The incrementalist

By Aaren Madden, March 2012

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard weighs the pros and cons of the “big bang” approach to municipal politics.

Frank Leonard is an incrementalist. The mayor of Saanich since 1996 and councillor for ten years previous illustrates what that means by way of reminiscence. “I was appointed chairman of the environment committee of the CRD in 1988. A day later, the recycling depot burned down. I was off to a great start,” he chuckles. At first, volunteers were handing out white pails. “Incrementally,” he says, “we added recycling programs, including the blue box.” 

Soon he was attending conferences, explaining to others how they had succeeded in a mere five years. Step one? “Get it as a line item in the budget, even if it’s small. Then you grow it. I find, in government and bureaucracy, I can make more progress incrementally than by saying ‘I need this great big spending project all right now.’ It’s affordable. You have more win-wins, as opposed to winners and losers,” he reasons. 

It’s a philosophy borne from a combined interest in business and politics reaching back to childhood: he remembers debating the Vietnam War in cub scouts and, at the tender age of six, being fascinated by the minority Pearson government repeatedly falling to Diefenbaker’s challenges. He entered the family business, a Kal Tire dealership, while studying history at UVic part time. Now he’s on faculty at UVic as a business instructor. His family moved to the region in 1969, when he was 15 years old. In winters back then, he skated on Panama Flats, a green patch that he’s proud to have recently brought into the extensive stock of agricultural and park land under the municipality’s purview. 

Things like that make Leonard’s rough days worthwhile. For affirmation, he sometimes has coffee amid the bustle of families at Saanich Commonwealth Place, or drives past the Mount View Heights building site. Fifteen years in the making thus far, the vast project will combine housing and care for seniors, those with low incomes, and supportive housing for the homeless. A state-of-the-art safety building and fire dispatch now providing service to seven additional municipalities is another recent win for Saanich.

In many ways, the municipality (which is five times the size of Victoria and has 30,000 more residents) is sitting pretty—a side effect of which is frequent calls for amalgamation. “If the provincial government wants to expropriate Saanich and make it part of Victoria, that’s their decision,” he says with nonchalance tinted by certainty that it isn’t likely to happen: “I haven’t met a provincial government who wants to do that,” he says. Victoria often argues it takes on a disproportionate share of burdens on behalf of the region ranging from infrastructure to homelessness, but Leonard is having none of it. “My answer always is, to whomever the mayor of Victoria is, deal with your circumstances. We are dealing with ours.” 

Leonard always has. Though his mentor Frank Carson cautioned it would be bad for business, Leonard was elected to the CRD board in 1987 and chaired it from 1990 to ’95. Carson was right. There was a group in the early ’90s advocating for LRT. Leonard regales, “Since I sold tires, [they] figured I was biased against LRT, so they set up couches on Herald Street [near the dealership] and had a sit-in one day.” Not good for business.

Now Leonard mentors local business owners new to municipal politics on how to draw the line between making a living and serving constituents. Ultimately, he chose to devote himself to public service. “I became a full-time mayor two days after we took the sign down on the family business,” he recalls. 

LRT, sewage treatment and traffic were issues that loomed large back in the day, Leonard remembers. (The more things change…) In his tenure, he has seen the far-reaching consequences of decisions in all of those areas.

Take McKenzie Road, for instance. On second thought, don’t—you’ll be stuck in traffic for ages. Leonard explains how McKenzie Road became the traffic bane of the region, and why that’s not likely to change any time soon. “History is an interpretation of past events,” he prefaces, “and my interpretation was that an interchange was planned for McKenzie and Admirals at the time of the Island Highway upgrading, but it would have involved taking land from the southeast corner of Cuthbert Holmes Park.” Andrew Petter, the cabinet minister at the time, did not want to do that, so Helmcken and Millstream were upgraded instead. “I remember vividly Moe [Sihota] and Rick [Kasper, MLAs] on bulldozers, turning sod for their two interchanges and saying, ‘it should have been in Saanich,’” says Leonard. 

It became a federal election issue, but, he explains, “I’m an old-fashioned guy and I figure the mayor is supposed to stick to local issues and not get involved in federal politics. Unfortunately, people took it to mean we weren’t in favour of an interchange at McKenzie and Admirals. We’d welcome it,” he assures. 

So why not press for it? It has since become contentious, because rather than building capacity for cars, current political winds blow toward an environmentally-motivated focus on public transit. Philosophically, that makes sense to Leonard, but in practice, a problem still needs fixing. 

While all of those single-occupant vehicles idle in traffic, there is growing advocacy for a near-billion-dollar LRT project. “The plan that’s on the table now is quite a big bang,” Leonard observes. “Most people would refer to their tax bill as a big bang if [the LRT plan] happens all at once,” he adds. “But I am a pragmatist; I am an incrementalist,” he reiterates. 

 “If you are a purist, you find it very frustrating and inadequate,” he concedes. “I get accused of not having vision.” It comes down to whether you believe something is better than nothing, he explains. In the case of McKenzie, that something could have been a simple redesign. In the case of LRT, it could be gradual growth combining the existing E & N line with busways that could, in future, give way to train lines. It needn’t be a “big bang.” “We can afford this right now, and it will help alleviate some of the problems, and it doesn’t eliminate the ultimate goal of LRT,” he reasons.

In an effort to resolve some of these issues, he is “approaching getting local control of transportation the same way.” It would be more democratic for the communities served by transit to vote on routes and rates as opposed to the seven commission members (of which he is one) who do now. Though it’s a common goal right now, the path and the end result look different to many. “We have to be very careful we don’t end up with something like [Vancouver’s TransLink], which is a private board making decisions about transportation,” he warns. His suggestion to Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Blair Lekstrom is “simply draw a line through Victoria Region Transit Commission, insert Capital Regional District, and we’ve got the first step.” 

Sometimes, with some issues, Leonard admits, a big bang approach might be valid. When he chaired the CRD, the east coast interceptor pipe was put in to prevent sewage pollution on beaches. Leonard recalls Denise Savoie, a “mere” citizen at the time, taking the CRD to court to try and stop it. “If it was built,” he explains of her view, “it would only delay what was really needed, which was sewage treatment. She might have been right,” he concludes. In this case, to put it too simply, a small fix only prolonged the inevitable. 

Still, for Leonard, the smaller steps generally make the most sense. Similar lessons have run parallel in his personal life. He has realized in retrospect that when his children Daniel (32) and Michelle (29) were kids, he spent far too much time focused on business and civic duties. Now, in addition to being a proud grandfather, he and his wife, former Saanich councillor Jackie Ngai, have a two-year-old son, Atticus. This gift of a second chance is reflected in Leonard’s perspective on home and work, and his closing advice to me is, “Don’t put off good days for future years. You might not get them. Just make sure this is a good day.” 

Aaren Madden is taking Mayor Leonard’s advice to heart by penciling more tea parties and lego building sessions into her schedule.