Listening is the key
It may not be all that remarkable that Karen Redman is the new Chair of the Regional Municipality of Waterloo. After all, as a former M.P., as one-time Liberal Party Whip, and as a Kitchener representative on Waterloo Regional Council until she ran for Chair, she came into the municipal election with name recognition and a solid reputation.
But it must be significant that, running against three opponents – all men – she defeated them all in all seven municipalities that make up the region, including in their home territories, taking 62.4% of the votes overall.
Redman believes she is ready to take on the job, but she knows challenges lie ahead. Redman says that the 2018 municipal election reinforced one key truth – the Region of Waterloo is huge, and keeping connected with the entire Region is “a formidable task.” The population of the Region probably topped 600,000 in 2018. It includes seven municipalities. Redman adds that, not only is the Region big, it is also diverse, and that diversity is one of its strengths. “I genuinely value the different characteristics” across the region, she says. “The townships are hugely important, both economically and for quality of life.” She is a supporter of the Region’s “countryside line” policy, a more stringent protection of rural land than provincial policy. She points to the strength in economic diversity, as well, noting that two often-ignored sectors are in the top five economic engines in the region – agriculture, and traditional manufacturing.
Voter turnout in the municipal election measured a paltry 30.78%. Redman believes she knows at least one reason for voter apathy – she keeps hearing people say, “’Stop asking our opinion, and having it go into a black hole.’ People in Waterloo Region are happy to be part of the process, and willing to give that input,” if they believe it is actually listened to. But Redman thinks that’s where things have broken down – surveys and public consultations are common, but there is little evidence they make a difference in the decision-making. She admits, “We haven’t done a good job, closing that loop.”
She keeps hearing people say, “Stop asking our opinion, and having it go into a black hole.”
Redman believes her job involves lobbying and cooperation with the provincial and federal governments, and also being involved in the new, larger geographical brands like the Innovation Corridor. She points out, “We are marketing on a global scale.”
And in contrast to her predecessor, she says, “It is my intention to actively participate as the outward face of Regional Council in national and international meetings and trade missions.”
When it comes to the Region’s relationship with the province, Redman admits that the PC government “is an unknown quantity and a little bit unpredictable.” She believes that the Region will be most successful in intergovernmental affairs by being proactive. “Governments are always looking for solutions,” she says, so the Region will be trying to anticipate issues, and have answers ready when questions are raised at provincial or federal levels. She cites “two-way, all-day GO service” as an example.
This does not mean Redman is entirely positive about the future, as it relates to the province. She notes that there is “a history of things being downloaded to the Region without sufficient economic resources.”
And she sees some significant challenges facing her and the new Regional council. “We need mental health services, yesterday,” she says. She also points to the question of homelessness, and argues there is need for public-private partnerships. Building additional subsidized housing facilities, while part of a long-term solution, does not solve immediate needs; rental accommodations need to be made available for people lacking housing, she says.
And she says the opioid epidemic “is truly a crisis. We need to keep reminding each other there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. These are people from our community dying in our community.” Redman points out that this is a wide-sweeping issue demanding “long-term solutions,” because “it is about isolation, addiction, mental health, job loss…” And as the new Chair of the Region, she knows the issue is “huge and very divisive.”
She told Exchange, “I am very excited about this council. There is a great mix of stability and experience, and new faces and new dynamics.” She encourages her colleagues and the regional staff to be collaborative, to draw on the strength of the elected and administrative sides to come up with the best solutions… most of all, to “listen”.
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