Sondous Attar, The Circle
It didn’t take long for me to be grateful for the mayor that we have. Warm, friendly and congenial, Mr. Berry Vrbanovic’s demeanour and passion for the city he calls home is evident in every one of his words. From a light-hearted conversation about memorabilia he collected from around the world to questions about Kitchener’s past, present and future, Mr. Vrbanovic’s was the embodiment of cultured, informed, passionate and decisive.
What do you see as your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?
My greatest strength and my greatest weakness is almost the same. In the sense that my greatest strength is my energy level and enthusiasm for anything I do for our city and our region and all the exciting things happening in the community as well as my passion for the role that I have that I consider a real privilege to be able to serve the community in this capacity. I have been mayor now for three and a half years and a council for twenty years before that and I wake up every morning loving what I do and honored to be able to serve the public.
My weakness I would say probably is the fact that I have a hard time saying no. So when it comes to community events in particular I get to many events probably around 400 over a course of a calendar year and part of it is a good way to connect with our citizens and community and everything that is happening in it and it is a great way to understand how people are feeling things are going and what is going well and what is not going so well, but sometimes having the ability to say no or struggling to say no on very busy and long days is hard sometimes.
After having modernized the city you governed, how would you like to be remembered after you leave office? Are you thinking of running for office again in the upcoming municipality elections?
I have not announced yet what I will be doing. I still very much love what I do in the city and in this role and I believe there is work that still needs to be done. As we get closer to the time period where candidates can register and so on, we will make a final decision then. As I sort of reflect on the role that I play, I would hope at the end my time in politics, people will look back and say not only did I make a difference in helping shape the community but I think more importantly that I helped actually make a difference in lives, particularly those of young people. There is actually that poster there * Mayor points at a poster at his office*. The essence of it is at the end of the day you hope that you make a world a better place and made a difference in the lives of younger people and that is often what is top of mind dealing with issues and making decisions.
What exactly does a mayor do and what was the most frustrating part of your job?
It varies from day-to-day and week-to-week, I wouldn’t say there are two days that are the same. We obviously have our legislative responsibly. A mayor is the head of council here for the city and so we have all our standing committees and council meetings and so on but I also sit as a member of regional council and as part of that we need to participate in those meeting for standing committees and region council. In addition to that we sit in a variety of community boards whether it is Oktoberfest or Centre of the Square or Hydro Board and so on. Those are all part of my legislative responsibilities. Then there are the constituency responsibilities of working with citizens to help solve problems. Usually it is working with people where issues escalated to a point through their city council that it needs involvement of a mayor of a city to help. At that point where everyone is pretty tense and you help to find a solution to particular problems.
A region-wide plan to construct Light Rail Transit (LRT) to connect Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge became a divisive issue in the community, what are your thoughts with regards to the implementation of the LRT?
Well certainly I have as a citizen have been a longtime proponent of it. The decision to build the LRT was made by the previous council so we basically been on regional council at the time during the construction and dealing with some of the challenges. I think the worst of it is over in terms of the construction of it. It was a large infrastructure project that this region has ever seen and it involved the new road and side walk construction, replacing the pipes, and putting in rails and putting in overhead catenary wires all of that has been part of the project and so you get an appreciation of how massive it really is. I think when I talk to most citizens and most residents they are very supportive of the LRT. They understand that it is the direction we need to go as a community in terms of public transit. There are some that still disagree and there are some that will probably always disagree but the vast majority particularly likes the younger population, the millennial and others, who really see this as being important.
I would say it is important on two fronts: one is it is important from a sustainability front because if you look at other communities where LRT have been built there has been significant growth along those LRT routes. Growth that happen going up instead of going out into the green field lands. If we are going to preserve our farmlands in this part of Ontario it means we have to have a hard country sideline beyond which we will develop, which means we have to offer housing choices that are more vertical as apposed to horizontal. The LRT that we are already seeing in terms of construction along the route of new condos and parks and so on is a big important part of making that happen. I think many resident are realizing that. Secondly, it is going to provide a new level of connectivity that we haven’t seen in this region that is going to connect North Waterloo to South Central Kitchener and eventually down to the Southern part of Cambridge. That is going to transform our community and connect it in ways that we have never been connected before.
What are the two major issues in the City of Kitchener and how do you plan on approaching them?
Obviously a city like ours, it is complex and there are many issues we deal with so it is probably hard to narrow it down to two but that is the question and I will focus on that. One of them is focused around neighborhoods and managing growth. If we look at the survey work that we do where we hear from citizens, we find that they say, “ I like the fact that the city is growing and I like the new bigger city amenities that come with it but sometimes I feel like we are becoming too much like Toronto,” as an example and “ I would like us to keep some of our small town feel.” So that has been a big part of why we worked on the Neighborhood Strategy as the City of Kitchener because people feel comfortable in their neighborhoods because it is a size they can relate to and certainly that is an initiative in a project that we worked on. I would say that the second most important thing is probably economic development. As our community continues to transform very much into a technological innovation super cluster, it is important that we make sure we have a good quality of life here for our residents. That people see this as a great area to land, work, and live as they work for our tech innovation companies but we also need to make sure there are opportunities for the rest of the community. We don’t just become focused on tech and innovation that we forget about everyone else. Whether it is everyone from the construction worker that works on your space to the car mechanic or the civil engineer that works on road projects, all those positions are important roles throughout the community and we want to make sure they continue to exist moving forward.
What got you first interested in joining the city council and then becoming a mayor?
I was always interested in politics. Going back to even grade school, I started a school newspaper one year and the next year I took on the school board on an issue with the help of parents surrounding scholastic book services. You know the tap books? The board was going to ban them and we fought and we got them to keep it. Then I got into high school and I got very involved in student government and had a variety of roles throughout grade 11, 12 and 13 there. Then I got to university and the next thing you know I was the carnival coordinator and the Oktoberfest coordinator. Then I became vice president then I became president of our grad class. So certainly that is where my active perspective started. In addition to that I started when I was 14 or 15, a buddy of mine after school one day said, “Hey, do you want to get involved with a campaign?” and I said, “sure, what are we going to do?” and he said we will go hammer some signs and phone people.” And I said, “ Yeah, I was just going to go home and do homework.” so I said, “why not, I’ll come.” and that is literally how I got the bug and started.
What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy going for walks and I enjoy reading and I enjoy cycling when I have some time in the summer months. I do enjoy traveling but I don’t have nearly as much time for it now as I did before. When I do it, it is very limited in time. It is like when I get there, I do what I have to do and get back, I do not have time to linger and check things out. I like traveling to places like Disney because I am a big Disney fan, which is well known around here.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I would say mainly fiction and mainly positive kind of uplifting books. I am a cup ‘half full, not half empty’ type of guy. So I look for whether it is nourishment in terms of relationships or nourishment in terms of books to come from other people and the things I read so they are all positive in nature.
What do you regard as your most outstanding style in governance that made Kitchener City leading through one of the most dynamic and innovative periods in its history and would you like other mayors in the world to follow your example?
Obviously everyone who is in a leadership role in the public sector or as an elected person in the private sector, leadership style is extremely important. I would say to you things that I find most important are that you are a collaborator. You are not the kind of person that is looking to create scenarios where people are winners and losers but create a situation where there will be a consensus in a room full of people who feel like they have what they want. Collaboration is really key. Secondly, I think you need someone who listens more and speaks less. You need to be a good listener and really try to understand what are the issues, problems, and challenges that people are asking you to address and consider. Before you speak about them, make sure you really heard what they said and had given it some honest reflection before you respond to it because I think that is very important.
What is your favourite thing about the City of Kitchener?
That is a good question. You know what I would say to you, and I say this as someone who was born overseas and came to Canada as an immigrant; Winnipeg initially then Hamilton and then Kitchener; I have always most impressed by the welcoming nature of the community. We always try to make sure we are very positive and we leave people with a good impression and that generally we try to make the facilities and the community a better place.