Not long after he became mayor of View Royal in 2002, Graham Hill had occasion to attend a volunteer firefighters association banquet.
Upon being introduced, the fledgling politician was booed, a reaction to the municipality’s moves to change the way the fire department operated. Hill was shocked at the reaction, but recognized he had a steep learning curve to understand the culture of the town and its various enclaves.
“We had made a statement of what View Royal was going to be by investing in equipment and training,” the soon-to-be “retired” mayor recalled during a sit-down interview inside a busy Four Mile restaurant.
Plans to move what was then perceived as a club-like volunteer department toward one with a more professional feel was not well received at the time.
How times change.
When Hill and partner Gery Lemon attended the annual banquet of the same organization earlier this fall, the mayor was made an honourary lifetime member of the department and given his own firefighter’s helmet.
The department’s current fire inspector, Lt. Robert Marshall, wasn’t at the original gathering, but has been around the department almost as long as Hill has been mayor. Marshall said the mayor has been “an outstanding supporter of this organization,” not least of which was through the public information sessions and subsequent referendum for the new public safety building.
“For me, what we see when you look at his support; yes, he has his support on the political side, and dealing with the chief, but he also supports the guys on the ground level. He still comes by for a coffee and a chat. He kind of touched the organization on all levels.”
Speaking to firefighters is one thing, but speaking to regional public bodies and residents with deep concern over their way of life is quite another.
Hill, a retired longtime federal civil servant who specialized in IT, said he “found my voice” going door-to-door and talking to residents about their concerns and interests.
“You had to find the common ground, find a common interest to make that connection,” he said.
The affable mayor became known for stopping council meetings to explain what was happening for people in attendance, or introducing himself and council newcomers to the chamber whom he didn’t know personally, almost as if trying to extend the View Royal family.
Unlike most politicians, Hill would address his audiences with few if any speaking points, having done hours of research ahead of time to prepare. That way, he could speak more from his heart than his head.
Over the years, he’s had to sit and listen to residents and take his lumps, as it were, from people who may have felt council wasn’t listening to them.
During discussions around the ill-fated Thetis Cove development and planning zone, he heard outcries from neighbours that it would ruin their quality of life and was ill-suited for the site.
Thetis Cove resident Garth Graham is among the constituents who went back-and-forth with Hill during that time. While they may have agreed to disagree on certain aspects of the development plan, Graham said, the end result “was better than what we faced when the developer laid the plans out on someone’s kitchen table.”
“I’ve appreciated the role (Hill) has played in that respect. He’s represented the political process as a kind of ‘art of the possible,’ as something where he enjoys the give and take and acts honourably within it,” Graham said. “He represented a kind of commitment to public service … that seems to be disappearing from politics on so many different fronts.”
Hill is against amalgamation, especially as it relates to his municipality. He pointed to the automatic mutual aid agreement View Royal has with the Colwood Fire Department, and the effective contracting out of certain municipal services as ways the town is able to operate successfully through partnerships.
Despite the buzz generated around putting amalgamation-related questions on the upcoming municipal ballots, he said the public still has very little information about what it would mean to their specific municipalities. “The only way it can work is if it’s common sense, saves money and it makes things better,” Hill said. “You’ve got to ask the ‘why’ question.”
He’s glad View Royal has fought against any widening or twinning of the Island Highway through the heart of the municipality. He noted that he never wanted to see View Royal divided by the highway, as has happened in Langford.
Hill remains passionate about the Island Corridor Foundation, a multi-regional organization he co-founded in 2003, with the idea that the former E&N railway corridor could play an integral transportation role in the future growth of the Island.
He sees View Royal as a “pinch point of transportation” for the Capital Region – its roads carry the glut of vehicle traffic during morning and afternoon commutes between the West Shore and the core municipalities. He views the E&N rail right of way as a key piece of the puzzle in reducing the carbon footprint of traffic in the region.
Asked whether he’ll miss the challenge of guiding the municipality’s progress with the help of residents and staff, and acting for the town on CRD business he’s of two minds. “I will miss the intellectual challenge, I’ll miss the opportunity to engage with people who I’ve come to deeply respect.”
On the other hand, he hopes to spend more time with family: between he and Lemon, there are five children in the picture and 11 grandchildren.
Lemon, who’s been with Hill 24 years, said being mayor was never an aspiration of his. She’s seen him grow into the job.
“Wow, what a talent. He is a quality, quality mayor,” she said, “because he’s taken it on wholeheartedly, he’s taken it on so completely.”
The mayor’s standing across the region was evident at a recent surprise sendoff at the Inn at Laurel Point, when politicians and people from various organizations Hill touched over the years joined in an outpouring of respect and admiration.
Hill and Lemon plan to head up to their cabin and property on the Sunshine Coast to relax for a bit and think about their interests moving forward.
• In the 12 years that Graham Hill has been mayor of View Royal, the town’s population has grown from about 5,200 to more than 10,000.