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Mayor Lisa Helps: Ready to embrace a wide-open future

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
October, 2022

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the October 15, 2022 elections in BC.

Sometimes personal decisions come in the spur of the moment. Other times, they only arrive after a lengthy period of contemplation. For Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, the decision to step away from city hall falls firmly under the latter.

It was more than a year ago when Helps said that she wouldn’t be seeking re-election. But the actual decision came well before that.

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“I said, even when I was running in 2018, this is my last term, so this is not a sudden decision. I decided that I would do two terms and that’s what I’ve done,” Helps said. “I headed into this term happy to be re-elected and knowing that eight years was a goodly amount for anyone to lead an organization. There was no second guessing. It gave me a very clear path and a very clear mandate.”

Time for Change in Victoria

Reflecting on her time in the mayor’s seat, Helps immediately has a few achievements come to mind.

One is the changing nature of Victoria’s reputation, both nationally and globally. When Helps was elected, one of the first things she didn’t do was swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. She did swear her oath of office, which is the only thing she was legislatively required to do. But failing to sear the oath to the Queen made headlines across the country.

Helps speculates it became such a big story because of Victoria’s links to old England tradition. And that, Helps explains, is how many people thought of the city. Her council, however, worked every day to change that perception. And over the last eight years, Victoria has achieved a different reputation.

“We’re seen as an entrepreneurial city. We’re seen as a city that is at the leading edge of many things. Climate action, housing affordability, and housing innovation. To me, that’s one of the things that’s most important and most exciting in terms of how we’re seen nationally and globally,” Helps said. “I measure that by the fact that I’m asked to give talks, both at a national and global scale, on some of the work we’re doing. People seem to be noticing that Victoria’s changed quite a bit in the last few years.”

That new view was accomplished through a series of municipal efforts. There was Victoria 3.0, which is the city’s 20-year economic action plan. Creation of the city’s arts and innovation district was another key achievement. So too was the launch of COAST – the Center for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies. And then there was the completion of Victoria’s 32-kilometre all ages and abilities cycling network.

“It’s safer and easier for people to get around by bicycle,” Helps said. “As a result, we’re seeing ridership just go through the roof. Particularly with young kids and seniors, none of whom we would’ve seen downtown on bicycles before we built the network.”

Local Government in the 21st Century

All these accomplishments came as a result of the efforts of local government. As a long-time community builder, Helps saw first-hand what could be achieved by the dedicated team at Victoria city hall.

Today, Helps sees local government as being “in a really, really interesting place.” Too many people, she said, have the attitude local councils should “kind of stay in your lane” and “just fix the potholes.”

Helps sees this as a 20th century view of what local government can achieve. A city, she said, should fix the potholes. It should build parks. It should make sure underground utilities are in good shape. All those things, and many others, are essential to a community. But she also feels the “nuts and bolts” or “bread and butter” of local government isn’t all that can be achieved.

“When you think about climate change or housing or the opioid crisis or Reconciliation, those are things that residents are more and more expecting of us, demanding of us, to take action on,” Helps said. “As a country, we need to get our heads around, if people want us to stay in our lane, then we have to look at how the lane has fundamentally changed since the 20th century.”

Being part of that change is something Helps said she will miss.

Things to Miss, Things to Not Miss

Helps said she will miss “the convening power of the mayor.” People say that mayors don’t have much power, and that may or may not be true. But one of the powers they do have is the ability to convene people. And this is true whether the gathering is around opportunities or challenges. That ability to bring people together is something Helps said she will surely miss.

The flip side of course is what she won’t miss – being a public figure. A self-described “very introverted person,” Helps said she enjoys her privacy. As such, she won’t miss being the public face of the municipality. Another thing she won’t miss is social media.

“I am never going back to social media. It’s one of the most destructive things that we’ve got going right now in our world,” Helps said. “It’s not helpful to the kind of democracy and the kind of civil society that we need. I will not be back there.”

Staying away from social media is a personal choice. But it is also advice she offers to anyone looking at getting into local government. Another piece of advice is to remain “authentically yourself.” Today’s political reality, Helps said, is driven by too much message branding, political spin, and pre-arranged talking points. As such, she recommends aspiring politicians start with remaining authentically themselves. As an elected official, she said, authenticity will go a long way because it allows politicians to more genuinely connect with the public.

Her third bit of advice is one Helps said is the most necessary for leadership these days: generosity. And by that she doesn’t mean giving things away.

“Generosity can be really disarming in a good way. Oftentimes when people have come into my office or called or whatever, really upset and angry, it’s kind of human nature to want to respond and be defensive or yell back or whatever,” she said. “But extending generosity to folks when they’re feeling unheard or upset, and to say, ‘Tell me more about why you feel that way,’ I think it goes a long way.”

Ready for an Unknown Future

Once her political career comes to an end, Helps said she is looking forward to the future. On what that might look like, well, it remains somewhat open ended. She has engaged a transition coach, who she said has been “enormously helpful” in helping her think about a new path.

Helps has spoken with people from across the country, getting their takes on what are the biggest challenges facing communities over the next five to 10 years. And, she has thought about how she might help with those challenges in some way. But one thing Helps is sure of is the need for some downtime. Helps said she is going to take at least a month off. She doesn’t feel burnt out, but she does feel the need for a little bit of rest and relaxation.

Reading for pleasure is something Helps said she is looking forward to. But she also plans on being more active than laying on a couch.

“I’m looking forward to going surfing. As mayor, I’ve taken this role very seriously and haven’t been able to get away to Tofino for more than two or three days at a time. I’m going to spend some time in Tofino and go surfing, which I’m very excited about,” Helps said. “And then, just being at home. I love my house. I love my family. And neither of them has seen quite enough of me in the last eight years. I will just be happy to be home.”  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Local government champions say goodbye – for now.

Sean Meyer is Senior Content Editor for Municipal World.

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