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Colwood’s top engineer shifts into politics in new role on council

As newly elected Colwood councillor Michael Baxter settles into the business of municipal politics, he’ll have to navigate the potentially thorny issue of his former role as the city’s top engineer.
Michael Baxter
Colwood Coun. Michael Baxter: New role means a new mindset.

As newly elected Colwood councillor Michael Baxter settles into the business of municipal politics, he’ll have to navigate the potentially thorny issue of his former role as the city’s top engineer.

Baxter will face the relatively rare challenge of separating his decade as director of Colwood’s engineering department from his new role as policy-maker.

In an interview with the Times Colonist, Baxter quipped that the dynamic could be awkward if he “doesn’t behave,” but took a more serious tone and added: “I intend not to interfere with the current director’s role.”

Nikii Hoglund took on the director of engineering role in March 2017, moving from the same position in Sechelt. Hoglund and Baxter’s time in the engineering department did not overlap, as Baxter retired in 2016.

Colwood Mayor Rob Martin said it’s important for councillors to stay focused on larger strategic goals and resist the urge to micromanage.

“Michael understands that he’s in a precarious position, that it’s quite unique,” Martin said.

“When you know how to fix something, when you’ve been a staff member and you’ve been on the ground, that’s hard to shift your mindset [to that of an elected official] and say: ‘No, I’m sure staff will address this the best way they can.’ ”

Another possible challenge for Baxter, Martin said, is his relationship with Colwood’s chief administrative officer, Ian Howat.

Howat is now subordinate to Baxter, a reversal of roles, Martin said. Baxter was acting chief administrative officer in 2012 after the departure of Ross McPhee. Martin said he intends to check in with Baxter periodically “just to make sure we’re staying in our lanes.”

It’s not unprecedented for former senior staff to run for elected office in a municipality where they have worked.

Newly elected Delta Mayor George Harvie spent 18 years as the municipality’s chief administrative officer.

In municipal politics, a group of “gifted amateurs, not political professionals,” are making decisions on complex matters such as infrastructure, said David Black, a communication expert at Royal Roads University.

“So if you look at costs and benefits of city staff moving over to the political side, we can allow that a city engineer or CAO has knowledge that can translate into real political effectiveness,” he said.

“He or she can address policy matters, which are often infrastructure-based, with a degree of literacy that most councillors struggle to find in their four-year terms.”

It’s natural that city staffers become entangled with the political decisions that impact their departments, Black said.

“Every city staffer is a potential councillor in waiting. The ability to translate technical knowledge … into political knowledge is just too tempting.”

Before he was hired to head Colwood’s engineering department in 2006, Baxter worked as Langford’s director of engineering for 15 years.

Baxter said he has been watching councillors “from the cheaper seats” for decades and believes his inside knowledge of Colwood’s bureaucracy helped him in his campaign.

“Only a couple of times door-knocking did I come across people who didn’t want to vote for me because of my previous job, whereas I ran across dozens who liked that I would know how the thing works from the inside,” he said.

Martin recalls during his time as a councillor hearing Baxter make impassioned pleas for council to do more to address sea-level rise on Colwood’s waterfront.

“And I think that was part of his passion to come onto council,” he said.

Baxter said there were many things he wanted to accomplish as Colwood’s top engineer that were constrained by the municipal purse. “Budgets were a real restriction,” he said.

Baxter would like to see more sidewalks installed on key school routes, sewage pipes installed in strategic locations and progress made on bike lanes.

Attracting more commercial development could bring in the revenue needed to pay for these improvements, Baxter said, a point of view that aligns with a key pillar of Martin’s campaign.

“The foundation for all this and the first necessity, really, is more commercial development,” Baxter said, noting the development potential of Colwood Corners and Royal Bay.

“We need to attract people into the city to build in those places and we need to make the processes faster for them. Time is money to developers.”

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