Exit interview: Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck
Mark Heyck will leave his role as mayor of Yellowknife in October after six years in office.
During that time, the City has confronted issues ranging from workplace harassment allegations and water pipe replacement to downtown development and helping the community’s homeless.
In his final six months as mayor – having announced in February he would not seek re-election – Heyck increasingly chose to hand the chair to his deputy mayor, Adrian Bell, so as to give himself a vote and voice on a range of issues.
While supporters praise Yellowknife’s approach to tackling homelessness and related social issues over the past six years, critics suggest the city’s development – and its downtown vision – have stalled on the mayor’s watch, while the culture at City Hall has been questioned.
Heyck joined Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams last week to evaluate those six years and look ahead to his new position, running territorial clean energy and energy efficiency non-profit the Arctic Energy Alliance.
Ollie Williams: How do you feel to be leaving office?
Mark Heyck: It’s an interesting feeling. You do a job for a long time and you become attached to certain parts of it. It’s been fun both on council and as mayor but I’ve been appointed the executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, so the next couple of months is going to be a lot of running the two-block span between City Hall and the alliance’s building. I’m very excited for that opportunity as well, so there are mixed emotions, as always with these kinds of things.
Let’s talk about the new job first. What made you want that job?
When I saw it advertised several months ago, it certainly piqued my interest. As a councillor and as mayor, I’ve been a big champion for issues around climate change, clean energy, energy efficiency. My very first term on council, I pushed for the creation of the community energy planning committee and went on to chair it for eight years. I worked on a lot of those kinds of issues during the green municipal fund council that’s a north-of-$700M fund that makes low-interest loans to municipalities for sustainability projects, I was on the board of directors there. Energy issues, climate change, those are near and dear to my heart. When I saw the position advertised I thought it was something I could be very, very interested in, post-politics.
What do you most hope to achieve in that job?
There are a number of things. It’s a very exciting time to be in that field. The alliance has a large regional presence. It’s easy enough for people in the bigger centres to access programs, services, and resources, but the ability to get out into communities and reach places where the costs are astronomically high for energy – that’s going to be really valuable. The GNWT recently came out with its 2030 climate action plan, the federal government has established its framework, so there are a lot of conversations happening about how those plans and strategies are going to manifest themselves on the ground. Arctic Energy Alliance is the kind of organization that will hopefully be able to contribute to whatever the objectives of those plans are.
I do have to ask: the summer was, to an extent, occupied by energy-driven issues before council. You were, by your standards, swashbuckling – passing the chair, rolling your sleeves up, ‘let’s have a vote and a say on this.’ When did you apply for this job and how did you manage the perception of a conflict?
The application process started in the spring. I’ve been passionate advocate for these kinds of issues from my very first term on council. I don’t see any conflict in the position that I took as an elected official, versus what I’ll be doing going forward at Arctic Energy Alliance. There’s no benefit to the organization from those discussion that council had around our building bylaw. So frankly I think it’s a non-issue.
And speaking of you passing the chair more and having a voice, that felt to me like a change in the way you did your job. You shifted your perception of what that job was about, would you agree?
I’ve used that ability to pass the chair pretty sparingly because I understand – I served as a deputy mayor for six years – I understand that when you do that, it takes the voice and vote away from somebody else. But I felt, recently, there have been issues – like the removal of energy efficiency standards from the building bylaw, like a lot of the discussions around paving projects and things like that – where I thought, ‘My voice needs to be heard in this discussion.’ Particularly around the building bylaw, I have a certain corporate memory around how that came about. I felt it was important, both for other councillors and the public at large, that I had the opportunity to voice my opinion. We are now in a situation where the council procedures bylaw has been amended, which I pushed for, and now the mayor will have a voice and a vote going forward. That need to pass the chair is gone.
I should imagine it also helps you cut loose a bit when you’ve already said you’re stepping down and don’t have to worry about fighting for re-election…
Well, as a councillor I was never afraid to jump into the debate if I felt it was necessary. So…
As you say, we will now have a mayor who has a vote and a voice. How do you think that will change what happens at council?
It will be interesting to see. It’s ultimately one vote and voice among nine members of council. It might change the meeting dynamics a little bit. I’m a political junkie – when I’m travelling, I’ll find a community access channel and watch their meetings – and Yellowknife was the exception, rather than the rule, in terms of how we operate our council meetings and how people vote. In virtually all municipalities across Canada, that’s the normal role of the mayor: to speak to issues and to vote. If it contributes more viewpoints to the discussion, it’s a good thing.
Did you feel for Adrian Bell, a bit, when he eventually said, ‘All right, enough of this, I’m not doing this any more’ and stepped down as deputy mayor?
A little bit. I mean, the chair didn’t get passed often during my six years as deputy mayor, just as it really hasn’t gotten passed that often during the six years I have been mayor.
How do you evaluate those six years?
When you step into a role, you want to make your community a better place. When you walk out the door for the last time, you want to leave Yellowknife a better place than you found it. There are always challenges, unanticipated things that come up and end up taking a lot of time. On the homelessness front, in particular, I would say the City and city council have really stepped up. We were able to collaborate with the territorial government on a number of initiatives – the safe ride service, the sobering centre – we got together with the minister responsible a couple of years ago to create the Homelessness Partnership Forum, which produced a number of recommendations. We created and adopted the 10-year plan to end homelessness. We’ve gotten Housing First programs started for single people, for families, for youth. We’ve contributed to a number of programs taking place in Yellowknife. We’ve got a long way to go – that’s apparent if you walk downtown any time – but I also think we’ve put a lot of resources and effort into helping some of our most vulnerable residents, and I think that’s important. I think that’s a big one that we certainly moved the yardstick on.
In terms of intergovernmental relations, too, I would say we made a lot of progress. We’ve been asking for certain amendments to the Cities, Towns, and Villages Act from the territorial government for pretty-much the entire time I’ve been a member of council, and those have now passed first and second reading, to create the ability for a hotel accommodation levy as well as the ability to use local improvement charges for energy efficiency retrofits or renewable energy. The fact that we have, after all this time, been able to get to the point where we have that legislation finalized, is really key. Beyond that, I think our relationship with the Government of Canada has advanced considerably. We didn’t really have a relationship and now we’re routinely in contact with various departments. Health Canada, for example, contributes funding to our street outreach service program, and that’s something we’ve never been able to access before. We’ve broken down a lot of barriers in that way.
In terms of some of the issues I wish we could have accomplished more… downtown revitalization is one that’s always a big challenge and–
I was going to ask, do you walk past the 50/50 lot sometimes, look at it, and think: ‘How have we not fixed that yet?’
Yes. Absolutely. We have made some progress, I would say… I’ll start by saying we have implemented a number of initiatives that I think have improved the downtown. The level of cleanliness has certainly improved. Small projects like the pop-up park, support for Festival on Franklin, working with food truck vendors to situate them in way that works for them but also food truck owners – those are the kinds of thing that we’ve been able to get under way. It’s the big-ticket items, like what to do with the 50/50 lot or other lots we own, those are the big questions that are going to remain for the next council. Having said that, we’ve created a bit of a strategy and vision for the downtown and what it would take to encourage more high-density residential development and those kinds of things. We’ve also been pushing the post-secondary question, and that’s one that could have a massive effect on downtown Yellowknife were it to eventually come to fruition.
If you were running for mayor again, what would your platform be?
When you’re an incumbent, you tend to run on your record. My own philosophy is to look back at what you said you were going to do, measure what you have done, and put forward a proposal – if those things are still relevant – to get them accomplished in your next term. Many of the issues I’ve talked about around climate change, energy, homelessness, housing, downtown revitalization… one of the things I don’t think we’ve made enough progress on is housing affordability, and I think there are big opportunities for the next council to take a look at different housing models. It helps when you have a federal government that’s on-side with some of these things. Several months ago, it issued a national housing strategy with funding available for co-operative models and much more affordable housing than we’re accustomed to seeing in Yellowknife. If I were to run for re-election, housing would be a core part of that.
One of the issues that seems to vex a lot of candidates right now is AirBnB and short-term rentals. Where do you see the solution there?
A mix of regulatory measures. I don’t think it should be a Wild West free-for-all in terms of anybody can rent out a room to anybody. That’s not the way we do land-use planning and zoning. That said, I don’t think the regulations need to be onerous, and there are plenty of examples from southern Canada and other parts of the world where municipal governments have put in regulations. AirBnB has engaged with municipal governments. We’ve been talking for the last couple of years about a destination marketing organization, and the way we want to fund that is with an accommodation levy. You need to have a level playing field. If you’re going to propose a levy on hotels, motels, and licensed bed-and-breakfasts, it’s simply unfair not to do that for other short-term rental accommodation. It doesn’t need to be onerous. We want to make sure visitors are having a good experience, the accommodations they are using are safe, and all operators – both commercial and less-so – are playing on the same field.
Much of the reporting on City Hall this year has been dominated by municipal enforcement. We’ve had an official inquiry, we’ve seen a summary – a short summary – of its findings, and I know administration is still working on some of that. Do you feel as though we are reaching some kind of satisfactory conclusion on that? What do you wish had been done differently?
I’m going to use this opportunity to give a shoutout to our senior administrative officer, Sheila Bassi-Kellett. Council, as you know, has one employee, and so when issues like this arise we are highly dependant on our SAO to carry things out and keep council informed. I think Sheila, under very difficult circumstances, has done an absolutely amazing job. It’s a challenging issue to deal with but we are getting to a conclusion here.
OK. Are you happy now that staff at City Hall, and people on city council for that matter, are now operating to a higher standard of conduct?
I think there seems to be more harmony. I think that often comes down to good communication between all parties. One of Sheila’s biggest strengths, in my view, is her ability to communicate both with political figures and all the City staff.
What characteristics should the next mayor of Yellowknife have? We’ve talked about the platform you would have, what about the personality? What do you need to be, as the mayor of Yellowknife in 2018?
Humility is important. The most surprising thing to me, when I was first elected mayor, was that suddenly – when the results were in – you are sort-of elevated. I didn’t anticipate that, and that’s not really me. You need to be able to understand that the support of the community got you to that place and, regardless of who you were running against and what the issues were, you now represent the entire community. It’s easy to get a big head and you have to be careful to keep that in check.
One of the other important things is the ability to listen. This is something that, both as a councillor and now as mayor, I’ve truly learned the value of. I think there’s a tendency, with many politicians, to think that their role is to stand up at the microphone again and again, put their position out there, and argue for it. I’ve found that listening around the council meeting to other members… and I’ve seen this ability in some of our current and previous councillors, where they can walk into a room and they may think they know their vote on an issue, and you observe them, and through the debate their minds are actually changed. They can be persuaded. That’s a pretty rare quality, I find.
Another thing I’m pretty proud of is I think the City has really upped its game in the way we engage with the public at large and individual interest groups. Making sure we are taking the time to listen to people and not just do bare-bones consultation, but actually truly engage them so that their views, thoughts, and opinions are actually incorporated into what ultimately comes to council for a decision.
Is there a part of you that thinks, ‘Give it a year or two then have a little sniff at MLA?’
That’s probably the most common question I get. At this point, I’m focused on the Arctic Energy Alliance and think there is a lot of work to do in the years ahead. I enjoyed my time as an elected official. Perhaps down the road, at some point, it might be something I’d consider. At this point, my family and new job are going to be my focuses going forward.
That is exactly the answer I’d expect an MLA to give. Will you miss it? Or do you feel as though you’ve done your time?
There are parts of it I’ll definitely miss. I was thinking about it the other day. There are often the same events, year after year, whether it’s high school graduation, the Santa Claus parade, Canada Day, National Aboriginal Day, you name it. I’ll certainly miss those. There are parts of citizenship ceremonies, for example, where dozens of people from dozens of countries take their oath of citizenship and you can see such pride and joy on their faces – I’ll miss that. I’ll miss the cut and thrust of council meetings–
Really? Will you?
Sure I will. I fell in love with local government and to come full circle to the MLA question, when I first ran for council in 2003, part of my thought process was: ‘I’ll dip my toes in the water and see if this political life is something I’m interested in.’ It was a part-time job, so it was a fairly safe thing to try. Within a year, I had absolutely fallen in love with it. To this day, I marvel at how you can bring an idea to your council colleagues and, if it has merit and if you can persuade them to support it, it’s something you can get done within a year and see the effects of whatever that thing may be.
A splash park springs to mind.
You know, you win some, you lose some. Around community energy planning, even recreational facilities, the Somba K’e Civic Plaza – people forget this but when we built it, there was some pretty vocal opposition to spending $2.5 million to do that, and I get more compliments on that than just about anything else in the city now. Building the fieldhouse, the water treatment plant, some of the work we’ve done on trails and transportation, around solid waste and compost pickup, the list goes on and on. I’m going to miss being around the table, helping to make those decisions and guide councillors in reaching decisions. But it can also be physically, mentally, and emotionally gruelling as a job. I’ll be looking forward to a bit of a more low-key profession.