Happy 50th RDEK, and thank you
By Ian Cobb
The Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) is 50-years-old. Not that old, really. Pretty close to my age, in fact.
I was asked by Loree (Duczek) to speak this evening to share some experiences from over the years. I jumped at the honour, believing it to be a piece-of-pee assignment. As this evening approached and my speech consisted solely of a title – ‘the RDEK’s 50th’ – the task began to take on weight. The sheer volume of memories is incredible and I also began to realize how profound my relationship with this government body has become. It is a love story, that I will get to later.
Little did I know when I attended my first RDEK board meeting in September or October 1991, at the tender age of 27/28, that the regional government was about the same age.
I was slightly in awe of the august board when I first sat at the media table in the northeast corner of the old boardroom for the first time – a seat I would occupy more than 200 times before the board moved into its spacious new digs in 2013.
I wrote a column after my first board meeting and remember likening it to a Roman Senatorial gathering, visualizing the board members in togas with olive leaf wreaths on their heads.
Life at small town newspapers tends to be quick and transient. Coming out of college or university, one lands a job at a small weekly with designs on ‘succeeding’ to a larger paper and the term employed averages about one year. I figured I would be in the Columbia Valley for a year or two but a love of this part of the country, family commitments, including the birth of my daughter, and a growing disdain for how ‘big-league’ newspapers operated kept me here and I don’t regret a second of it.
In all, I reckon I have attended more than 240 regional board meetings, not counting committee meetings or public hearings, since 1991.
For most of them I drove from Invermere to Cranbrook on Friday mornings and focused only on Columbia Valley news. In the late 1990s (I think), Thursday evening committee meetings, where all the major decisions are arrived at, were opened to the media and public and I began coming down to Cranbrook for the first (or last) Thursday of every month. The opening of those meetings to media was something that would give me one of my life’s most beautiful rewards.
City of Cranbrook director Ron Tarr was board chair when I attended my first meeting in 1991; he would be replaced by City of Kimberley mayor and local government legend Jim Ogilvie; Village of Radium Hot Springs’ then mayor, and one of the founders of that municipality, Greg Deck, replaced Jim. After several distinguished turns as chair, Deck stepped away from local politics and Area E Director Norm Walter became chair, later replaced by City of Cranbrook Mayor Scott Manjak. District of Sparwood Mayor David Wilks replaced Scott. Since David moved onto federal politics, Electoral Area C Director Rob Gay has served as board chair the past two terms. If I have forgotten anyone, I humbly apologize. I guess it’s been that long.
When I started covering the RDEK, Lee-Ann Crane was corporate officer for CAO Wayne McNamar; Lee-Ann later became CAO and Raeleen Manjak replaced her as corporate officer; in 2011 Shannon Moskal replaced Raeleen who moved on to Sparwood and then Vernon. She just recently completed her doctorate, so congratulations to her on that.
So you can see that not a lot has changed over the past 25 years. Consistency and maintaining long-term employees is a sign of a great organization and excellent leadership.
Covering the regional district helped give me a unique view of this region. Early on, I saw the symbiosis at play in this region. The Columbia Valley, Central Sub-region and Elk Valley are all intricately linked together; economically, socially and geographically.
One of the most standout aspects of this government and the board is the cohesive nature of it, which really says a great deal, especially when you consider the three sub-regions that the board represents.
I spent a year covering the Sunshine Coast Regional District and I can tell you that in that time I witnessed more examples of dysfunction and egoistic kingdom protection than I have in the near 25 years I have spent covering this board – and there have been many dozens of different colourful characters come through, from Toto Miller in Sparwood to Margrit Thierbach from Edgewater, Randy Reay from Jaffray to Jim Kennelly from Cranbrook… the names keep coming: Geri Rothel, Len Vaness, Mike Kartasheff, Roy Millar, Mick Eldstrom, Martin Cullen, Ron Halverson, Chuck Blanchard, Mark Shmigelsky, Klara Trescher, Lillian Rose, Mike Patterson, Ross Priest, Scott Manjak, Liz Schatschneider, Wayne Stetski, Tiny Shatosky, Evelyn Cutts, Cindy Corrigan, Randal Macnair, Heath Slee, Bill Wilcox, Alan Ackerman, Barry Rogers, Keith McLean, John Tilley, David Wilks, Lois Halko, Dee Conklin, Ron McRae and the late, wonderful Norm Walter.
The current longest serving board members are Electoral Area A Director Mike Sosnowski and Electoral Area C Director and board chair Rob Gay, followed by Sparwood Mayor Cal McDougall, who apparently loved his time as district mayor and RDEK board member that he is one of the very few who made a bid to return to public office after leaving for a spell. He even got re-elected, which tells you something!
District of Elkford Mayor Dean McKerracher is another long-time board member, as is Canal Flats Mayor Ute Juras, and City of Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano is working on her second term. Electoral Area E Director Jane Walter replaced her late husband Norm and remains a committed and excellent representative of her area, as are the rest of the board members who are all relatively new and finding their way through the complex channels of regional government politics.
District of Invermere Mayor Gerry Taft is the youngest board member, and my memory tells me none have been younger to serve on this board, but he has tons of experience. I remember Gerry as a precocious pre-high school kid with enough gumption to write letters to the editor. The writing was on the proverbial wall as to where Gerry was headed in life.
Area F’s Wendy Booth (board vice-chair) has been around a spell, as has Electoral Area G’s Gerry Wilkie.
From each one of these people, and I am sure I have forgotten a few, I have learned about this incredible corner of paradise. They’ve taught me about the issues, the passions, needs, shortcomings and everything else a journalist might seek to know.
I can only think of a few instances where I took editorial runs at board directors for their decisions or positions.
The most notable is a sad story.
At the end of every board meeting, the chair does a go-around of all directors, asking for any updates, last second comments or announcements.
Seated to the right of the board chair is the District of Sparwood’s representative. Following one meeting in 1995 (I think), the final comment of the meeting came to Sparwood’s legendary Toto Miller. When I think back to Toto, I think of taking notes when he spoke and getting half a sentence down before scratching it out because he’d veer off in another direction and not finish his thought. So I learned to not really pay much attention to him, as I didn’t really need to cover his words unless they pertained to the Columbia Valley.
This one meeting Toto opted to make a motion. I only started to pay attention, likely looking up from a newspaper sports section, when I gleaned his motion was something in opposition to a bookkeeping motion made by Radium’s Greg Deck. As Greg was from my bailiwick, I focused in on one of the more bizarre moments I’ve seen in the regional boardroom.
“Let me get this straight,” Deck said, “You are opposing this motion only because I made it?”
Toto, without hesitating, leaned to his microphone and declared with a smile, “Yes.”
The result of this unhistorical moment in regional government history was me penning what I thought was a humorous account of this exchange, ending with the suggestion that local media should be given the power of ejecting board directors from the meeting, via large glass suction tubes located above them, and have them land in a large pile of dung outside, whenever they strayed off into needless blah blah land. Hilarious I thought. That’ll teach Toto to think twice before speaking, I harrumphed.
A week after the column was published in The Valley Echo, I received a phone call from an Elk Valley Herald reporter who wanted my reaction to the news that Toto had been forced from his mayoral chair by his council, citing they were tired of him embarrassing them at the regional board.
Long story short, Toto was forced to the sidelines and a short time later he passed away – his once crackling, fiery spirit broken. Toto’s life was all about serving his community.
For that I ‘earned’ the title ‘Toto Slayer’ from Elk Valley media and later the rest of the inky hacks from around the Kootenays who caught up on the news.
It was a loud lesson for me about the power of the pen and the responsibility of how one uses it. I still feel bad about what happened but also know that that is the way things go in this business.
I’ve spent 25 years on the outside looking in, keeping tabs on what the directors and regional staff are doing and reporting it back to their constituents.
It’s usually been a friendly and respectful relationship. Some directors have grown on me after less than stellar first impressions; I’m looking at you Mike Sosnowski.
Some directors have become dear friends, while a few others not so much. That’s the way it goes.
I’ve never been one to pull my punches and I think with that in mind, it is remarkable that I’m standing here before you this evening. By that I mean the regional boards that I have covered have behaved in professional, cooperative manners, mostly, and have not given me the cause to whip out the poison pen. Again, it is indicative of incredible leadership, from board chairs and vice-chairs to a willingness to do the common good in as unified a manner as possible, and from the i-dotted, T-crossed professionalism of the regional staff, led these many years now by Lee-Ann Crane.
I would be remiss not to mention former head planner, later a City of Cranbrook board director Bob Whetham, whose sprawling geographical knowledge of this region helped me cobble together my own awareness of it. I think I learned a new tidbit of info each and every meeting I attended. I am still exploring this region and I still harken back to the knowledge Bob would impart, during meetings or personally to me.
That info fed into my love of his region, which I still explore and still learn about today.
And that brings me to my opening point, that the RDEK has played a pivotal and profound role in my life.
You see, the Thursday evening regional board meetings is how I fell in love with my wife Carrie; and I assume how she fell for me.
Carrie and I got to know one another when she came to Invermere to manage the college’s satellite campus. She left a few years later to move back to Cranbrook but remained with the college. In her capacity there, our friendship grew as we were both members of Columbia Valley Tourism’s volunteer board.
When I began coming to town to cover the RDEK committee meetings on Thursday evening, I would meet Carrie for a drink or three at the Heritage Inn and later the Prestige Inn following the meetings.
Included in these gatherings were the sundry out-of-town board directors who stayed overnight, and from there we established some long lasting friendships.
Long story short – the RDEK served as the conduit around which I found my happiest and truest path in life; it led me to Carrie and I thank you for that, RDEK! And tonight is our anniversary!
Please raise your glasses and join me in a toast to the finest example of regional governance in British Columbia.
Happy 50th – RDEK. Here’s to many more years of quality representation and administration.