Democracy starts here
Drafting career morphed into life helping draft legislation
By: By Peter Boer
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 14, 2013 06:00 am
Chris Belke, Q&A
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
"Two grown children who are not only functioning, capable human beings, but pretty cool people."
Tell us about your first kiss.
"I cannot comment as this is personal information, which is protected from disclosure by section 17 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act."
When you were eight, what did you want to be when you grew up?
"I wanted to be an artist. I thought I was pretty talented but then again, I was only eight."
Did you ever play a musical instrument? Did your brothers ever bring bring you up on stage?
"I played saxophone in the school band. I've never been on stage with my musician brothers, but I've watched a lot of their shows from backstage. I have, however, been on stage with my theatre brother – we used to do improv together."
On Monday Oct. 18, 2010, Chris Belke's alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. He didn't see his bed again until almost midnight.
In between Belke, St. Albert's chief legislative officer, was responsible for making sure democracy was upheld in its purest form in running the city's municipal election.
“It was a very, very long day,” Belke says. “A very intense day.”
And Belke is getting ready to reprise the role of returning officer on Oct. 18, 2013 when St. Albertans again select the people they want on council and as mayor. Take a step back and the task seems patriotically weighty – Belke and his team at city hall are responsible for organizing the defining act of representative democracy.
Belke agrees it's important, but keeps a level head about it.
“I'm not really in awe or overwhelmed by it,” Belke says. “This is where it hits the road. This is the ground level piece of our system of government. This is where everyone has the opportunity to vote. That's such an important piece of our system.”
And Belke should know. Besides mustering the necessary resources to give every eligible elector the chance to vote, Belke himself served four terms as a councillor in the town of Devon, from 1998 to 2010. He decided not to run again after he landed his job in St. Albert.
Yet despite such publicly significant positions, most people don't think of him when they hear his last name. Three of his five brothers have a slightly higher profile. David Belke is a very respected Canadian playwright. And twin brothers Brent and Marc Belke played guitar for almost 20 years with popular Canadian punk band SNFU.
But to Belke public service made sense. He had been working with Municipal Affairs for the provincial government for some 18 years. Yet while he became something of an expert on all matters of legislation, he actually started his working life in drafting.
“It's not a straight line but there's a zigzag route that sort of got me from A to B on that one,” Belke says. “If you wanted to end up where I am, there's probably a whole lot more direct routes than how I got there.”
Belke started with studies in geography, trending towards urban planning, at the University of Alberta. In his summers between school years he worked for the City of Edmonton doing soils testing. But even in a seasonal role, Belke became aware of his place within such a large entity as a government.
“I had my one little corner in the wall-sized org chart, probably one tiny box in the bottom corner which would be where I worked and doing my one little piece, somehow in its own way, was benefitting people in the city. That concept appealed to me,” Belke said. “I was conscious of that and that appealed to me at the time.
After university, Belke enrolled in a drafting program at NAIT, then went to work at Strathcona County in the engineering department. From there he moved on to working with Alberta Agriculture in the engineering department, before moving on to Municipal Affairs, supervising a planning unit. At that time, when the province started laying off staff, he took on other opportunities that his colleagues pointed him towards. By the time he applied to work for St. Albert, Belke was a manager in Municipal Affairs, giving legislative advice.
“When the opportunity came up to take this job in St. Albert, I had the background in legislation and had done a lot of work with municipalities and municipal councils, the pieces were all there to give me a fairly unique background that seemed to fit into this job pretty well,” Belke says.
Belke wears many hats in his role. He spends a year co-ordinating the municipal election, which is over in 12 hours. He is the city's clerk, responsible for record keeping and preparing information packages for council. He is the city's go-to person on Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) matters, and his department is responsible for St. Albert's municipal cemetery.
But a big part of his role is giving legislative advice and being knowledgeable in matters of protocol and process, something that can seem tedious but is important.
“Our role in legislative services is to give them advice so that when (councillors) are exercising their authority, they are doing it in the right way,” Belke says. “If they don't do things as outlined in legislation, it might not be legal, or you might not achieve what you wanted and those decisions might not stick.”
Mayor Nolan Crouse and Belke have often crossed swords during council meetings on the best way to get council work done. Crouse concedes that he can sometimes be impatient with “the speed of government,” but says Belke has never been anything but a consummate professional.
“Everything he does, he's been indoctrinated to make sure there's pureness, thoroughness, that every aspect is dealt with ethically, legally, procedurally,” Crouse says. “At times in chambers some of the protocols get in the way of moving quickly but the other side to that is when Chris Belke touches it, you know it's been done thoroughly.”
But even professionals can express themselves, albeit with some subtlety. While Belke's suits always look professional, a look at his ankles will reveal occasional flashes of lime green socks.
“Socks don't have to be boring. If you have 10 pairs of socks in your drawer and two match whatever it is you're wearing, your odds are better if you don't try to match them. It's all about finding achievable goals,” Belke says. “If you're OK wearing lime green socks with your black suit, the pressure's off. It's just socks.”
The rest of 2013 will be busy for Belke. Election season officially kicks off with nomination day on Sept. 23. After the election is finished, Belke and his staff will be responsible for organizing orientation for new councillors and then helping with budget deliberations, which typically stretch into December.
But rather than grow in cynicism as some do when it comes to their roles in government, Belke still sees the best of intentions in those who submit their names.
“I think virtually every person who runs for council in any community, that's what they're trying to achieve – they just want to make the community a better place.”