Opinion

COLUMN: The man who may have New Westminster's toughest job

It’s quite possible you don’t know Keith Coueffin.

He’s the city’s manager of licensing and integrated services.

A yawn of a title. If you’d asked a few years ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea what this job entailed.

Ask today, though, and I’ll say Keith’s actions have impacted every resident in the city, for the better.

And it’s not just because of what his job requires—which includes dealing with everything from slum landlords to homelessness to pot shops to graffiti.

It’s how Keith does that job.

I first met him almost 10 years ago, before working at this paper.

I’d just moved to New West and was troubled by what I saw in my 12th Street neighbourhood.

Prostitution, graffiti, a couple of flop houses and the like.

I called the city and was passed to Keith, and he suggested we go for a walk in the area and chat.

I showed him the graffiti, and an apartment building with a rotation of drug dealers. We talked about the issues. And he explained what the city had done, the tools the city had, and he told me what I could do to help him do his job. I felt empowered.

I learned a lot about what the city can do to compel bad landlords to mend their ways. Or about who to call when the mailbox got tagged again, or another shopping cart was abandoned on our block.

When Keith retires on Friday, after 34 years working for the city, he’ll leave an impressive legacy in his wake.

Metal thieves stealing everything from electrical wire to the plaque in front of the Armoury? Keith dealt with that. Marijuana dispensaries? Keith. Honduran drug dealers, homelessness? He had a hand in addressing those issues too.

His has been one of the most complicated, acrimonious jobs at the city. The stress alone would have crushed an average person like a bug.

“Keith was the only guy in the whole organization that had job security,” city manager Lisa Spitale told me this week, quoting a running joke at City Hall. “No one wanted his job.”

His job has been tough, but his approach has made it easier for everyone around him. He took emotion out of the equation, Lisa says, and immediately put people at ease with his calm, measured, business-like approach.

Lisa describes sitting with Keith and a shady business owner in a “show cause” hearing, which is effectively a meeting where the city explains why they are cancelling someone’s business licence.

The business man was an intimidating looking fellow.

Despite the unsatisfactory outcome for the man, Keith made him feel respected.

“He did it in such a way that people would shake his hand after the meeting, and thank him,” Lisa says. “I’d say to him after, how do you do that?”

By example, Keith taught his colleagues that even when dealing with files rife with potential conflict, an approach of compassion and collaboration will more often lead to success.

“It really changed how we talked about enforcement,” Lisa says. “If it’s always a fight, it doesn’t work. Keith brought a diplomacy to enforcement that grew from there.”

A few weeks ago, Keith called me and said he’d enjoyed a recent column I’d written. I thanked him, we chatted briefly then I was about to hang up.

“Oh,” he said. “I was wondering who I’d talk to about some of your papers that are blowing around in the wind outside a couple businesses. I’ve had a couple of complaints.”

I was more than happy to help.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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