Ask Nicole Read if she finds herself dazed and confused about being put into the spotlight, running at city of 80,000 with no political experience, no previous years on council and not even a stint on school board and her reply is clear.
She’s not surprised.
She would not have run for mayor if she thought winning would have been a shock.
“When I made the decision to run I had a pretty good sense of the landscape,” she said recently as the new council headed into the Christmas break.
Read became mayor and leader of a new council Nov. 15, defeating incumbent mayor Ernie Daykin and councillor Michael Morden.
But she knew people were ready for a change. New suburbanites in her area of Silver Valley were fed up with minimal services in return for their steep taxes.
Many others in areas such as Albion felt the same way and voted for change.
Read is now in her second-storey mayor’s office, an uncluttered, sparsely furnished room that overlooks the ragged, overgrown trees that crowd the passageway between Maple Ridge city hall and the Ridge Meadows RCMP building.
While she may be a new politician, she’s not a newcomer to politics.
As president of The History Group, she worked closely with federal and provincial politicians of all parties and levels as she managed research projects related to First Nations claims.
“I felt very comfortable navigating those areas.”
On the other hand, she sees her lack of experience in the political trenches as an asset.
Absent any long-standing connections in the community, she feels she can make objective decisions, fair to everyone, based just on what’s best for Maple Ridge.
“When I’m approaching decisions … I’m making them for the people of Maple Ridge. I’m not making decisions looking forward to where my political alliances need to be over the next four years.”
That objectivity is why she voted against the proposed half-per-cent increase in the provincial sales tax proposed by the mayors council as a funding solution for TransLink. She just couldn’t support a plan that gave the mayors accountability without responsibility.
Her biggest surprise after two months on the job: the staff.
Many people feel that senior bureaucrats run city hall, but Read was surprised to learn, that’s not the case.
“The most glaring thing is how supportive senior staff have been. I think there’s a need right now for strong leadership.”
She says the mayor and council have a lot of power in determining how city hall runs and can shape its tone and determine the city’s future.
“Maple Ridge is really an amazing community.”
People have strong opinions.
“I think they want to be listened to.”
Read reiterates the tasks for the next few months.
She wants the task force on homelessness operating within 90 days, and hopes by the end of her four-year term, the homeless count in Maple Ridge is zero, a drop from this spring’s Metro Vancouver homeless count of 84.
She wants to review the functioning of the economic development department, to ensure it’s returning to Maple Ridge the $400,000 annually it costs to run the department.
Also tops of the list is economic growth. Read wants more jobs and more tax revenue to pay for another part of her platform – improving the lifestyle of people in the new suburbs that lack roads, parks and sidewalks.
“What do we need to make these communities complete? That is somewhat reliant on our success in economic development because we need to increase our revenue to be able afford some of these things our community is badly in need of.”
She says she’s not an administrator, but given previous experience managing projects, says she knows how to look for efficiencies.
Engagement and transparency are also on the to-do list. A task force involving the communications department will try to find the best way to tell the public what council is doing and why. She wants to have a few meetings or hearings in various communities in Maple Ridge when items related to those areas are being discussed.
“Technically, the public hired me and I’m accountable to them.”
One example where she already explained a decision was her going on to the Maple Ridge Council Watch Facebook page to explain her decision following her vote against the recent TransLink tax.
Read has a master’s in history from SFU and her thesis focused on the Balkans (Yugoslavia) during the Second World War. Someone, though, told her she should take business administration degrees instead.
“I had somebody, a family member, pull me aside. ‘I hear you’re going to do a MA in history. Don’t do it. You’re never going to get a job,’” the family member said.
“I was really worried,” Read added.
But now she employs many SFU grads in her company.
“People with arts degrees, I think people in the business community don’t really understand the value they bring to the table.”
She plays soccer and reads and is currently in the middle of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s autobiography.
“I read a lot of autobiographies. I just finished reading [former Pakistan prime minister] Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography.”
Her husband Steve sometimes comments in online debates on local issues, while her older son Ben knows about his mom’s new job.
“It’s a bigger deal for Ben because the kids at school know his mom’s the mayor, which is kind of cool for him.”
Her younger son Will isn’t as aware of his mom’s new responsibilities.
Her mom lives in the secondary suite in the home the family’s been in since moving from Hammond in 2010, after locating to Maple Ridge from Coquitlam in 2006.
Read is still following her original work plan, though it’s been slightly delayed by the TransLink referendum question, and the imminent closing of the Iron Horse Youth Safe House.
During her campaign, Read questioned the city’s focus on working out a land swap with SmartCentres to allow a shopping mall in Albion flats.
She’s still skeptical, but will consider any deal that’s reached. Still, she wonders if SmartCentres can deliver the type of shopping Maple Ridge wants. She does a lot of the family’s shopping outside of Maple Ridge.
“I think the previous council has had a lot of time to bring shopping into this community and they didn’t.”
But she’s only getting up to speed on the file and isn’t completely dismissive of the proposal that would see Maple Ridge give its developable land to SmartCentres in return for its non-developable land along 105th Avenue and Lougheed Highway.
She knows the clock is ticking on her term.
There are definite tasks she wants done.
Four years from now, “I’d like to see some transportation, the B-line (rapid bus) either constructed or underway. I think it’s really important, we connect the B-line,” to the new SkyTrain Evergreen Line in Coquitlam.
She wants to collect data now and set performance standards, then compare the city’s performance at the end of her term.
“At the end of four years, where are we?”