After nearly 30 years in politics, it would have been easy for Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr to spend his State of Our City address running a proverbial victory lap. Indeed, Zehr has no lack of past projects to point to.
But Zehr, who recently announced that he would not run for re-election, has spent much of his time in office looking to the future of Kitchener. His speech on March 28 at Kitchener City Hall was no different.
On a rainy Friday morning, the floor of the rotunda was packed with the city’s movers and shakers while city employees, well-wishers and curious passersby watched from the wings and upper balconies.
Zehr, reading the beginning of his prepared speech, paused as, at one point, his words seemed to catch in his throat.
“I am truly honoured,” he began.
But deviating from the script, he looked up at the crowd and softly sighed, “I didn’t think this would be this hard.”
The city’s longest-serving mayor managed to get things back on track without skipping a beat. But for the man who fought countless difficult struggles in municipal and regional council chambers, the words seemed to have extra impact.
Though Zehr did mention some of the things he had done for the city, he mostly did so to point out their importance to Kitchener’s future. They also served as examples, aimed at future city leaders, that “game-changing” decisions are not always unanimous.
The city’s decision to build a solar roof on top of the Kitchener operations facility, for example, has generated over $1.1 million in revenue since it went online in 2011.
The plan is projected to pay back the city’s investment and add several million more besides. But when proposed, it faced its share of opposition.
“Can any of us even imagine Kitchener today, had we not been flexible in our thinking, yet decisive in our actions?” Zehr asked.
Zehr also touched on the light rail transit project controversy, which has persisted despite the recent approval of the construction contract by regional council.
“It’s easy for some to be negative about the LRT – especially when they’re not making decisions for the whole community. But if one has the responsibility to lead, it is imperative to look into the future and take a long-term view,” Zehr said.
A staunch supporter of the project, Zehr closed his discussion of the topic very simply: “It’s time to move on.”
Addressing the future of the city and the schisms that some of these projects may have created, Zehr was unrelenting in his message that service to the public at large was paramount. He had some choice words for those who would put their own goals first.
“Be mindful that personal agendas do not build cities. You have answered the call to serve the public. Never forget: this isn’t about you, and it isn’t only about your ward constituents. It’s about everyone. It’s about our city.”
In closing, Zehr offered a quote by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “ … as for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” He took that quote and, like much of his speech, turned it into an imperative to the community.
“Be that leader who enables what we have yet to see.”