Ken Seiling officially retires November 30
Saying good-bye after 33 years as Waterloo Region Chair
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church youth group member Cameron McGee will be one of the youth from his church that will ring its bell 100 times at sunset on November 11 to mark 100 years since the end of World War I.
Photo by Helen Hall
by Carrie Debrone
November 8, 2018
It took less than one minute for retiring Waterloo Region Chair Ken Seiling’s secret to success to surface.
When I arrived to interview him for this article he greeted me at the regional offices with a smile as comfortable as if I had been a guest at his home. He asked if I would like coffee. When I said yes, he immediately went to the kitchen, poured a cup for each of us and carried them to his office, warning me to watch my step because of all the moving boxes currently piled on his office floor.
Caring service -- with a smile.
That’s the way I think many people will remember his 33 years in office – his gift of keen commitment to this region and his humble, hard-working, down-to-earth willingness to serve in this piece of the planet that he so passionately loves.
“Ken’s contribution as Regional Chair is remarkable not merely for the length of time, but the steady forward progress that has defined our Region,” said newly elected Regional Chair Karen Redman who worked with Seiling as a Waterloo Region councillor.
“He has been an understated statesman who has provided leadership to successive councils for challenges from provincial governments. Local decisions on rising to the new evolving responsibilities such as social housing when it was downloaded to the region, the implementation of Ontario Works and the withdrawal of discretionary supports for welfare recipients have defined the caring community people in Waterloo region expect from local government.”
“Ken has recognized the talent and vision of staff
throughout the years. After thorough consideration
and due diligence Ken has worked to implement ambitious projects such as the LRT that will enable the region to be at the forefront of progress and prosperity. Ken has provided respectful and effective relationships with successive provincial and federal governments irrespective of partisan stripe. All of these contributions demonstrate the values and ethics that define Ken as a person, his leadership and by extension, the councils serving Waterloo Region for the past 33 years,” Redman said.
Seiling’s patient, inclusive and out-of-the-spotlight way of doing things has certainly served him well and has resulted in wise and productive regional political decisions. And perhaps being such a good behind-the-scenes administrator has in many ways allowed him the time and freedom to avoid making rash decisions and to fully consider issues from all angles.
Seiling, now 70 years old, has overseen many large regional projects including the long-term planning of transit, the establishment of local water and waste policies, streamlining garbage and recycling pickup, and the creation of 2003 Regional Growth Management Plan. Some consider his legacy to be the LRT, a project that took shape over many years under his watch.
But if you ask him about his involvement with the success of any of these projects, the answer is wrapped in Seiling’s quiet humility.
“Any success I’ve had is because I work with a great community. A lot happens here at the grassroots that no government can take credit for. We can only try to help and support the good things going on. That sense of stewardship is so imbedded here. I hope we don’t ever lose that.”
However, it may be Seiling’s longevity in office for which he will be most revered. His political career began in 1976 when he was elected a Woolwich township councillor. In 1978 he ran for mayor and won the job, going on to be acclaimed for three more mayoral terms. First appointed as Waterloo Region Chair in 1985, Seiling was only 37 years old. Fellow councillors appointed him as regional chair again in 1985, 1988, 1991 and 1994, and when election rules changed in 1997 and the position of chair was put on the ballot, he ran and was elected. Seiling went on to win six more times consecutively, usually garnering more than 70 per cent of the popular vote.
Contrary to some current thinking, Seiling believes continuity of leadership shows strength rather than weakness in a community.
“At different times I thought maybe I’ve outstayed my welcome, but I think continuity of leadership gives municipalities strength. We don’t regularly throw out our mayors or councillors here. I think that’s a positive. It’s problematic for communities who have frequent changes in leadership. They can’t attract and hold high quality staff and the leaders aren’t rooted in the community. We’ve had a level of stability here that’s not usual elsewhere and we are known in political circles in Ontario as one of the best municipalities. We’re often called ‘The Region that Works,’” he said.
The regional chair is the top elected official in the region. Working with a budget of about $1.5-billion and representing a population of about 580,000 people, the chair oversees a staff of about 4,200. Seiling describes the job as multi-faceted.
“The largest public role that the chair plays is being the face and voice of the region and the community,” he said, adding that the political part of the job, which may be more behind the scenes, is to keep council together, moving forward and working well together and to interface with the council and regional staff.
“I always laugh when candidates make promises during municipal election campaigns. That’s just not the way things work. You’re only one of 16 votes. There’s no party politics at this level. There’s no whip telling councillors how to vote so the chair has to work very hard to make sure as many people as possible are involved and that they are working together and understand the issues. That’s one of the things I love about municipal politics. There’s room for decisions that sway from right to left depending on the issue. I think you get more balanced decision making that way and more decisions that are concerned with the common good,” he said.
Seiling also considers the often unseen work that a regional chair does with the province and other levels of government to be a very important part of the job.
“I’m going to miss the opportunity to influence change at the provincial level. I’ve always been very protective of the region,” he said. “I’ll be watching what’s happening on that front.”
And he sees there could be some major challenges coming. Provincial Premier Doug Ford’s government is looking at making changes to municipalities. Noting that while the methodology may have been wrong in the ward reduction that occurred when Ford’s government imposed the changes in Toronto just prior to the last municipal election, public opinion polls on the issue supported the move.
“Things are still very much up in the air. I don’t think the province knows what it’s going to do. The changes could be as simple as making sure that all regional chairs are directly elected in every municipality, like we do here. It’s too early to predict what this government will do,” Seiling said.
Seiling is concerned over the shift in political trends worldwide that seems to favour populism and extremism.
“I watch the States and Britain and Ontario and I’m less optimistic than I was when I took office. Some of this right wing negativity, racism and looking after yourself as opposed to others I find troublesome,” he said, adding that many people today accept behaviours from politicans that would not have been tolerated only a few short years ago.
“I hope the pendulum will swing back and there will be more balance,” he said.
And he has some advice for young people and others wanting to get into politics.
“I am always amazed at the people who run for office who have no community experienced. It sort of blows me away. I think it should be a prerequisite for anyone running for office that they have some community involvement. They also need a good understanding of what’s made this community tick.”
Seiling says projects like how to provide more affordable housing, the opioid crisis and how best to support the local arts community will continue to be issues that the new regional council will need to address.
“The competition for money is so tight these days, and it sounds like the province is going to cut spending in some areas. Maybe we can find more grassroots partners to help fund some of these projects” he said, adding that working incrementally instead of taking on huge projects may be a way that the regional government level can make the most impact.
With retirement only a few short weeks away, Seiling said he currently has no plans for his immediate future.
“I’ve had offers, but I’ve been advised to take at least four or five months to figure out what I really want to commit to. There is no question I’m going to miss the job,” he said.
He said he hopes to continue to enjoy time at his family cottage, spend time with his 9 grandchildren (and two more on the way) and to continue to play music as a hobby. Seiling has played piano and organ and directed choirs at various local churches part time over the years, but says he intends to step away from any music leadership role in order not to be tied down.
“I also hope to try to sort out my family genealogical records, something I’ve only had a little time to do in the past.”
Seiling officially retires November 30. Newly elected Regional chair Karen Redman will take over December 1.
“Each leader has to develop their own style and their own reputation. Karen has experience in local politics and at the federal level. She’s smart and I think she’ll be okay,” Seiling said.
“I have no intentions of interfering politically --- unless they do something really egregious, then they’ll see me,” he laughed.
When asked if he had any advice for the new chair, Seiling quipped, “She should probably change the carpet in the office. It’s been here for 25 years.”
Retiring Waterloo Region Chair Ken Seiling sorts though years of reports and memories deciding what to keep and what to donate to the regional archives.