Michael Morden, Mayor of Maple Ridge, BC since 2018, has long been involved with the community - having previously held positions as a City Councillor and President of the Maple Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Alongside his duties as Mayor, Mike also contributes his time to the Translink Mayors Council and New Mobility Committee, and the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council, Performance and Audit, Regional Housing and Zero Waste Committees.
He has lived in the region for over 30 years, and in addition to his public life in politics he is a successful business owner. We spoke to Mayor Morden while he was on vacation – but is responding to constituent’s concerns and joining Zoom meetings. For a man with so much on his plate even while on vacation, we asked Mayor Morden what drives him to get up every day.
“What I love about my job is the fact that I'm able to really do something that matters. I didn't realize the extent until I got in. Initially, I thought it was about putting together a strategic plan, which we didn't have before, and getting that implemented – working together with my council colleagues assembled from their individual contributions. From the totality of their input and public engagement, a great plan was created for our city. Work and financial plans were assembled from there to be implemented over the term, so that’s what we’ve been focused on delivering.
It’s also something much more than that. It’s about advocacy, meeting citizen’s needs, and the many different interests going on in your city that people rely upon you to try and facilitate, all evolved much further during the unknowns of COVID – there was no greater call of duty. It's been quite a task, but it's also been very satisfying to be both operational and governance, working together side by side with the administration to deliver a lot on the fly. I'm a planning guy, I make a lot of lists, check them twice and monitor to make sure we get there. And there’s a lot of lists! We've also made a lot of strong relationships working our way through this pandemic. We connected very closely with senior government, every day meetings with ministers, regional government, senior staff in all administrations, working within short time frames, doing whatever we needed to do to keep our community healthy and safe."
With the perspective of not only a long term citizen of the city, but as a businessman and now elected official, we ask Morden how he feels about the area that he calls home, and whether he’d do anything differently given the chance.
“If I was doing it again today as a 25-year-old and coming in to start a family, I’d do it again here in a heartbeat. I love my city, I think it has so much potential. There's going to be some political will required to really deliver today and for our future. Given our cost of living, making different planning decisions, responsible use of land and infrastructure, all in the wisest possible way you can, making sure you've got good public transit and post-secondary clearly mapped out into your community plans even if you don't have it. I think that we probably could have done a better job but of course, nobody had a crystal ball. We had two areas of our community that developed at the same time and the net result was less than complete communities. So recreation, community facilities, schools, sidewalks, all well planned out and completed is the way to develop. There's always better ways – you learn a lot, work on best practices, make sure you get it done right and then move on to the next. Plan properly and make good use of the land. We're going to have another million more people in Metro Vancouver in the next 30 years. Maple Ridge is a great opportunity for people to come here to live and work. As far as our Council’s concerned, we’re the greatest little city in B.C. and yes, we’ve got a lot work to do."
The City of Maple Ridge has announced several strategic plans for economic growth and prosperity alongside improving the everyday lives of citizens. One of the headlines from this process has been the Listen, Engage, Assess and Deliver (LEAD) initiative which puts an added focus on engaging the community before deciding on policy and creating legislation.
“What generated LEAD as part of our strategic plan was creating a necessary precursor to facilitate a strong local economy and employment for people. Looking at things like post-secondary, making sure that you have good public transit, start a lot of responsible consistent development, send clear signals of being open for business, and attract a lot of private investment into your town. We've done a lot of public sector investments over the last decade, but we've not had much private sector investment of significance. Given our growth curve, that's something that we’re strongly focused on to get the right balance. Right now, we've got a lot of residential development – 90,000 people – and we're going to 120,000 by 2040, maybe north of that. To do that we'd like to provide a lot of employment opportunities and a much more balanced tax base. If you don't have people employed in your local community, they're commuting and then you're adding congestion to the roads. We want to be doing a lot of things positively towards the environment, through COVID we saw what road shutdowns look like in our environment. Never have I seen such clear skies and you know, in Maple Ridge, we're pretty blessed with a beautiful environment. Since COVID, we’ve seen wildlife come out in our streets, a lot of things back to the way that they were. That's one of the amazing things about our community. We've got a lot of great rural and outdoor recreation all around us and that is all very cool.
The reason why LEAD was so important was that in order to facilitate all these great things you need, you have to have a safe community. Since 2014, there's been a lot of social challenges. A lot exacerbated by illicit drugs, a stressed healthcare system with gaps that are not able to facilitate people to get the help that they need. And so, with that, we have to intervene on our streets. To address this part of our community public safety, we decided not to use police response but to use a new program that we developed through our overarching Community Social Safety Initiative. Having an accessible social safety net from housing to services that people need to support them in their lives, so they can move forward if they have challenges. The plan also provides specially-trained skilled responders with specific understanding who will intervene and try and facilitate different pathways. So that's basically the crux of LEAD is to provide an active, engaged, responsive public safety service, facilitate a functioning social safety net to connect people with the help that they need.”
Key to making the LEAD initiative work is being able to provide the opportunities for people in the community to find work and make a better life for themselves. The City of Maple Ridge has a diverse local economy - from attracting Hollywood movie productions, to technology and manufacturing companies - there is a lot of potential for economic growth and prosperity in the region. We asked Morden what the City was doing to facilitate this growth and attract new businesses to the area.
“We need to provide the technology that they need, as in the infrastructure, sufficient broad bandwidth to be able to deliver on growing needs. We haven't fully decided on the right way forward, but we have been building a network that is fed by third parties for right now. We look at this as an economic opportunity for our city to create some recurring revenue against our tax bill, but also to make sure that we've got the best services possible. We've gone out to an RFI and just haven't found the provider on our terms. We've taken a step back, and we're going to revisit the strategy shortly. It is our desire to provide the best technology possible to facilitate things like movie and video production work, great internet service for people in their homes and their businesses. People are operating in their homes now a lot more, and they need significant bandwidth for some of the things that they're doing. Maybe they're building software for gaming or web work, or they're working on video production or postproduction for a movie. With COVID, a lot is happening in people's homes so we have to make sure we're very able to deliver the best technology, and we're all over that. We’ve got lots of great things on the horizon from a technology perspective.”
There is no doubt much to be excited about in Maple Ridge. A city that is surrounded by beautiful scenery and home to some historic community features alongside the modern is hugely attractive for employers and jobseekers alike. The pandemic has hit communities around the world hard, however, and Maple Ridge is no different. We asked Morden what his predictions were for the economic and social recovery of the City looked like in the next few years.
“It’s going to be a little bit hard to predict where we are right now with COVID. I feel for my friends in Washington State– there are some significant challenges down there on the COVID scene. We need to get goods and services as well as our talent through the border, back and forth, to supply each other, to work together. Particularly in the technology area and in the movie industry. So, agriculture, tourism and technology, are all interconnected. Should the border impact that? Well, right now it is because of COVID. You know, there are significant restrictions there but for good reasons. I've got friends that have properties in Point Roberts, and they can't even get there. Our community is 20 minutes from the US border and not being able to deliver goods and services through the border in a prompt way is a challenge. What does the future look like in light of COVID? It's about us as a nation in Canada, the US as a nation, individuals, corporations, internationally and all across our world where everyone takes a really responsible, proactive approach on how to get through this pandemic and be prepared to deal with future forms.
We need to be flexible and nimble in how we operate and not only as cities, but how people operate, how businesses operate, and how we make all that work. Technology has facilitated some amazing changes through COVID. We didn't miss a blink as a city. We continued with public hearings, council meetings and regional needs, none of that stopped and all because of innovation and technology. I imagine that I should have talked to somebody about stocks in Zoom, or GoTo Meeting or any of those different things because I'm sure that they're doing very well over this but you know what, I'm very thankful that all those vehicles existed and evolved to meet the needs.”
While economic recovery is on everyone’s mind as an elected official Mayor Morden is mindful of balancing those responsibilities with social obligations, environmental concerns, and being fiscally responsible. As a pragmatic businessman Morden is able to speak on these issues with an air of clarity and a real passion for the natural world that the City lives in.
“In Maple Ridge, we’ve got a lot of initiatives that we've had going for many years. We've got a pretty impressive natural environment, some amazing regional parks, great local parks and a lot of recreational opportunities for people to enjoy. That's one of the things that brings lots of people to live in Maple Ridge - you have everything here within 15 minutes, yet you feel embedded in nature. Where I live, I interface with the bears, deer, coyotes, and that's 12 minutes from downtown Maple Ridge.
During COVID at 11 o'clock at night, everything was very quiet, coyotes on my way home were looking at me right in my headlights. It's quite interesting to see what has happened during this whole thing, a reminder that our natural environment is about balance, making sure that we do the right things for our natural environment, making sure they're a factor in economic decisions. Usually it's about changing the way that we think, the way that we do business - because when I was first starting a business here, I didn't think about recycling. I do that now as a course of practice and encourage others to do so as well. And that's all part of doing the right things because they really cost little to do, it is actually phenomenal how much you can put into our recycling system and not into refuse.”
Taking care of the environment on an individual level is vitally important for citizens everywhere but taking a lead and acting responsibly is just the first step for Morden. He is keen to point out that manufacturers and retailers also must bear some responsibility for the waste that they produce, and that that elected officials still have more work to do to ensure that accountability is there.
“The responsibility isn't quite there yet on the producers of these products, so I don't have any problems bringing packaging back to them just to make a point, and then we have a chance to spark a conversation. Our council is now looking to see what more we can do. We've always been responsible towards our environment - our recreation center had new solar panels put on about a decade ago, and they were completely revenue neutral to us after 10 years. They saved us a tremendous amount on operating costs. Recycling is another example, electrification of our municipal fleet, which was done a long time ago. At the regional level, we're looking at electrification of buses, focus on decongestion, reduction of GHG’s, housing and encouraging the use of public transit. Those are all important things to do and going beyond that, our council has now said we've got more to do in the municipal laneway. We see it as doing what we each need to do – residents, a business, everybody's got to do their own part. So that in totality together, we're all going in the right direction to make our world better. We've launched a plan coming back in the fall which will be shown to the public, as to what we're going to do to contribute towards environmental initiatives.”
As someone who came from a business background and got into politics relatively late in his career, Morden has a different perspective to those that always saw themselves in public office. We asked the Mayor what advice he has for young people who want to serve others by pursuing politics.
“My wife's a university teacher, she teaches a lot of young people that are in their 20s today, and one of the big takeaways that I get from her is a lot of people are very critical of the Digi and the millennial generation. I think that we've not done a good job in involving them and what they are talking about. We need to encourage them to engage, we need to have them a part of the conversation. The younger generations are our future, they're going to determine what our future looks like. We pave the roadway in front of them but it's them that are going to shape the long-term future, so they need to be a part of the conversation and engagement is the key.
A part of Council's communications now is to ensure that we're putting out relevant communications to all generations. It's very easy to be critics of the millennials or of the ‘digis’. They're all from a different era. The millennials were not born with the internet. The digis were born with it, it's part of their DNA. As we progress further with all this technology, engagement is key; they need to be encouraged and mentored. That, to me, is an important part of our role in the city - to communicate. There's lots of young people engaged in civic matters today and I would just do everything possible to encourage more to happen.”
As a resident of Maple Ridge for over 30 years, and owner and general manager of two successful security companies in the City, we were curious to find out what triggered the move into politics. Everyone faces a turning point in their lives, and we asked Morden what he felt was the main motivator to take on the responsibility of serving the community he had lived in for so long.
“It was a bit of an accident for me, I came to Maple Ridge and fell in love with the community and decided that was the place to raise my kids. I was learning a trade, went into management working in the city, but with my growing children, we needed to find an affordable home and guess what? We ended up in Maple Ridge and this was the only place we could afford anything. It was a beautiful city. I was handy. So, we picked up a real beater and fixed it up, and worked our way into the community. We just worked hard, built three successful businesses and I did sort of retire at 48. That lasted a whole four months, I got comfortable about the possibility that I wouldn't be working anymore. Then I received two memos, one from my wife that said you're not hanging around the house and the second one was ‘you're 48, you’ve got to find something to do that's meaningful.’ Some friends of mine asked me if I would consider running for local government and I thought; ‘well, as a 30 year Rotarian, giving back? Okay, sure, I'll give this a shot. It seems like a good thing to do.’
The picture that I was given of being a local elected person was to advocate for your community and do the best job you can for the people and direction of your city. I had no idea really, I just wanted to do something that matters. They’d ask you to do things and you’d go ahead and you do the best you can. It was about service and call of duty, and that's how I ended up here. The call of duty was pretty great. From my personal journey as a person in business, a person that's has family members that have some challenges in the world we live in today, I felt there were a lot of improvements that we could make. I really felt like I could contribute towards forward movement of our city.”
It speaks volumes of Morden’s passion for the work in his community that he joined us during his vacation and appears to show no signs of slowing down ticking things off his ‘to-do list’. Though he concedes that the City has been through “challenges” he describes himself as a “workhorse” who still has lots of work to do for the City and its inhabitants.
“I've always believed in the future of Maple Ridge, its possibilities and potential, and there's a tremendous amount of work to do, particularly on the economic and jobs front. We've really fallen behind. We're a little like a bedroom community, and so we're going to have to make some tough decisions, and that's exactly what this council is committed to do.”
The path from business owner to Mayor of Maple Ridge may have taken a slightly circuitous route, but I was curious to find out how much of his business experience Morden is able to apply to public life.
“Running a business is different than running a city. Much different. I first owned a business when I was 30. I learned a lot along the way on how to do it better, how to get the best from people, how to deliver great service, even if you've got really high expectations, because we were in a technology business. There couldn’t be any mistakes in my business. When you're in the safety business, you've got to deliver it correctly in the best way you possibly can. So I was a tough employer, no question. In that same token, I tried to make sure that my staff were well resourced, well trained, well paid and rewarded accordingly.
Coming into the city, as far as getting the best out of your staffing systems, it’s making sure that you've got accountability tools in play, clear expectations on what the work is all about, making sure staff are appropriately resourced in what they need to do and they've got all the proper support around them to succeed. There's a lot of analysis going on to make sure that we're measuring and spending taxpayer’s money wisely, to deliver excellence in services we need in the city. COVID has also allowed us to take a lot more stock in what we need to do, how best to continue to deliver those services. Our Building and Planning departments never stopped, we had to continue. There’s a significant amount of construction and development underway in our city. Our hospitality industry took a heck of a hit. Restaurants, bars, small business operators, it’s been really tough on them. For us, it’s been about making sure that we facilitate the right things for best outcomes. Those aren’t necessarily financial, it’s how can we most effectively help others do the best they possibly can.”
You can find out more about Mayor Morden, and the City of Maple Ridge here: https://www.mapleridge.ca/