As Saanich gets ready to recognize Coun. Judy Brownoff for having served 25 years on council Monday, former councillor Leif Wergeland recalls the 1993 municipal campaign during which voters first elected Brownoff as the eighth and final councillor ahead of himself.
“When we started out together [in municipal politics], she beat me by 150 to 200 votes,” he says. (The actual margin was even closer with 100 votes). Three years later, Wergeland joined council himself, where he would serve 22 years with Brownoff before retiring before last year’s municipal election.
They often found themselves on opposing sides of decisions, said Wergeland. “But there was a mutual respect,” he says.
In fact, Wergeland assisted Brownoff during the last campaign, helping her with her election signage, a gesture that speaks to the immense amount of respect that she enjoys among different groups inside and outside the municipality, as evident by the Long Service Award, which she received last year from the Union British of Columbia Municipalities.
Brownoff says awards of this sort honour her, but it has never been about any numbers. “For me, it’s about creating a community for all, now and into the future, and how I can help.” She says her goal has always been to ensure that her decisions considered all perspectives in aiming for a balanced approach.
This ability to see all aspects of a file is one of the reasons she has been so instrumental in so many issues, said former councillor Vicki Sanders, who served with Brownoff from 2005 to 2018.
“Whatever committee she has chaired or item that has come before council, she has handled with exceptional professionalism and knowledge,” says Sanders. “In my opinion, her impact is the fact that all her decisions come from an informed place.” Wergeland agrees. “She is hard working. She does her homework.”
This could be especially the case with environmental files.
Former councillor Dean Murdock says the word that he associates with Brownoff is sustainability. She tried to make that concept a pillar of Saanich’s operations well before it was fashionable, and she (along with others) has helped make Saanich a recognized leader in the field, says Murdock.
During her years on Saanich council and the board of the Capital Regional District, Brownoff has spearheaded several environmental initiatives, including the region’s first regional water and energy management plan, energy retrofit programs, and efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions during a time when few cared.
“I remember a planner told me once that ‘no one cares about impacts from energy,’” she says. “Times have changed!”
She has also forged close ties with business and the economic development community, and she has emerged as a passionate advocate for seniors, as well as youth issues.
For Sanders, Brownoff’semergence on the political scene marked a major change.
“In the early years, many councillors were from longtime pioneer families,” says Sanders. “[Coun.] Brownoff was elected at a time of change to newer faces to Saanich. She was elected at a time in the early [’90s] when [community associations] were becoming more active or newly forming. What [Coun.] Brownoff brought to the table was an ear for the community.”
Former mayor Frank Leonard remembers Brownoff as an opponent of what he calls group think.
“Judy stood her ground on issues,” he says. “Sometimes she was a ‘voice of one’ only for events to confirm her position, he says.
Naturally, Brownoff has experienced setbacks along the way. “There is always more [to be done], but I wish I would have pushed more for fast tracking technology to help in efficiencies in Saanich’s workplace, from planning, building, engineering, parks and other areas,” she says. “We took the ‘Saanich cautious approach,’ which I regret.”
This said, Brownoff rattles off a long list of issues where work remains. She says she would like to protect Saanich’s agricultural lands from development and raise its ecological resilience in the face of climate change, while improving housing, transit and economic development among other issues.
Wergeland predicts that Brownoff will eventually eclipse Leonard as the longest-serving member of council, a prediction that finds agreement with Murdock. “I know that Judy loves this work. It so fundamental to who she is.”
Brownoff for her part is trying to keep things in perspective. “To be elected by Saanich voters every election has been such a great honour,” she says. “Every election I talk with my daughter and family, with community members and others to see if there is more I can do as a Saanich [councillor] for the community. Do I think there is more? Then I decide.”