The CEO at City Hall

Written by Deena Waisberg

There’s no missing Chris Stoate’s passion for small-town living. “A town is about the interconnectedness of people,” says Stoate. “The people who work in the community, live in the community and have a personal investment in it. You know your neighbours and gather with them at the baseball diamond.” The entrepreneur found such ambience in Oakville, Ont., a city of 146,000 people just 30 minutes west of downtown Toronto. Now he’s determined to preserve it.

Despite heading up LaserNetworks Inc., a fast-growing dealer of laser printers and related equipment, last November the 51-year-old became one of Oakville’s newest town councillors. “I wanted to help improve the quality of life in my community,” says Stoate. “If you think you have a contribution to make, you have a responsibility to fulfill a citizenship role, not just a commercial role in your community.”

Public service isn’t new to Stoate. A two-year stint on the board of Halton Learning Foundation, which raises money for his region’s public school system, and a year as president of the Trafalgar-Chartwell Residence Association only strengthened his conviction that individuals can make a difference. “Everyone complains about government,” he says. “You can be part of the problem, or part of the solution.”

So far, so good. Oakville Mayor Ann Mulvale praises Stoate’s easy working style and personal skills. He’s a tireless consensus builder, she says. And his enthusiasm has positively impacted council. “I’ve been on council 22 years, and Chris is a real breath of fresh air.” says Ralph Robinson, another Oakville town councillor. “He brings new ideas, has an informed opinion and this creates enthusiasm in me.”

To get elected, Stoate spent $7,500 and eight weeks knocking on doors and visiting schools, championing issues such as preserving the city’s waterfront and townscape, fighting hospital closures and lobbying for new property assessments. Voters responded to his platform and ousted his ward’s 12-year incumbent, giving Stoate a three-year seat on council. Today, he deftly juggles politics and private enterprise, spending two days on council business and three at LaserNetworks each week. As an entrepreneur, he has the flexibility to determine his schedule; more importantly, he has a capable partner and senior management team that stay on top of his firm’s day-to-day operations.

Managing time isn’t the only adjustment political life has forced Stoate to make. He’s used to calling the shots and making decisions quickly, often without soliciting everyone’s input. Not so on council, where everyone’s vote has equal weight and the majority rules. “It’s been an adjustment for me,” says Stoate. “I sometimes walk out of a meeting and have to accept that, in my opinion, we didn’t do the right thing.”

However, municipal politics offer relative freedom. Unlike provincial and federal representatives who are bound by party policies and ideologies, municipal politicians are independent and free to voice their opinions. Moreover, while Stoate expected to find much waste at city hall, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn you don’t find make-work projects here.”

He’s convinced his business experience makes a meaningful contribution: “It is important in politics that there be people who have experience in the practical realm, where they’ve had to meet a payroll.” He’s striving to infuse council decisions with a customer-centric approach. “Government doesn’t exist to make a profit,” he says, “but it is meant to serve a client base.”

Still, what excites Stoate is the chance to make a difference in peoples’ lives. “I can use my broader social knowledge now that it’s been tempered by real life.”

© 2004 Deena Waisberg

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