Charlie Luke: The exit interview

Norfolk mayor looks back on 38 years in local politics

Friday is Charlie Luke's last day in the mayor's office at Governor Simcoe Square. Luke, 65, sat down for a wide-ranging interview with The Reformer this week in which he reflected on his 38-year career in municipal politics. MONTE SONNENBERG / Simcoe Reformer

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When it comes to electoral politics, Charlie Luke isn’t used to losing.

Until Oct. 22, Luke had an unblemished record of electoral success dating back to his inaugural term on the former Town of Simcoe council in 1980. During his 34 years as a municipal councillor, Luke frequently topped everyone when it came to the popular vote.

But a rough year at the helm of Norfolk council coupled with a strong campaign by municipal newcomer Kristal Chopp, of Port Dover, brought the curtain down on this long chapter in Luke’s life. Friday, Nov. 30, is Luke’s final day in the mayor’s office at Governor Simcoe Square. This week, Luke sat down with The Reformer for an exit interview, one which has been edited in places for length and clarity.

What are your thoughts on the Oct. 22 election?

“It was a surprise to me. I won’t deny that. I expected to do better. The results have sunk in. I believe there was a whole new wave – a movement — toward change. It happened to other incumbent mayors in our area.”

Was there anything you would’ve done differently?

“What did I do wrong? I feel I’ve done a good job and made a good effort over the last four years. I’ve questioned over and over `Where did the train go off the tracks here?’ But I feel I did the job that was required of me. I have to admit the last year of council was rough. Politicians are no different than hockey coaches. You can be a good coach and still get fired from the team.”

Luke added that events in Port Dover in 2018 hurt his chances. Council’s surprise 5-4 decision in June not to repair the Misner dam after nine years of discussion and the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars didn’t help, he said. The public firing of long-serving Port Dover fire chief Gary Spragg was also an unpopular move. The poor performance of the county’s $70-million Legacy Fund in 2017 was also a drag on Luke’s campaign.

Luke said Port Dover was instrumental in electing him mayor in 2014. However, Luke noticed a chilly reception this time around. Enthusiastic volunteers from the previous campaign demurred, choosing to watch this campaign from the sidelines. Some households that posted a Luke sign in 2014 chose to remain aloof. Meanwhile, Kristal Chopp signs appeared in front of homes in Port Dover and elsewhere that had previously supported Luke, who is a graduate of the former Port Dover Composite School.

“People today expect things to go right all the time,” Luke said. “And when they don’t, they want answers right away. Well, the world doesn’t always work that way.”

Only two of nine incumbents are returning for the next term of Norfolk council. You don’t often see a turnover of this magnitude. Do you see problems ahead because of this? Are you fearful for Norfolk’s future in the short term?

“I wouldn’t say I’m fearful. Obviously, with any sort of teamwork, you like to have the enthusiasm of youth. It’s good to see so many young faces on council. But they need to take the time to learn the ropes. I know when I was first elected it took me at least a full year to learn the job. The caution I’d give to the new council is be patient and learn how the county operates. And try to work together and try where you can to set aside ward boundaries. That’s easy to say but not so easily done. The geographic size of the county – it’s so diverse in nature in terms of what our needs are. Simcoe – this tiny eye in the centre of the county – holds 25 percent of the people. Then you go to (Port Rowan-area) Ward 1 – which is huge – and it has 7,000 people. The new council will have to get its feet wet. They’ll find that the job is not glamorous at all. The expected accountability to your ratepayers is enormous. A mayor and the councillors’ job is about service to the people who pay the bills. It can be rough going and the road can get rocky. You learn eventually not to take things said to you personally. You have to realize this inevitably is going to happen to whoever holds the position. As a survival mechanism – to preserve your sanity –you need to realize that you’re not going to please everyone all the time.”

Name some highlights of your time as a municipal politician.

  • In 1980 – within six weeks of Luke’s first election win – the former Town of Simcoe council took the big step of holding all its committee meetings in public. Committee meetings are where the debate occurs before resolutions are recommended for final council approval. That, Luke says, was an enormous cultural change and fiercely opposed by the old guard.

“It was long overdue that the public business of the town was done in a public forum,” said Luke, who was 27 at the time.

  • The opening of the Simcoe Town Centre in 1981.

“It was a real sign of progress for the downtown,” Luke said, noting that Simcoe Mall had already been established on the Queensway East, much to the consternation of merchants in the core who enjoyed official plan protections for their businesses.

  • The Town of Simcoe’s decision to allow retailing and other downtown functions to migrate to the Queensway in a big way. The late Rick Kowalsky – who was pro-Queensway development – won the mayoralty in Simcoe in the mid-1990s over the incumbent – the late Jim Earl – who campaigned on the other side of the issue.

“That was very controversial,” Luke said. “It was supported but a lot of people feared it would blight the downtown, and rightfully so. But first you have to decide if you want these (big box) stores in your community. If you do, you have to accept that they won’t be able to locate in your downtown.”

  • The $3-million renovation of Talbot Gardens in the early 1990s.

“We basically got a new arena in Simcoe that has lasted us 28 years,” Luke said. “And we should be able to get another 30 years out of it.”

Name some memorable personalities from your time in municipal politics – elected or appointed – who left an impression on you.

“I’d have to say Jim Earl who – when I started – really made an impression on me. What I took from him was always stand on your own two feet and not for what the other guy or gal wants. Vote for what you believe in. I admired how much he cared for his community. He was a tremendous debater but he never held a grudge. He always left the debate and the argument on the table. He was a professional.”

On balance, do you think we were better off under Haldimand-Norfolk Region? Or has the 2000 restructuring been a net benefit to Norfolk?

“I’m not sure. Every system has its pros and cons. The big problem we have now that we didn’t have then involves the ward system. The region looked after the big issues while a town like Simcoe could do its own things in the area of recreation without having to involve wards outside the community. The lower-tier councils had better contact with the people. You likely had a council representative living within a mile of yourself. Now, we have a mayor that many will never bump into and may only meet at special events. You can say today that people in outlying areas are less in tune with their elected representatives. There’s no doubt about that. That’s the big difference and why I would say the region was better for most people. There’s a lot of area geographically to cover today.”

What do the years ahead look like? Any chance you might take another run at public office?

“In the short term, the biggest change for me – and this is going to sound silly – but I will have free weekends. I’m also going to miss my routine here in the office Monday to Friday. That’s going to be a big adjustment. And I work with some tremendous people. I’m going to miss them. I’m 65, but I don’t feel 65. I’m not ready to go south for the winter. I have some projects around the house I can look after. I have children and grandchildren that I’m looking forward to getting involved with. And I think there’ll be a part-time job ahead. There are some things opening up. I’m not ready to stay home just yet. But I’m going to wait for the smoke to clear. I’m not bitter about what’s happened. There is no blood on the floor and no one got hurt. In defeat, I remain the same person. One door closes and another opens. I don’t take what happened personally. Politically, I’m not going to close the door on anything that might come along. People ask me why I do this. Why do I put up with the punishment? To that I say the good outweighs the bad. I’ve enjoyed it, so let’s see what the future brings.”