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Mayor Charlie Clark: Making time for family, fresh perspectives

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Leadership
May, 2024

Late last year, Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark found himself talking to various people about his political future. At that point, he knew he wasn’t interested in running again to be mayor in 2024. Given that he doesn’t like being coy or evasive, he announced back in January it was his intention to step aside.

Of course, he also felt like it was something he needed to get off his chest, too.

“I thought about and saw the leaders that I’ve admired, and also watched the arc of other mayors, a two-term approach seems like a good amount of time,” Clark said. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy in this role. And I also think that it’s very important in a leadership role like this to have that fresh perspective.”

Putting Family First

Clark has been mayor of Saskatoon for two terms and a member of council since 2006. Given he didn’t run for public office with the intention of becoming a career politician, Clark also saw priorities emerging on the home front.

Clark has three children at home, ages 13, 15, and 19, and he has been a public figure for their entire lives. This has left a “very brief window” to being present in their lives. Because of his position, he was constantly balancing his city hall responsibilities with that of being a husband and a father.

And so, Clark felt he needed to focus on being a parent before his kids were all old enough to move out of the family home. While he admits there were times when he thought about staying on, Clark said he had to trust his gut.

“I never stepped into the role to make it as a career, either as city councillor or mayor,” Clark said. “I’ve certainly felt like I have more I want to do in my life that’s not being a politician.”

Political Reflections

While Clark knows he has more to offer than politics, he is nonetheless proud of what he has accomplished.

Clark said he has seen Saskatoon undergo a “transformation” as a city. When he first ran for council, one of the main narratives in the city was that young people who grew up in Saskatoon would either graduate from high school or university and then they would leave. Young people, he said, didn’t see a future in Saskatoon.

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Seventy-five per cent of graduates from the University of Saskatchewan would leave, according to Clark. Today, he adds, that has flipped with more than 75 per cent of graduates staying. At the same time, Clark said Saskatoon has become “a much more diverse city.”

“What’s been amazing is … to see a city that has found a new sense of confidence in itself that where young people see a sense of growth,” Clark said. “And at the same time, for me, what’s been really important is to try to create a sense that as we become more diverse. That we really understand that the way we build a strong city is to build strong relationships among our diverse communities.”

Focus on Reconciliation

For Clark, a big part of that growth has come through the work of Truth and Reconciliation.

A lot of effort, he said, has been put into coming to terms with a painful past – in both the city and the province. Clark said many Indigenous people have felt unwelcome and had to face a lot of racism.

Many of those obstacles still remain. But Clark said it’s been important to provide leadership that builds a new way forward in terms of a treaty relationships. It has been important to be part of a city that can build a future together with First Nations and Métis communities.

“We’ve incorporated that into a whole number of things that the city’s done,” Clark said. “We’ve built new sports facilities, new recreational facilities, new arts facilities. We’ve been able to bring about a lot of things through partnership in the community that have really increased the quality of life in the sense of our city being a more modern city. That I feel really proud of.”

Taking the Mayor Seat

Clark has been adamant about staying out of the conversation around who his successor will be. But he does have plenty of experience in knowing what qualities that person will need to have once elected.

Clark’s first piece of advice, “Do not fool yourself to think that you can solve problems on your own.” Yes, the mayor often garner’s the lion’s share of public attention. But they need to build a team that they can trust and that also trusts them.

One of the mayor’s main roles is to be a relationship builder, Clark said. And those relationships must be with city council, the administration, and with a very diverse community.

Mayors, Clark said, need to be decision makers. They need to be able to have a vision and be able to help people see what’s possible, not just what is. Clark spotlights a particular proverb that’s come up quite a bit in his life as of late – “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Having been around the council table for some 18 years, Clark said he knows this adage to be 100 per cent true.

“Creating meaningful, impactful change in people’s lives really requires the time and the relationship building in order to bring about those bigger things that really have an impact on people’s lives,” Clark said. “You need to invest the time into building your team as a mayor, not just in telling people what to do, or convincing people that you know what the right answer is.”

State of Local Government

Building community through partnership is something Clark said is essential to good government. Unfortunately, he sees that approach becoming increasingly ignored.

In saying he is “very concerned” about the state of local government, Clark points to a recent podcast he heard. The episode talked about the rise in “middle finger politics” and the increasingly common “tear everything down” approach. In his eyes, it amounts to “angry, anti-government, anti-institution, anti-collaboration rhetoric” being mixed with conspiracy theories and narcissism.

Clark said he has seen the seeds of this problem growing in previous years. But it has become increasingly clear since the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the height of the pandemic, he has seen a rise in personal attacks, hostility, and threats toward politicians. This is particularly true toward women or people from diverse backgrounds.

Most troubling, he added, is that this attitude goes against everything that’s needed for a local democracy to operate.

“We need people from all backgrounds, and women in particular, to feel excited about stepping into government and to not have to worry about feeling threatened or personally attacked, “Clark said. “If we only end up with people who are angry and who want to get into an environment where you’re just fighting about things, that’s who’s going to be around the council tables. And that’s not going to be good for a local government’s ability to build a good community for everyone.”

What Comes Next?

Although he remains fully committed to the remainder of his term, Clark did admit he is going to miss parts of the job. He might not miss contentious budget meetings, but he will miss meeting with people, particularly school kids.

He will also miss the feeling that comes from seeing council decisions bringing positive results to people, and a community, he cares so much about.

That said, he is looking forward to “not feeling responsible for everything.” He is already looking ahead to having the time to be involved in his two sons’ passion for football and his daughter’s horseback riding. Clark said he looks forward to shouldering more of the parenting load, something his wife Sarah has had to take on far too much of in the years gone by.

He is also looking forward to sitting around the family dinner table more often. Still, he remains uncertain about what his next chapter looks like. But he is quick to spotlight former mayoral colleagues such as Don Iveson, Brian Bowman, and Naheed Nenshi for their examples – and their advice.

“The advice I’ve had is it’s a good idea to not jump right into something. To give, if you have the ability, some space to think about it,” Clark said. “I still feel like I have more to do, and to give, and build on what I’ve learned. But I’m not sure what it’s all going to look like just yet.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean Meyer’s article: Local government champions look ahead to new experiences.

Sean Meyer is digital content editor for Municipal World.

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