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Mayor Dorothy McCabe: Finding balance between city hall, family, and a vibrant community

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
July, 2023

Dorothy McCabe has more than 20 years of experience working in leadership positions. In that time, she has worked with mayors, city councils, and senior corporate leaders. She has also worked with many boards and community organizations along the way. But since her election as mayor of Waterloo, Ont., in October 2022, the view has changed a lot.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” McCabe said. “I’ve been invested in the municipal sector since 2010. I was working in sort of slices of it. So, sitting in the big chair, I’m seeing much, much more of it. Even though I was involved with the municipal sector for so long, one of the things that’s surprised me a bit is just the depth of what’s going on.”

Since becoming mayor, McCabe has had a front row seat to how much is going on in Waterloo. It started with getting to know her fellow council members and senior staff better. Those connections came in handy as council passed a budget, completed a strategic plan, and made decisions on “some pretty big projects and issues.”

Importance of Being Mayor

McCabe said she learned a lot through all those hectic early days in office. One thing she did not expect was the community’s feelings around the role of mayor. McCabe did not realize that people in the broader community, including children and even city staff, are excited to meet the mayor and treat her like a local celebrity.

“I did not expect for the position, the person as the mayor, to be just really held in such high regard,” McCabe said. “You say, ‘Yeah, yeah, people respect the mayor’s office.’ But they really do.”

McCabe said she asked a local man who was awarded an Order of Canada to visit her office so she could congratulate him. “Honest to God, he was so excited,” she said.

The flip side is that when people do reach out, it tends to be because they think the mayor can fix everything. Unfortunately, they often learn this is not exactly the case.

McCabe said she finds it interesting when people approach her about a council decision they do not agree with. Oftentimes, that conversation is followed by the expectation that she will somehow change it. That is not how things typically play out, but McCabe is committed to explaining to people how the process works.

“If you care about issue ‘X’, here’s really where you should weigh in on it,” she said. “And coming to me after the fact is not really the way to go. You should have been here six months ago. I am trying to do, through our office, what we can. And I know, in all municipalities, it’s such a challenge to engage people. But it’s trying to get people to engage at the right time.”

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View from City Hall

Sitting as the head of the council, McCabe said her belief in the importance of local government has only been further cemented. From her new seat, McCabe said she has a better understanding of the questions she can ask, what staff she can talk with, and the influence she can have.

McCabe said she likes that – for the most part – party politics has been removed from the process of local government.

“I do like that council comes to the table thinking of the issues and thinking ‘How is this going to impact residents? What’s this decision going to mean in five, 10, 15 years?’ Not, ‘How do I feel about this politically?’” McCabe said. “You get to look at issues based on the issues and not based on any kind of political leaning.”

McCabe calls Waterloo “a thriving municipality” that is also “quite progressive.” There is a lot of intensification happening in Waterloo, and while the city has built to its boundaries, there remains many infill opportunities, she said.

That means she and her colleagues need to make strategic decisions on how to build up and to build differently. This specifically includes building a variety of housing options, she said, that will help with the affordability issue that is facing Waterloo.

McCabe said the goal should be to build a community that relies on good urban design with plenty of trails and bike lanes. This way, people don’t necessarily have to buy a vehicle, or perhaps they might only have to buy one vehicle instead of two or three, which will help them a great deal when it comes to affordability.

Like any other municipality, Waterloo also faces the impacts of climate change, mental health, and addiction. McCabe said there is a path forward to creating substantive change.

“You have to be hopeful, at any level of government, to become an elected politician,” McCabe said. “I hope that’s people’s mindsets, that they’re hopeful for the future. I think that’s important to project back to your community.”

Affordability is very much tied to housing, which is also tied to climate change, McCabe said. “Municipalities can do a lot on affordability with the decisions that we make. We can help people with the choices that they’re going to make.”

Work-Life Balance the Key

McCabe said she has clear thoughts on how to build a stronger community and also what she needs to do to ensure her own personal strength and well-being.

McCabe recalled that her husband told her several months ago that she needed to be home “a bit more often.” McCabe agreed, but said she also knew how difficult the first months in office were going to be with city and regional council meetings, not to mention numerous public events.

McCabe is now working on finding that much-needed balance. This has involved taking small bits of time off here and there. Her goal is to now be more strategic in her approach to finding balance.

As a growing, vibrant, and active community, there are a lot of things to get out to see in Waterloo, but McCabe said there is also a problem of it perhaps being too much of a good thing. That includes social media.

“People love the social media side of what I do, posting where I’ve been,” McCabe said.  “So, that kind of stuff, I’ll have to find the balance with that.”  MW

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

Sean Meyer is Senior Editor for Municipal World.

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