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Kirk LaPointe: West Vancouver losing its 'Powerful' voice

Donna Powers has applied a compassionate and steady hand for years in speaking for the District of West Vancouver
After a dignified and admirable career of public service, Donna Powers, the District of West Vancouver's longtime director of communications, is moving on for a well-earned retirement. | District of West Vancouver

Cast your mind if you’re old enough back to the days of Y2K fears, before 9/11, long before the pandemic, at the start of this century.

Think of every utterance, every statement you’ve made to an audience beyond your close friends and family – a speaking engagement, a council meeting, quips and soliloquys to a group email, snappy statements to the television or radio news crews needing your expertise, or short bursts on social media.

Can you remember always keeping your cool? Can you look back and think you didn’t pratfall, didn’t deeply offend, didn’t leave an impression of incompetence or intemperance? Did you represent yourself and your organization with integrity and dignity along the way?

For 23 years, an astounding stint of profound and incessant change, Donna Powers has had to muster the right thing for West Vancouver. She has been one of two people – the mayor being the other – authorized to speak on behalf of the district. Consider that weighty.

On Friday, at what everyone believes is the top of her game and on her own terms, she left the job and moved into retirement. It has been a most remarkable run, through crazy-making episodes that would have wilted others.

“I’ve got grandchildren, a husband [former fire chief Jeff Oates] at home, and it’s time,” she said.

The rep on Powers is of a warm, unflappable, disciplined and reflective spokesperson. True to form, she greets with a smile before even speaking, then speaks with a smile for more than an hour. There is no other person behind the curtain, which is likely a key to her longevity in a world of revolving-door communicators.

Dig through what archives and search engines produce and the results verify what people tell you. In a field where you often have to disappoint people seeking answers they’d like instead of the ones they get, I couldn’t find anyone with an unkind word to say.

And when I text the mayor for his view, he is back in a flash with “sincere thanks for her service to the community” and well-wishes as “she begins her well-earned retirement.”

She has steered the role as the director of community relations and communications through five administrations: the mayors Ron Wood, Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Mike Smith, Mary-Ann Booth and now Mark Sager, the arrival and departure of countless public servants, the pesky journalists and the impossible-to-define general public. Just as significantly, she has steered through windstorms, ocean swells, heat domes, incessant atmospheric floods and the occasional big, fat dump of snow – the episodes where the community most depends on her clear communication.

To succeed she has had to basically memorize bylaws, regulations, practices and the like as a walking encyclopedia to ensure that when someone asked for information either out of curiosity or something less benign, she had at hand or could summon the details in precise and comprehensive prose.

She summarizes the objective: “Be caring.”

When she arrived from the District of North Vancouver, she was the pioneer as a one-person shop. To give a sense of the scope of work, today there are seven in her office with her as the frontperson on the community’s operations – but, importantly, not its policies, because those are the purview of the mayor.

The pandemic sent West Vancouver’s staff home and Powers set up in a spare bedroom to manage through what she concedes was both an enervating and enlivening time. It prompted her, like many others, to think through the mental health of the group. One told me she was “the spine” of the organization.

The environment for her work used to be a much simpler one of letters, faxes and phone calls, then emails. Social media shifted us into an environment one-part exciting, one-part disturbing, and Powers is clearly concerned about its byproduct of polarization in the community – how “listening to each other would help” and how we could act “a little more civilly.”

She will do some travelling, lots of ministering to the three grandchildren, and maybe, just maybe, a thing or two related to different work. But nothing in that realm is planned, nor does she exude any discomfort about it. She has moved from happy place to happy place.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver as well as vice-president, editorial, Glacier Media Group, the North Shore News’ parent company. He is also a West Vancouverite.

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