Talking to Mayor Phil Kent

We interviewed Mayor Phil Kent recently. Here is the transcript.

You grew up in Duncan. Can you tell me a bit about your memories of Duncan as a kid?

We lived in a lot of different places but Duncan predominantly. My mother had a business here. She started in 1966 and we were right in the city of Duncan, and just outside of the city in North Cowichan and other areas. They were great memories. I mean this was a great place to grow up.  Lots of good friends, lots of schoolmates, good experiences, school, and participating in lots of activities around the community, team sports or other things.

What’s your strongest memory if you have one of growing up here?

Actually interestingly enough the strongest memory was the one point where I actually left the city for a trip out to the West Coast Trail for Cub Scouts here. It was the first time separation from my mother who was a single mom and my twin brother and had quite an adventure for nine days on the West Coast Trail. It was a real epiphany for me. I think my mom used the term you left eleven and came back forty.

Did you ever think in those years that you might be mayor of Duncan?

No I don’t think that, I think certainly some idea I was not a typical child– I mean I did, I rode bikes, did the sports and all those things but I was always thinking about other things and I had a lot of exposure to adults in my life as well and so I always thought about what could be, how do these things work, and how could things be different. I didn’t see myself in politics at all, that wasn’t the goal.

How have things changed in your view from your childhood to now in Duncan?

I think the world is changed in tremendous ways. We haven’t obviously solved all the issues, and the more people we have the more issues come to light and so I think it’s challenging when we look at things–I think life was simpler, at least it seemed so for me at the time and I think as you mature and you start to integrate more into the world–you bring children up and you provide for yourself and things like that, the issues and the challenges come more to the fore and I think that’s a typical thing for most people. Your sense of the world expands as your experiences expand.

You spent a few years as a councillor before becoming the Mayor. What got you into politics to start with?

I was involved with the business community obviously. I started working for the family business and took over for my mother in the very early 80s. As I got involved with the business community we started to see some of the things that we might want to try to do to make things better for us to improve the environment for business. Through that work it was almost like a natural step. There had been good management of the city in many ways for many years but we thought there needed to be new perspective and so that was sort of the inkling.  I had a young teenager at home, so I had to make a real strong decision. So it was just one of those points where I thought, yes this is the time I can do that.

What drove you to become the Mayor or seek the Mayor chair?

It’s funny because that’s not normally my thing. I always used to joke that  I always liked to be the vice president, to be doing the hard work on the ground. I think it was a decision that I felt we needed. It was time for us to take some steps in improving our systems, modernising how we were approaching things, having more consultation with the community, trying to really specifically address some of the issues that were coming. It was not an easy decision to make the step up to that leadership role but when I made it I really got out there and made sure that I talked to as many people as I could about what their aspirations were for the community.

We currently have in British Columbia, in Duncan, a week mayoral system where the mayor is the first among equals. What challenges do you see in that ?

That’s the system right across Canada. We certainly have some legislative and statutory obligations to bring a policy to Council and to ensure that we have good governance but we are colleagues and so decisions have to be made with other people.  I think that’s a real benefit because obviously decisions are made better when people are consulted. So I think you can get a lot accomplished but it does mean you have to try to work with people. That doesn’t mean you won’t have disagreements. We do. All councils do and they should, I mean I think that’s how you bring the best perspective to the table. When we make those decisions we stick with them, and then we move on to the next, and the issues where people disagree haven’t influenced the next decision.

Duncan is, in area at least, the smallest city in Canada at just over 2 km² and that at incorporation it had something like 4900 people and it still does today. Do you see that ever changing or do you see Duncan as this size?

It’s interesting when you look at the size, that’s the same actual land size as the city of London. And so, what’s natural is that the areas around the city have built up. We have a natural urban containment boundary and it’s not that there hasn’t been development and growth, there has been a tremendous amount of growth, but that growth has come to serve the larger areas. The city, although it’s physically small, has a tremendous amount of commercial assessment, our neighbours directly next to us have similar things. The city itself, the political boundaries will always be a boundary and we have to then work and collaborate with the people in our neighbouring communities and neighbouring municipalities. We of course represent ourselves, we represent our citizens but we think quite strongly that collaboration is important and the representation boundary is something that can change when people feel that that’s the right change to make. 

So Duncan is arguably the 

brand of the Cowichan Valley in that people come from Victoria or Nanaimo and they say I’m going to Duncan. Duncan being small in the context of the valley, both in the area and residents, do you feel that Duncan and its leadership has a special role to exemplify the best of the Valley and be the leader in the valley in terms of the brand?

We certainly want to have some influence and I think we do. That’s not very different  from places like Victoria where there is a city core and that has both benefits overall for the region from an economic standpoint. If you look at the city specifically we might have just under 5000 residents but during the daytime our population grows substantially from people who come to do commerce, and  coming to do their work. We do our best to collaborate and support the infrastructure necessary for that commerce to take place but also to collaborate with our neighbouring communities to ensure that our economic and cultural and social benefits are there. 

In your political life in Duncan what’s been your favourite initiative that you’ve worked on?

There’s been quite a few. It’s kind of tough because there are quite different categories, but one was the collaboration on Cowichan Place with the District of North Cowichan, the School District, and the CVRD, Cowichan Tribes, the re-establishing of a new campus for the University, Vancouver Island University, and the planning process around that is now ultimately ended in the development of the local area plan for the University Village. That partnership and collaboration was not easy for the time but we did it with very little pushback from the community because we made sure that we really had good dialogue with everybody, every stakeholder that was involved so that their needs were met. That was a significant goal.  

Any disappointments? 

No, I don’t think of things in that way. I think about the progress of what we do and I understand some things take a long time. I suppose if you call that a disappointment, it might be some of that, that some of the initiatives that we’d like to do take a long time. I’m pretty patient, but I’ve also learned that good things do take some time and they’re not always a quick answer to issues and I don’t caught up in the fact that it’s taking a while we just have to keep working at it and bring people along and once people are with you then the gates open and you succeed at something.

It sounds like you really like being the Mayor—it’s a great job for you to do. 

I enjoy it because of the collaboration. I enjoy it because we’re trying to get people together to make the community better. I think about it as an opportunity to bring people together. 

In small communities staff are very visible and often that can draw comments from the public or complaints about people driving vehicles and different things like that. How do you deal with those kinds of complaints?

We’re just really responsive. Nothing is ever perfect, you’re always going to have people who aren’t satisfied with one thing or another. We try to address it directly, we try to give a context to people as to why something is the way it is. Most people, as long as they feel like they’re heard and they get a response, they’re generally satisfied. 

One of your predecessors was the mayor for I think something like twenty years. Do you have any thoughts of beating that record?

My intent was not to be very long term and I guess it does kind of gobble you up. I don’t think I want to go that long. It’s challenging. 

It sounds like your approach is highly cooperative and you see the community as a giant family. Would that be a fair comment?

Yeah, I think so. And you know we also have to work on much larger regional issues. One thing that I’ve come to realize is that we need to connect the dots better. It can be quite easy to get centered in our view of ourselves but we are connected right across this region. I have a couple of other roles that have come as a result of being mayor. I chair Island Coast Economic Trust, which was a fund that was provided to the region for trying to stimulate economic development and be a catalyst for economic diversification in the whole region for the whole island, and from that I think I’ve gained much more respect about how all the dots are connected, and we don’t always have an appreciation in our local communities for just how interdependent we are, whether it comes to transportation, or goods and services, manufacturing, our resource industries, small businesses, all of these things. 

Now you’re involved in a youth charity as well outside of being mayor.

No, not directly. I chair the Success by Six, which focuses on the zero to six, the early development program trying to raise awareness of the importance of just how we develop children, the support that families need with their children, and the support that communities and businesses can actually lend to making sure that we have healthy children, which really ensures a healthy community. 

Every election amalgamation comes up, where we combine disparate areas of the Cowichan Valley, and then it seems to go away between elections. Where are we at now?

In the last election we did actually have a plebiscite question, as did the district of North Cowichan, and our council was quite supportive of the fact that we want our citizens and our community to have that say. We weren’t able to get agreement about the question, so we did ask the simple question with respect to studying the issue of amalgamation and would you also support looking at a  reorganization of the political and community boundaries. Both those questions were supported by a majority of Duncan residents. North Cowichan felt they just were interested in a simple amalgamation with the City of Duncan, and they didn’t really want to explore anything else.  We’ve agreed to the funding in our budgets at this point and we’ll hammer out the details and just how that process will unfold.

You’ve got three years left in this term, any particular things that you’re hoping that Council will deal with in those three years, or just sort of business as usual?

We’ve had a fairly ambitious capital works program going on, part of this is something that we were able to fund through what we call our Police Bridging Capital Fund. That way, when we’re faced with the cost of policing much of the most important priority capital works at least will be undertaken and we won’t be looking at a large tax increase at that time. Those are those fundamentals and I think that’s what people expect us to do, and try to do it well, and to think into the future as to what conditions we might face. We’re looking to try to streamline our systems, to try to provide more services online, to give more and better business-friendly, and overall citizen-friendly approach to being able to manage their affairs and manage their business.

If you had to describe the character of Duncan in a single sentence, how would you characterize it?

Duncan is uniquely fantastic; it’s culturally diverse, Duncan is not contrived, it’s natural, it’s organic, and the people and the vibrancy here is directly dependent on the people who are in it. Our buildings are unique, our businesses are unique, and some of them I would venture to say the best of their class anywhere and it’s bohemian, it’s artistic, and people like to express themselves and I think that that’s really one of the greatest benefits of it. When we look at the farm market we have here on Saturdays is fantastically successful and talked about all over the area. Most people say, I just love it here, this is just great.

So when you’re one of those 75-year-olds and you’re sitting in a coffee shop and you overhear a younger couple talking about, Yeah, I remember back when Phil Kent was the mayor, what would you like them to say about Phil Kent the Mayor?

That’s a tough question. I’d like them to feel that under our council they were able to fulfill their dreams and their needs.