In 2011 Nelson hosted the Federation of Canadian Municipalities board of directors for several days of meetings and showcasing of Nelson’s charms.
I had the good fortune to attend a social event planned for this group. I won’t easily forget the look of surprised delight on the delegates’ faces as they found themselves being led between venues by the Moving Mosaic Samba Band. A parade of tipsy suits abandoning themselves to a bit of Kootenay magic.
I made several new friends that night, connections I still value. I did this mostly by rather gracelessly grilling anyone who would talk to me on what they liked and didn’t like about being involved municipal politics. In the throes of a bit of a mid-life career crisis, I was asking questions like this of pretty much everyone at the time.
Rather than groan and avoid me, most delegates lit up and waxed on about the potency and fulfillment of local decision-making and the need for patience with the slowness of change.
They shared their hard-won triumphs and hopes and talked with satisfaction about their jobs. Their almost complete lack of cynicism and their passion for their home cities and fellow citizens surprised me and inspired me to take the first steps towards my own adventure in city politics.
Now a fledgling member of their ranks I can say that those members of the FCM didn’t misrepresent themselves. One of New York’s most legendary mayors, Fiorello La Guardia, once famously quipped, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to fix a sewer,” to illustrate the non-partisan nature of city politics. Of course it’s not quite that simple — decisions can reflect very different values, but it is true that in general, municipal politicians and staff tend to be a refreshingly solutions-oriented group.
Now that 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, this is no trivial matter: more than ever, cities’ decisions are Canada’s decisions.
Last week I attended the annual gathering of the Association of Kootenay Boundary Local Governments, held in Nakusp, and found myself wishing I could magically convey to the residents of Nelson the earnestness I believe rests at the heart of most of the people I encountered there.
Different locations have their own challenges, and different individuals may have their own ideas about how to meet them, there may even be the odd display of petty personal politics — but I don’t doubt that each person I met in Nakusp wants the best life possible for his or her fellow residents, and is passionate about growing and maintaining a well-functioning, flourishing community.
At the AKBLG I learned about the duty to consult with local First Nations around development, and deepened my understanding of conflict of interest. I sat through an entertaining and cautionary lecture by the former mayor of Golden, Christina Benty, on the importance of investing in infrastructure and capital asset maintenance.
This left me sighing in relief that past councils in Nelson have taken infrastructure maintenance seriously. Nelson is literally miles ahead of other towns in replacing aging water and sewer pipes, and our reserve funds demonstrate good stewardship, for, as Christina said, “When it comes to infrastructure, you can have either the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret.”
One of my favourite sessions was the tour of Nakusp’s new micro-hydro facility. At $150,000 for installation and generating more than $100 of power a day, it was a good investment for the village, and a smart use of water already running downhill. Slocan is slated to begin their own micro-hydro project, and Rossland has been paying close attention to
the in-pipe hydro system Portland is installing in its water pipes.
During the election I said that I need to come from a city that takes sustainability seriously. I find the idea of producing electricity from the water that runs beneath our streets compelling.
There may not be a Democratic or Republican way to fix a water pipe, but there may be a green one, and I’m excited to find it.
Nelson city councillor Anna Purcell shares this space each Wednesday with her council colleagues.