Mike Kokura won’t be running for re-election this time around, a fact that may have to be repeated for those who grew accustomed to thinking he holds the position for life.
After all, Richard Nixon was in the White House and B.C. had just voted in its first NDP government when Kokura was first elected to represent the people of the obscure Beaufort region — a rural agricultural community, population 443, in the northeast corner of the the Alberni Valley — in 1972.
No one else has come close to equalling the Alberni Valley resident’s 40 years on the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District board, which was apparent when he inquired about a long service award to reflect the record.
“ ‘We’ve got an answer for you,’ ” came the reply. “ ‘They don’t have a 40-year award.’ ”
For the first time in 20 years, three candidates — Tanya Shannon, John Adams and Ted McGill — are vying to succeed Kokura on the regional board. They could do worse than to take a page from Kokura’s track record. For the last two decades, nobody even bothered to run against him.
His advice: “Listen to the people.”
“My philosophy was and still is: The government that governs least is the government that governs best,” he said paraphrasing the 19th century writer H.D. Thoreau. “There’s too much government in everything.”
Ask him why he ran for the office back then and he’ll provide a short history on the evolution of rural government in this province. B.C. was a far different place in those times.
Regional districts were created in 1965 to fill a void in the provision of rural services amid a surge of growth and development across the province. The districts took over responsibility for planning, zoning, subdivision and permitting outside of municipal boundaries, adopting new bylaws to govern land use, bylaws many felt were overly restrictive. Unlike the old improvement districts, regional districts were able to borrow funds from the Municipal Finance Authority at low rates.
“We went from no rules to 100 percent rules and there was a big uprising in the area,” Kokura said, recalling meetings that drew 300 to 400 people when the Alberni Athletic Hall was located in Beaver Creek. “We tried to get some things changed and the board was kind of reluctant.”
This resistance galvanized the electorate around a fresh slate of candidates in the 1972 election, including Kokura in Beaufort.
“All electoral areas put candidates forward and we defeated the entire board.”
They introduced enough changes to satisfy rural residents and Kokura won election after election after that.
“Once you win so many elections, nobody bothers running against you,” he said.
Bureaucracies tend to expand until they become ineffective, he contends. He saw his primary role as keeping that in check.
“It wasn’t any great achievement. I was in there to keep it small and as functional as possible.”
District boundaries were realigned in those years as well, consolidating the Beaufort from scattered rural areas surrounding the old improvement districts of Cherry Creek and Beaver Creek. Kokura’s newly constituted Beaufort was comprised mostly of large farms.
“And large farms don’t appreciate having government tell them what to do, so my job was keeping the government off the farmers’ backs and trying to keep track of tax dollars.”
His long run was interrupted in the late ’70s, when he stepped aside to let his alternate, Barry Forbes, a flying club member, pursue the ambition of a regional airport.
“The general consensus in those days was that a city without an airport was behind the times.”
Kokura had arrived in the Valley from the Prairies in the late 1950s.
“Port Alberni was a boomtown. We were the third highest paid area in Canada in those days. You didn’t have to look for a job; they grabbed you off the street and you had a job.”
He worked as a millwright and became active in IWA Local 183, eventually serving as vice-president when the local boasted more than 7,000 members. He got tired of hearing coworkers complain in the 1950s — “when the company ruled with an iron fist” — and he stepped up.
“When Macmillan-Bloedel went down the drain, we lost quite a bit. Slowly, as things started collapsing, jobs disappeared. Slowly, we lost young people.”
After served in five ACRD administrations, he remains leery of the inflationary pressures caused by “leapfrogging” for higher salaries among the professions: “It bothers me. People will say it’s only pennies.”
When he built his first home in the valley, the tax was $1. He paid $180 for the lot.
“Now I’m paying $1,600 and the services are basically the same as they were then. A home is no longer a home, it’s a bank account.”
Make no mistake, though, Kokura thinks the world of this place he calls home.
“To me, I think this is the best place on Earth and what I like about it is what we don’t have.”