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After years as B.C.'s most dysfunctional city government, Nanaimo starts to turn page

"We have an amazing town. And a town that feels like it's right on the cusp of major change. And it was really embarrassing that our leaders were not kind of taking the reins."

Replacing staff that left is first order of business, but so is having better manners

New Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog stands outside city hall during his first full week on the job. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Erin Hemmens is a coroner by trade, but the reason effective local governance died in Nanaimo was no secret.

"I would travel and people would give me that face, that cringe, of, 'Ooh, so you're from Nanaimo,'" said Hemmens, one of six new councillors elected in October.

"We have an amazing town. And a town that feels like it's right on the cusp of major change. And it was really embarrassing that our leaders were not kind of taking the reins."

By now, the scandals that surrounded the third largest B.C. city outside the Lower Mainland are well known to political watchers — duelling lawsuits, criminal investigations, physical altercations and scores of senior staff coming and going. 

Today, seven of Nanaimo's nine elected officials are new to the job, and the question becomes: how does Nanaimo turn the page? 

Those now running the city say it starts with good manners. 

Of the eight councillors and one mayor that were elected in Nanaimo four years ago, only Councillor Ian Thorpe (third from the left) remains. (© 2015 HA Photography nanaimo.ca)

New mayor, old face

In some ways, Leonard Krog is an odd fit for the task at hand: after 18 years as an NDP MLA in the highly partisan B.C. Legislature, he was asked to run for mayor and bring peace to a fractious council.

But Krog was respected across party lines in Victoria, and after becoming mayor with 73 per cent of the vote, he says the lack of institutionalized partisanship was one of the appeals of the job. 

"Most of us are not natural critics. We're not natural warriors, we'd rather make stuff happen. And that's the great benefit and boon of civic politics," he said. 

"It's the possibility of sitting down with people and making things happen, as opposed to the legislature where if they say it's black, we say it's white, and on it goes." 

Before Krog can "make stuff happen," people have to be hired — around a half dozen senior positions are unfilled or led on an interim basis, and many more lower positions are empty. 

"We've driven a lot of talent out of the public service," said Krog. 

"Anyone's who's lived in Nanaimo the last four years heard all the stories... what [we've] lost is the sense that we missed opportunities and that we've also driven a lot of talent out of the public service."

The old Island Highway divides the centre of Nanaimo, but the new council is hoping progress on developing the southern waterfront will help energize the area. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Revitalizing downtown

Krog and others hope that as the city government re-establishes its ability to function effectively, groups that have avoided Nanaimo in recent years might come back into the picture.

"I think everybody on council is determined to ... repolish Nanaimo's image and show that yes we are a working council that can have disagreements but we'll respect each other around the table," said Ian Thorpe.

Thorpe was the lone councillor elected four years ago who was re-elected in October. 

"Investors don't want to come to a place or deal with a city where there seems to be a level of dysfunction," he said.

To that end, there are hopes the long-hoped for fast passenger ferry to Vancouver might come to fruition. Or that the south waterfront area, once dominated by the Western Forest Products mill, can transform into a new urban area. 

But most importantly, that the good feelings currently pervading city council can continue to last. 

"I know that I have very different opinions than a couple of my colleagues on very big issues … and we just haven't had a chance to get into it," said Hemmens.

"Will I be able to change their minds? Will they change mine? I don't know.

"But respecting that we've all been elected to do this job and that we bring different perspectives, that's really important." 

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

For years, it was the most dysfunctional government in British Columbia. Can a new mayor and mostly new council turn the page? 2:41