An exclusive interview with
Waterloo Regional Chair Ken Seiling
Exchange Magazine had the opportunity to interview Waterloo Regional Chair Ken Seiling shortly after he announced that he was retiring from the position, after 33 years as Regional Chair and 40 years in total on Regional Council.
The following is a transcription of the full interview, conducted by Exchange editor Paul Knowles and publisher Jon Rohr.
Exchange: What accomplishments are you most proud of in your years as Regional Chair?
Seiling: I really inherited a tradition, and I built on that tradition. I can’t claim originality for a lot of this stuff. When I came into public life here, I had grown up in a small community, with the benefit of a larger community nearby. I grew up in a family that had an agricultural background, although we lived in town. We were very urban, but we also worked on the farm. Very interested in community activities, local history, those kinds of things, so that was the background that I brought to it.
“I inherited a tradition, and I
built on that tradition. I can’t
claim originality for
a lot of this stuff.”
So when I came into politics, in the 1970s, I really had the benefit of coming in at the tail end of the finalization of the Regional Plan. People like Howard Ziegler, and people like that who had worked their way through it. A long tradition, which I only came to appreciate later on, of land-use planning, protecting rural lands, not wanting to see a lot of rural sprawl, this all sort of came together in the 1970s, so when I came on the scene, that was the framework in which we were working.
It became obvious to me that within the context of our regional plan, was a pretty substantial piece of work. It was sort of groundbreaking in terms of planning in Ontario, because it developed hard edges of development, what they called the urban envelopes at that time. It had policies on protection of environmentally sensitive areas, trying to stop planning by assessment, which had been going on.
All those kinds of things were embedded in there, and I saw that more and more as we went along.
My first foray into some of that was when I was mayor of Woolwich, and we led the charge to get rid of retirement severances which were being problematic, which the farm community at the time didn’t appreciate, but later thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to them, the majority of them, anyway.
I can’t claim originality for that, but it was something that I built upon.
I always felt as we were expanding, as I was regional chair and watching the growth take place and Waterloo was expanding to its boundaries, and seeing the acquisition of large amounts of land by non-local developers and that sort of thing: What are we going to do in the future when we push the boundaries of the urban envelope?
That is why in 2000 I reported to council and said, “Look, we’re pushing on the existing envelopes in the plan, particularly in Waterloo. What are we going to do? We don’t want to flop out over the lines. How are we going to manage that growth?”
And so, that was the beginning of the growth management strategy that took place over the next two or three years; in 2003, we created the growth management strategy and it was premised on the idea that we weren’t going to do further expansions, in fact, in some cases, we were going to pull the lines in a little more to stop that from happening.
I was particularly proud that the province looked at what we were doing and said, ‘We think you’re doing great.’ So the Places to Grow legislation was premised on what we had done here in the Region.
Out of that whole thing then came the LRT. Because if you are going to do that kind of intensification, you need to have a tool to force it, to help intensification along. Gerry Thompson was here; that was really the tool to create the intensification, the transit system. It wasn’t an alternative to cars – I mean, it ultimately was, as the second feature of it – but originally the LRT was really the tool to create the intensification and stop the rural sprawl.
I would say that when I look back on my time here, the more long-lasting thing is that we have put in place a plan that solidified our intent not to have rural sprawl but to have intensification, to preserve farmland, to preserve the quality of life in the region.
I always feel some reluctance in doing these sorts of things because I was only the front man for a lot of good people doing a lot of good things. I was very lucky, I have had two of the best municipal CAOs in Ontario in Gerry Thompson and Mike Murray, beside me all the way. Commissioners, and a lot of staff who were very good, very creative. I was really the front man in front of those people who were doing good work.
I also had a number of really strong, committed councillors. Particularly after we separated the councils and had separated councillors. We had people like Jim Wideman, Tom Galloway, Sean Strickland, people like that who became part of it. This wasn’t me doing it, it was them. I always felt that if I had the majority of the team on side, we could do these sorts of things. That’s what I spent my time doing, making sure people were on side, moving together and moving along. So I’m really reluctant to take a lot of credit for a lot of this stuff. It’s really a team effort, and I have to say, it was the community open to this sort of thing.
“We have put in place a plan that solidified our intent not to have rural sprawl but to have intensification, to preserve farmland, to preserve the quality of life in the region.”
People in this region, by and large, although they may attach to their area municipality or their specific village, still have a sense of what the larger community is, and what the implications of doing things are, on a region-wide basis. I don’t think it’s like the larger GTA communities, where it’s very focused on the given community. I think that whole idea of community support of what we’re doing is very strong here. It’s very obvious, for example when we were fighting the developers at the Ontario Municipal Board over the Plan – the amount of public support that came out for Regional Council taking on that battle and trying to defend what we were doing. They just didn’t sit on their hands, there was lots of public support.
I was told by people from the Ontario government that they had never seen that kind of support come out of a community.
I guess it’s the right time, right place, right people, all together, that have made this work. I guess that’s one of the central things of my time here – that we took a good plan that was already in place and strengthened it, made it more long term, and create the tools, as difficult as that was, to make it work.
I think the other thing we have done well over the years – I always tried to take the position that things can’t be top down, and there’s a lot of strength in the community. We are particularly blessed with a lot of grass roots strength in the community. And so I think what we tried to do over the years is facilitate grass roots people doing things, working with partnerships or funding or general encouragement, so you got to build up that community strength out there. I think we’ve been reasonably successful in doing that.
Times are getting tougher as some of the sources of funding in the community are getting tighter and tighter. But I think that’s one of the strengths of this community is that we can still do those sorts of things.
On the social services side, we have maintained that sense of stewardship that exists in this community. It’s evident in land use planning – I attribute that to the Mennonite tradition in the community. And in social services – the whole decision over discretionary benefits for example, with the loss of provincial funding, maintain discretionary benefits reflects a community that really cares. I didn’t hear any outcry or backlash, and council was very supportive of doing it.
I think our approach to social housing is a good reflection of that. So when housing was downloaded by the province in 2000, we were given the mandate for social housing, the file was turned over to us and at that time, the province billed us for two or three years before they turned the function over to us. For two or three years they actually decreased the cost.
So we had millions of dollars that we could have ploughed back into reducing taxes when the final transfer took place. This council said, “We’ve got that tax base that’s already there. Instead of just ploughing it back or using it for other things, let’s earmark it for housing, since that’s our role.” So we created a fund which allowed us to develop our approach to housing here, affordable housing, which was really to seek partners in the community. So our approach to supportive housing, affordable housing, has been, “Tell us what you need to do it. We’ll take some federal money, we’ll take some provincial money, we’ll take some of our money. You raise some money, you find the land, you manage the project.”
I think other than Toronto, nobody has built more than we have since that transfer took place. Is it enough? No, never enough. But at least it’s got community involvement, community support. When you have a housing event, you see all the community groups coming out, they’re supportive of doing that. I think it’s the best use of money.
You could take all the money and build a hundred units and the money would be all gone. Our program of leveraging the money and working with community groups has been most productive. I’m pretty proud of that. I think we’ve been very successful. There is also the effect of engaging the community, as participants in it. Community participants are supportive of affordable housing. That’s another area that has been very good for us.
We help where we can and we try to leverage the money.
On economic development, we’ve come around, a few years ago, to overcome the parochialism in our community to the best of our ability.
I think the most recent iteration is even stronger. Pulling the economic development work together within the corporation is the best we can do given the current governance structure that we have. I think it has been quite successful and there has really been a shift over the last few years of great cooperation. I think the area municipalities recognize the need to have a better unified face out there in the community. We’re seeing the results of that in better work out there.
That’s been a success in the last few years. We just renewed the agreement with the Economic Development Corporation for another term, and I think there is a great deal of good work going on there, and we’ve been able to attract people like Tony LaMantia, and John Jung before him. They work hard.
Exchange: Are any of your accomplishments at risk after you leave?
Seiling: I am confident that the land use plan will remain strong. That can change with the council. I think it’s rather funny that this whole push to have us in the Green Belt that’s been going on for the last few months. We started pulling back, and saying, “Just a minute, we have stronger protection than the Green Belt has.” We don’t want to voluntarily go into anything that’s going to lessen what we’ve got. Until the government comes along and says they’ll give us the highest level of protection, we’re not interested. The push-back on that was, ‘There is stronger protection in provincial legislation than there is in a local plan.’ I don’t think so. If the government is going to amend legislation, you get five minutes with a committee in Toronto, and that’s your sum input into the whole thing. Here, it has to go through a political process, a very public process, public participation. It’s going to be harder if somebody wants to change the plan. The public can engage and be part of it.
Then Doug Ford does his interview with the developers, saying I’m going to open up the Green Belt legislation, which he retracted in a day or two, but it proved my point – there’s more risk provincially than there is locally.
So as long as we have good people who understand the process here, I have confidence that will work. I think we have strong staff here. And in the coming elections, I’m guessing there will be a significant portion of council returned, who philosophically are attuned there.
At the end of the day, I have to say that whether I stayed another term, or whatever the case may be, I can’t guarantee what comes after me – no politician can. I look back at my own time, at people like Jack Young and Howard Ziegler and Bill Thompson, all the kinds of things they did that stuck with some of us over a period of time, and I’m hoping that whole philosophy will be there. And I think we have a population that’s more attuned to it here. I think we’re very different than being in the GTA, where ‘Government is there, and we’re here’, and they’re only interested in ‘What time the kids have swimming lessons, and is there hockey time for our kids?’ and that’s about it. I am guessing there is a lot more of that down there than there is here. Here there is more broader interest in issues.
So I have confidence in the people of the region, that they will stand up for the things that are important to them.
Exchange: What have ben your disappointments?
Seiling: I would have liked to see the national housing policy play itself out, increased funding for housing. I think the expansion of daycare, quality daycare is very important. Those were things not within our control, but I saw some light on the horizon within federal policies and the current provincial policy, whether it will be the same a while from now…
I watched when the federal government had a housing policy and child-care policy, and a new government got elected and wiped them out within the first few months, and lot of the initiatives that are underway right now, provincially… I think there is the potential for wiping out a lot of those things… in health care, education and transfer partners.
I think there’s a lot of potential for threat to municipalities. I’ll be around for a few months of that.
I think that I was active enough in Toronto that I was able to have some say in what was going on, and had contacts and that sort of thing, and assuming my successor will try to build up the same kind of contacts...
I think quite frankly I leave the Region feeling very good about where it’s at. Is there more we could be doing on housing, child care? Yes. Would I like to see more passenger flights out of the airport? Yes. But it’s a very fluid situation out there with all airports. We would like to see more activity out there. People get angry with government when things don’t go the right way, but they also say ‘Run it like a business,’ and businesses take risks. Sometimes they work out the way you want, sometimes they take longer to come out.
Exchange: What have you enjoyed the most?
Seiling: I have enjoyed being out with people. Over the years you get to know a lot of people and a lot of organizations, and I think that my validation is coming from being out with people who encourage you to do things, appreciate you being there, like what’s going on, and don’t mind telling you from time to time that they don’t like what’s going on. You get a lot of your validation from being out in the community, and that’s one of the reasons I go to so many things. To get a sense of where people are at.
So I would have to say the public contacts have been the best part of the job for me.
I’ve had good councils, great councils to work with. I’ve had issues from time to time with the odd one or two or three, but by and large they’ve really worked together.
Exchange: What have you enjoyed the least?
Seiling: Opening up my email in the morning to see what crisis I am going to face today. I drag my feet opening up the email. Today, I didn’t open my email until I got here. Sometimes I open it when I get up in the morning.
Friday afternoon, about 3 o’clock, normally something is going to happen.
One thing I don’t like about the job is when people have problems, and you can’t help them. Sometimes you can move people on to other things and look for solutions. Sometimes you can help them, but sometimes people just have some issues there is no answer for. Like, somebody calls and says “I need to get an affordable housing unit, here’s my situation – it’s bad – and I deserve to jump the line,” and I say, “If we jump the line for you, then somebody else in an equally bad situation gets pushed back further.”
Quite often there are times when you see a situation that’s not very good, but you’re incapable of dealing with it, providing something to them.
But sometimes people just get angry and walk away from you. Sometimes it’s nice when people just say, “Well, at least you listened to me.”
That’s the most frustrating thing, when you’d like to be able to help somebody and there’s absolutely no way of helping them.
Exchange: Why are you leaving now?
Seiling: I’m not sure why I am leaving at this point, totally. Just weighing things back and forth. I’m going to be 71 in two weeks. You sort of have this discussion with yourself… how long is too long? It is always more difficult. I hear some people say, “Get out of here because you’ve been here too long.” I hear others say, “Stay, because it’s a steadying force.”
I just decided that the time had come. Thirty-three years. There were at least one or two people I felt confident in to run and do a good job. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t feel there was potential for someone to do it and do it well.
My guess is there won’t be a huge turnover on council. I suspect this time there’s the potential for a few leaving. I think we’ve had a good council, I think council next term will probably be a fairly good, strong council.
I just waivered back and forth, and then decided that forty years in total, here, was probably enough. My good friends in the field always say it’s better to leave at the top of your game.
Exchange: You were first elected as Regional Chair by an internal vote of Regional Council, and then it changed to an election at large by the voters of the entire Region. How did you manage to win under both, very different, systems?
Seiling: To be quite honest, I felt in a way that I had a bit of a legs-up because I had profile, from being in the office. Which certainly gave me a bit of an advantage, right from the start. But it depended on who wanted to run against me. For whatever reason, no other stronger candidates came out. That didn’t happen.
Exchange: The Region includes five federal ridings and five provincial ridings. How big is the job, as Regional Chair?
Seiling: I think it is a bigger job than most people imagine. Especially after the turn of the century, when we had a change of roles. We got transit, we got waste management, the province downloaded housing... the management of child care, provincial assessment, roads, so our share of the tax levy went from 25% to 50%, and our roles changes quite substantially. I think the juxtaposition of the region to the area municipalities changed at that time, too.
At the regional level, governance – although there is a lot of detail stuff – tends to be more are the policy, philosophical level, particularly in health and social services. You’re not dealing with zone changes and property compliance standards, all those sorts of things that the local councillors deal with.
So the agendas tend to be more concise and more policy oriented, more big-plan oriented. So at a council level, you deal with a fairly high level. The role of the chair, in some case is in the policy area of development, but more often than not, the role of the chair in a two-tier system is to help drive the vehicle, balancing the interests of the region with the area municipalities, then balancing the interests of the region with the province – to a lesser degree with federal but certainly with the province.
There is an awful lot of work done between the province and the region, which isn’t always seen. I spend a fair bit of time on government relations with Toronto.
It’s a big budget. With police, we’re over 4,000 employees. A big operation. But I think it’s manageable. One of the things with being a large government is, we can afford and we attract very professional staff. We have very high quality, professional staff here; we can pay the going rate for staff, this region is considered to be a good place to work, a very stable place, so we hang on to staff here, people want to work here.
It’s an organization that’s very responsive, and yet it’s very rooted, because all of the staff people, they’re all within the community, they know what’s going on, they have a sense of it. And the council’s pretty attuned to local issues.
At the same time, one of the best things that ever happened was getting rid of the double councillors who sat at both levels. Because this body has to make decisions for the good of the whole, not based on parochial concerns.
We still have the mayors [serving at both levels], and from time to time we see a bit of parochialism, but by and large not much. I’ve been very fortunate here, that contrary to some other areas of the province, we haven’t seen a lot of parochialism among the mayors.
One of the challenges going forward is that if heads of council are going to sit at regional council, [they need to] maintain that broad view and that broad vision instead of being very parochial in our views.
But I’ve been very lucky and I’ve had some good mayors.
Exchange: Are there things that remain to be done?
Seiling: No, I think things are pretty much in place. We’re in a good place, right now.
We obviously have a problem with drugs and opioids, which we share with everybody across the country, and we need to deal with that over the next few months.
I won’t be in office for the opening day of the ION, which is a little bit like Moses – 40 years in the wilderness, but I can’t cross into the promised land. It is a disappointment, but the system is for the good of the community, not for me. I’m just happy to see it up and running and I’ve told them I hope they invite me, because it should open a week or two after the new term begins.
I think we’re in a good place.
Exchange: Have you seen a change in the kind of people who will run for office?
Seiling: I would say at the municipal level, yes there has been a change over the years. When I first became involved in politics, we’d have business people, lawyers, professional people would be involved. I don’t see that very much any more; whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. We see fewer professional people and more of a broader cross-section, so perhaps that’s good. I don’t see the professional people like we used to see at one time who used to dominate the councils. We have a broader cross-section of people, and perhaps that’s all for the good.
I think we’re in a period when there’s more coverage. Everything you do is under the microscope. Social media is making it even more difficult. I don’t engage in social media. I tweet other people’s events, but I don’t tweet myself. From time to time I look at people’s Facebook postings and I think public life is becoming much more vicious, and people don’t want to expose themselves to that, I don’t think.
I think we’re entering into a new era of politics. One of the questions I raised to myself is, “I don’t think I can keep up with the technology necessary to be a politician these days! Do I want to sit on Twitter and self-promote on Twitter or Facebook?” I realize that to survive in this world, maybe I have to change my approach – and that’s not me.
I think there are new challenges. Look at campaigning – I did use Twitter in the campaign last time because somebody came on board and said you have to have a Twitter account, and my daughter said, “You have to have a Facebook page for the campaign,” so she created a Facebook page for me.
But to run a modern campaign, you have to be on top of that stuff all the time, and I think the ability of people to do things, not to your face, is problematic. I can’t change it, that’s the way things are going.
Right now, I have a growing concern that people by and large accept stuff that should never be accepted. They hear the gossip, they share the gossip. Donald Trump can lie 3,000 times in a year and it doesn’t budge 40% of the American population. I look at the provincial election campaign, at the things that are said in that mode, and they’re not accurate, but people are accepting them.
I think people staying in politics and moving forward have to cope with a lot more challenges, how to get the message out to people. That’s why I think that personal appearances and personal involvement are so important, especially on the municipal side. If all you’re getting is social media and that sort of thing, then you’re getting a perception, but if you see the person, you know them differently. I think for the person who holds this job, getting out is critically important, because they have to be seen by the community. It’s a tough job. I do 400 or 500 events a year. I get around to lots of stuff. People see you as a person.
The mayors have some sort of status, because they are mayors. I often said they should have called it the Regional Mayor instead of the Regional Chair, and people would have changed their perception of the office.
Exchange: What advice would you offer to your successor:
Seiling: Be highly visible in the community. Be out there. I have always told people who get into this game, know on the first day what your principals are. There are all sorts of grey areas where you can compromise, but if you know what your solid principals are then you are in good shape. You run by them. So if people challenge you to do things, you stand by them.
Precedents do matter. If you bend to do a one-off for somebody, everyone else is going to expect a one-off. So you either move so you can treat everybody equally, or you hold your ground and say “I can’t do it if I can’t do it for everybody.” And I’ve stuck by that through the years, much to the unhappiness of some friends.
In this office, precedents are extremely important when you’re weighing things with seven different municipalities. If you have those sorts of guidelines, it doesn’t necessarily make the job easier, but at least you can live with yourself at the end of the day.
The other side of it is, people will quite often respect you. If you say, I can’t do this to help you, because if I do, I have to do it for 10 others. Most people understand that.
If they discover you have done it, your credibility goes down the tubes and that’s why they distrust politicians who do that sort of thing.
I think you have to be pretty up front.
Exchange: You seem to have made surprisingly few enemies, considering you have been in politics for four decades.
Seiling: I always used to tell people, you have to cross the bridge twice, so don’t burn it the first time you cross it. Because even if you have differences with people, you don’t need to carry them on.