Municipalities that Make a Difference: OSEA Interview with Mayor Randy Hope

Brian Worall, who represents Chatham-Kent, has stated that “Since 2006, Mayor Hope has been a very active statesman for the Municipality of Chatham-Kent in the community, across Ontario, Canada and the world. With his leadership, Chatham-Kent Council has focused on promoting the sustainable economic growth of our community, with green energy development as a priority. Mayor Hope has led municipal governance, embraced community engagement and democratic discussion, well represented our community to other levels of government, and successfully negotiated with foreign investors”.

And we, at OSEA, couldn’t agree more. Therefore on January 28 during the 2016 Powering Prosperity Awards, we presented Mayor Hope with a 20/20 Leadership Award in recognition of his contribution to the Canadian community at large. Following the ceremony, we decided to gain a better understanding of this great leader – what drives him and why it matters. Please see the interview conducted by Karolina Wrzecionkowska below.

KW: Mayor Hope, congratulations on the 20/20 Leadership Award. What is your definition of “leadership”?

RH: My definition of “leadership” is working by a proper business plan, to understand the whole facts and guiding people that may not be entirely in favour of what may occur. A lot of people are not visionaries, they deal with “tomorrow” and as a leader, you have to deal with a 5, 10, 20 year vision. Leaders are not afraid to take those challenges and it’s not a matter of confrontation but a matter of helping people understand the process and the objective of where you’re trying to get to. It’s about being a statesman and not a politician. Politicians go where the votes are. Sometimes leadership is also about stating the facts and emphasizing what you are good at. When I look in the mirror in the morning, what I see is me and I want to ensure that I am doing my best to build the future for my children, grandchildren  and generations thereafter. It’s about leaving a positive legacy.

KW: What is your role as 20/20 Leader in the Chatham-Kent community?

RH: The biggest part is creating a community that will be the fastest growing and sustainable community in south-western Ontario. That’s an objective that we set out back in 2006 and we keep moving on that agenda. My objective is to grow and diversify our community economically, demographically and culturally. We need to be sustainable and to protect the environment while we’re doing that. Diversification is necessary within the industry while we heavily rely on the automotive sector and agriculture. It means creating a business climate that creates value-added products of the food we grow. We have over 70 different products that we grow here and so it’s about growing both fresh vegetables and the food added value nationally and internationally so that the community grows at the same time. In the auto industry, it’s about creating advanced manufacturing, becoming a centre of excellence within the industry. In regards to renewable energy, it’s not just about wind turbines. It’s also about the maintenance, the storage of the energy that you create, repurposing and reutilizing. There is a number of variables that we need to consider locally.

KW: Chatham-Kent’s motto is “Cultivating Growth. Shore to Shore”. Could you please explain the origin of the motto as well as its meaning?

RH:  The Chatham-Kent community was created by the amalgamation of 23 communities spread over 2400 km2 under one governing body. Instead of a two-tier system, we are one government and out of those 23 communities, we went from 243 to 18 elected officials. The Mayor represents the entire geographic area. Our community’s strategy has to encompass the entire community, what we do and who we are. We created our brand “cultivating growth from shore to shore”,  after conducting a series of public consultations to also reflect what our community would like to see. Only 400 km2 in the region is urban land. The remaining 2000 km2 is prime agricultural land. Therefore to cultivate growth means to not only emphasize the agricultural landscape of the community, but to also emphasize that our community respects our ancestors- the British, Dutch, Italian and French settlements, and the vast history that it has been built upon. By cultivating growth, we cultivate the ideas and inspirations that helped build the community such as the battle of 1812, foreign settlers, immigrants, different religions, a growing number of small businesses and renewable energy initiatives. We are cultivating a new sense of community today, creating an identity that we never had before, starting with “ground zero” and building what we need to build. I observe what happens in communities across the world such as China or the US in terms of important issues such as job security, renewable energy etc. Everyone asks a question of: “What do we do next?” We, here in Chatham-Kent are the model for cultivating that growth. Renewable energy is also cultivating growth – our wind turbines, solar panels, biogas, ethanol plant etc. I listen to everyone’s very pessimistic approach when it comes to progressive growth. It’s an approach very similar to the one surrounding the industrial revolution. People are afraid of change. But in the end, a transition into a sustainable community is meant to serve the people who live in it. It’s a process of education and a process of diplomacy.

KW: You have been fulfilling your mandate for almost 10 years now. Since setting the development of Green Energy as a strategic priority in your Community Strategic Plan almost ten years ago, could you reflect on the greatest challenges in the process?

RH: When we implemented the Green Strategy, there were no challenges along the way, as there was no Green Energy Act at that point when it came to solar or wind energy. We, as a council, did it through a planning process, by following planning principles and simply dealing with facts. The Planning Act is pretty clear on the use of resources – peer reviews, general public as well as an appeal process. When we implemented the strategy, the total decision was in our hands, it was done by us. Later, when the Green Energy Act came into play, I was the only mayor in Ontario who argued against it as far as the power of authority. It’s like this “double edged” sword, where everyone else didn’t have the guts to oppose. My standing was: “Province, leave us alone, grandfather us and let us move forward through our planning process”. Our approach mitigated general public’s concerns such as education, proper information and data analysis as we were doing that through the planning process. The results of the process are demonstrated today. I now have over 450 industrial turbines which produce 919 MW of power just in wind alone. The community right now is reaping the benefits through community benefit plans that we set out by making sure to have our facts together. Our corporate citizen portfolio talks about being a community partner and about setting up community funds. All those principles stand today. I was able to negotiate the highest return with the wind industry in regards to the community benefit programs because there is a trust factor. I am confident that my community supports me because they get consistency, they get results in return for that support.

KW: Could you please explain the role of the Green Energy Committee?

RH: I established the committee to deal with not only wind but also solar energy, drainage, water and wastewater systems. The Green Energy Committee was established to support and assist green energy proponents through the municipal approval process. The committee included members from Planning, Building, Drainage, Public Utility Commission, Entegrus and Economic Development.  The committee provided the proponents with an opportunity to present their proposals in advance of making a formal application, and to receive coordinated timely responses from the various department represented on the committee. The committee also developed the “Green Energy Development Submission Guidelines (GEDSG)” to further assist proponents through the municipal approval process. Although the Green Energy Act exempts green energy projects from the Municipal “Planning Approval” process and has reduced the need for the detailed interaction between the Green Energy Committee and the proponent, the GEDSG still serves as an important document to assist proponents through the remaining municipal approval processes.

KW: Could you please elaborate on the “willing host” provision in working directly with green energy developers?

RH: The “willing host” indicates that “if you wanna play, you have to pay”. To put it simply, I expect wind developers to pay. Everyone always laughs at my negotiating tactics. I never sit in meetings as I have no tolerance for playing games. People come to the table, meet with my group and usually have one or two chances to get things right. Since the developers know me for the most part, they usually come to the table knowing that there is an expectation of a financial return on the investment. As council, being a willing host, we had a number of wind projects that came before us in the last round and we had no major objections. In fact, we were able to proceed without any confrontation because we were very clear on the process. This is the essence of the provision.

KW: Oxford County and the City of Woodstock are the first communities in Ontario to commit to a 100% renewable energy target by year 2050. What do you think of this commitment?

RH: It’s a nice pledge. Today in Chatham-Kent, wind itself generates enough energy for the community to be self-sustained. For instance, over 300.000 homes can be powered just by wind. The municipality produces 78% more energy than we actually consume and the excess goes into the grid. When people make these statements about renewable energy, I feel that we’ve already done all this. We’ve surpassed our targets. It’s a great slogan to have but it’s the commitment and education that are required in order to make it a reality. We already have wind, solar, ethanol blended fuels and so on. We are a very conscientious community. We are concerned about building a community not only for us but also for the communities surrounding us. Just to give you an idea of where we stand, over 21% of Ontario wind installations and 10% Canada-wide are in Chatham-Kent. When you look at our community, you know when you enter Chatham-Kent because you immediately see all the wind turbines. I‘m glad to see Woodstock and the Oxford County making a pledge like this because we need to collaborate in our efforts.

KW: In your acts of leadership, who and what inspires you?

RH: What inspires me is the community as number one. I believe in the community, I believe in  setting the right path for our community so it becomes a fast growing and sustainable community at the same time. To better picture what I mean by that is for example, I know that I can invite 50.000 people to live in Chatham-Kent and not have to spend a dime on infrastructure. In the past, I was a leader in the labour movement and then I was elected in 1990 into Queen’s Park as an MPP. Later, I was getting pressured by the community, who wanted a leader with a strong personality and character, to run for mayor. This was back in the 90s, when I wore cowboy boots with my suits, I was elected and now in my third term.  Does everyone support me? No. People don’t like harsh facts. People want things cozy, rosy and red. We went through hell, I lost jobs here, I lost factories. But we took a municipality that was $186 million in debt and is now down $108 million in debt, $87 million is now in user fees and not in taxes. I reduced $80 million in debt in 9 years.  Unemployment was at 15% rate which is now at 7%, with a decrease in population. I sometimes look up the Lord and say: “Why do you do this to me?” Maybe because these situations required a leader to turn the community around. I always ask myself: “When does my job, as Mayor, become easier?” (laughs).

KW: How do you measure your achievements?

RH: It’s a personal thing, I want to create a legacy of change, I want people to say that I was the guy who did it for them, that is my legacy. I want to be remembered in a good light which also goes back to people like Tommy Douglas and his Medicare. How many times do we reflect and say thank you? I want my grandkids to know that I was a good guy, that I was a part of that good process, that’s the legacy I want to leave. Once I am ready to be done with my part, I will mentor someone to take over and to continue the legacy. And only then I will have 1200 CC under me on my Harley and be able to continue my life.