing with Salmo, Silverton, and Slocan right now [Nelson is providing them with financial services; Dooley is seen above with their mayors] is the tip of an iceberg. I’m passionate about that concept and hope it continues.

Is it realistic to continue having so many small municipalities around the region? I think there’s strength in numbers, but not necessarily numbers of local governments. I think it’s time for the conversation about consolidation.

Where do see that happening?

You don’t have to look further than Greater Trail. That’s been a constant conservation for as long as I can remember. In many cases nowadays, small communities can’t attract the kind of qualified staff necessary to meet the requests from senior levels of government. They’re out there trying to find the same people.

There are a couple of barriers. Getting past the emotional barrier is tough. Then there are the small community grants the province hands out. The province needs to say you’re not going to lose it, that it will continue for five or ten years. New Denver, Silverton, and Slocan could easily have one local government. But it will take bold people to have those conservations.

Any other missed opportunities?

I think we could have talked a bit more about boundary expansion. I think it’s time. Probably the most logical piece would be into the North Shore. Definitely for additional shared policing and fire services.

There needs to be more conversation around fairer allocation of resources from the region, for example, with for the youth centre. We get no regional funding for the youth centre, but all the analysis suggests there’s 50-50 use of the facility. We’ve done a lot, though. On the regional front we’ve made a lot of headway.

What advice do you have for the incoming council?

I must admit I have a bit of concern. If you look at the candidates’ platforms, including the mayor, there was a lot of talk about things that are not municipal portfolios. Housing is one. If we go into housing the way some people have suggested, we are asking for big trouble. There’s nothing the province or feds would like better than for us to take it on. Vancouver’s done it and it’s been a disaster. They haven’t even come close to meeting their targets, and they’ve cost taxpayers millions. It’s a black hole for local government.

What were some other highlights as mayor?

There are lots: Hockey Day in Canada, the BC Seniors Games, Rick Hansen’s Many in Motion tour, the Olympic torch relay. There’s an endless list of good things. We worked closely with the EcoSociety on MarketFest, which is a huge success. The Wednesday market is a huge success. We have plans to redevelop Cottonwood market. The sports council really got on its feet and they run the Civic arena for us. We just signed an agreement with youth soccer to run the indoor soccer field.

But this didn’t happen just because of me. I might have opened the door, but without some of the people we have in city hall and in public works, council members, and  volunteers in this community, none of this would have happened. We have a portfolio of pretty mundane stuff to do but the exciting stuff generally comes from the community.

They get a little bit of a lift from the municipality and some of the expertise we have. But they are driven by the community. That’s where the excitement happens.

What are the best and worst parts of being mayor?

There were no bad parts. There were tough times, for sure, but I can’t remember one thing I didn’t get over fast. The best part — and I don’t mean this with any disrespect to any other mayor or municipality — is that I was fortunate enough to represent one of the best municipalities in BC.

It was easy to be mayor of Nelson because we have everything. We have great buildings, great cultural and recreation facilities, good infrastructure, a transit system, great water, a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant. It was so easy to talk about Nelson with confidence. You could be proud. When I’d talk about it, people would ask “What’s the population?” I’d say “Just over 10,000” and they’d be taken back. “Really?” They expected 200,000.

I loved every minute of it. I loved the people I worked with. That applies to every department. And I loved hearing people say “You can’t get parking downtown.” My stock answer was “I remember the days when you could. And that wasn’t very pretty.” It’s a good problem to have.

What do you think happened in the election?

Split vote. Put my numbers and [Pat] Severyn’s together and we had more than Deb [Kozak]. A special interest group like SensibleBC had an impact. In my case, I had the toughest time of my life. [Dooley’s brother Frank died just a few weeks before the vote.] It was hard to stay motivated. I felt I mentally was not as prepared as I could have been because of what was going on.

And it frustrated me that we never talked about local government. What did we talk about? Dogs on Baker Street. Leadership style. Affordable housing. It was a poor representation of what local government is about.

I’ve chaired thousands of meetings here, in the region, in the province, on the national scene and can only think of one or two instances where people didn’t get an opportunity to say what they wanted. That became an issue that in my opinion wasn’t one. That disappointed me a bit.

I regret that I wasn’t elected. I really wanted to do another four years. I really thought I could move a few projects forward. But the chosen mayor will do fine. Deb [seen at left with Dooley and wife Pat] has done her time. She understands the workings of local government, she knows the staff, she knows the community. We worked together on pretty well everything. She’ll do a different job than I will, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have value. The only deficit will be rebuilding relationships. The people I deal with at the next level of government won’t just deal with her because she’s replacing me. She’ll have to build the same level of trust. So that will take time.

Severyn never could have been mayor. He’d been to city hall four times in all the time I’d been here. He started out telling the community he was going to run a positive campaign, but it turned out to be very negative. His parting shot was at least he got rid of me. I wish he’d said that upfront. That was his goal and he succeeded.

I had no problem running against somebody. But Pat Severyn was disrespectful. Our family has worked very hard for this community and I think we deserved respect. He was disrespectful. I didn’t expect that from him or his family.

You must have been approached to run provincially or federally many times.

Oh, yes. It’s always tempting because you want to challenge yourself to do more. But I just loved what I was doing here. I didn’t have the heart to jump ship in the middle of a term. I didn’t think that would be right. The people of Nelson said “We’re electing you for three years.” This is our expectation. They trusted me enough to give me that endorsement, and I just couldn’t do it, no matter what was offered.

It wasn’t that it didn’t appeal to me. I felt it was important as mayor of a small municipality to be non-partisan. I’ve also been approached by different organizations over the years wanting to endorse me, and I’ve turned them down. For example, even though I have a lot of respect for employee groups, I would never sign on to an endorsement by CUPE because I would have to sit [in council chambers] and have a conversation with staff and council about their benefits or wage package. I don’t believe you can do that properly if you’ve been endorsed by that group.

I also believe that if you are aligned or are seen to be aligned with the NDP or Liberals, whether you sign up for them, promote them, or bend to their wills and wishes, you’re not going to get the right deal for your municipality. It was critical for me not to be aligned with either party, so when I meet with a minister, they know they’re dealing with someone who has not given their allegiance to one or the other and can have a fair, open, honest, and trustworthy conversation.

You have to build trust. I’ve built relationships with people in Ottawa, Victoria, band regionally. Everything I did was built on trust. When I met with [former health minister] George Abbott, for example, or Canadian Pacific, they knew I wasn’t going to leave the office and take advantage of the conversation for my own political gain. I’ve had some conversations that never would have happened if they didn’t trust that I wasn’t going to divulge the details.

What are you most proud of?

I always connected to people. I think I brought the mayor’s job out onto the street, into the coffee shop, or different worksites. I was never hiding out.

I think we did some great things, not only for projects but people. We have many working for us today who we were able to move up and on. I’m proud of that — creating an environment where people could be successful and we could leverage their expertise.

Since I became mayor, there’s been a staff turnover, but the atmosphere is great. I’ve worked hard on making sure everybody was valued in this organization.

I’m proud to give council the reign to develop themselves as people and really develop their portfolios. Some might argue with this, but I think my people skills were good. And I used them to create an environment where everyone felt valued. That was important to me. Overall, that’s what I’d like to see as my legacy: I valued everyone I was in touch with.

Biggest disappointment?

Probably this election. It’s not losing so much as the disrespect I got from Pat Severyn that bothers me.

What are you going to do now?

My wife and I, within days of getting to Nelson, were doing something for the community, volunteering somewhere. We believe the community’s only as good as what you put back into it. I’ll continue to be involved. There’s so much to do. I’m a member of the Rotary Club and I’ll probably be president in the next couple of years. I’ve been asked a few times, but as mayor I wasn’t able to.

Pat and I missed out on a lot of things together. She was always very supportive. I probably wouldn’t have been mayor without her. She helped me a lot and supported me to the point where I never felt I was doing something I shouldn’t. Looking back, there were lots of days I went out the door when she probably wished I hadn’t.

I’ll keep my eyes peeled for other stuff that might come up. I’ve been approached to sit on a couple of boards already. I’ll do at least one. I’m not ready to pack it in by any means.

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