The list of regrets is short for retiring Nakusp Mayor Karen Hamling as she contemplates a future away from politics. She wishes she had been thicker skinned because “people just assume things without understanding the full picture. When people are complaining, it’s tough not to let that get to you.”
Hamling, who has had a political career spanning 22 years, says it was a personal decision that she made over time, adding that she is ready to retire from public service.
When she accepted a job in Nakusp in 1971, Hamling relocated to the Kootenays from New Westminster. At the time, her work as a licensed practical nurse landed her here to set up the medical records department for the Arrow Lakes Hospital. A wife and mother of two, she became the first health records administrator, a career that would span 30 years.
Nakusp very quickly felt like home and she muses that she wasn’t here a week before folks were knocking on her door asking her to become involved in the community. Her initial roles were with the pro-tem (interim) arts council and pro-tem community services.
Born into an armed forces family, Hamling has a brother and a sister. Her father was a training officer for the army and was stationed across Canada, including the north. He moved the family to Germany for one posting, though home was always New Westminster. Hamling attributes her passion for community to her parents who told her “whatever community you live in, you give back.” She has always been involved in the community and speaks fondly of her time running two girl guide companies prior to her move to the Kootenays.
There was a quiet pride in her tone when discussing some of her biggest wins, such as getting the hot springs re-certified after public health concerns saw the facility closed for eight months in 2006. Hamling has been very successful at securing grants for major projects and upgrades. She recalls having a face to face conversation with then-Community, Sport and Culture Minister Ida Chong, who had come to make an announcement about a water and sewer grant. Nakusp needed expensive upgrades to the arena. Chong let her know there wouldn’t be funds for that. Hamling recalls saying, “That’s too bad. It’s the heart and soul of our community. It’s what kids do in the winter — hockey and skating. We have our weddings, graduations, and funerals there.” Chong instructed Hamling to phone her staff and see what could be done. She got the money.
“It was good to be mayor at that point. The community has always been really supportive of me and that keeps me going. I appreciate when there is positive feedback,” she said.
Prior to her nearly 13 years as mayor, she served on council for nine years, from 1987 to 1996, an experience that made her a more effective leader. “I am glad to have had councils that worked with me. I appreciate the councils, and really appreciate the people in the community. You make your decisions on the best information you have at the time — do the best you can.”
When asked what she thought would be ideal qualities for her successor, she replied “A passion about the community. Be able to handle conflict and understand conflict of interest. That means family, friends, colleagues and remember this is a small town.”
She explained that holding office is not like a club where members show up once a week. Being objective means you can’t vote for something because someone is a friend or turn it down for illegitimate reasons, such as a personal discord. The candidate should be good with time management if they also work because the mayor must check in with staff every day. “It would be difficult to be working full time and do the job. Weekends and evenings aren’t yours anymore,” said Hamling.
“We follow two sets of rules, the LGA [Local Government Act] and the Community Charter. The mayor has to work with the council, you can’t do it on your own. You have to work together to get things done,” she explained.
She also says she would have liked to have been able to spend more time with her family which includes two children, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Due to the interactive nature of the role, the mayor is regularly booked to attend community events and can frequently be away at meetings. She looks forward to having the freedom to be able to get in the car and go visit family, although she says “Every time I go [away] I am so happy to return home to Nakusp.”
Hamling’s future plans include sleeping better at night. She is looking forward to true retirement. She plans to take a break, and then to get back into some form of service, helping out within the community.
As for Nakusp’s future, Hamling is excited about the downtown revitalization project and would like to see more young people involved in politics. She hopes the town can experience economic growth toward “clean businesses that could employ people” and more housing. “I think more people would move here if they could find housing.”
The next election for local government will be held Oct. 20. Hamling’s advice for anyone interested in running is “to really pay attention to the rules and how you run. They are really stringent. It would be really nice to have some young people run. There needs to be an election and not have everyone win by acclamation.”