How a part-time clerk ended up organizing the lives of three Kelowna mayors | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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How a part-time clerk ended up organizing the lives of three Kelowna mayors

Former secretary to three Kelowna mayors, Jan Johnston.
Image Credit: Submitted/Jan Johnson
March 10, 2021 - 6:30 AM

Jan Johnston rose from humble beginnings as a part-time City of Kelowna clerk to become secretary to and scheduling the lives of three Kelowna mayors before retiring two weeks ago.

“What a loss to the city,” former Mayor Sharon Shepherd told “She’s amazing. She was lovely, knowledgeable, knew everything but very, very discreet.”

Johnston started her career with the city in 1989 as a part-time clerk at Parkinson Recreation Centre, working evenings and weekends as she raised her children.

“That was a great job,” she said. “Everyone who came in there was in good spirits. They were there to swim or play basketball.”

During her seven years there she go to know Airport Manager Roger Sellick. She got a full-time job at the airport in 1996 where Sellick encouraged her to learn property management. She took night courses at Okanagan University College to get her certificate.

“Roger wanted me to do the leases and licences at the airport,” Johnston said. “There was a lot of legalese involved. So I managed all the leases and licences and bids. I had a great time working there for seven years.”

Since she lived downtown she applied for a job closer to home and went to work, briefly, in the City Clerk’s office.

“I was working there just four months and HR approached me and said you should apply for the mayor’s secretary’s job,” she said. “I thought, well, I’ve only been working here four months so that’s kind of rude. They said, no, no apply. So I did and got it.”

She started in that job in 2002 when Rita Klassen retired after 33 years. It was part way through Walter Gray’s first stint as mayor from 1996-2005.

Shepherd took over in 2005 and never had any hesitation about keeping Johnston as her secretary even though, technically, she could have opted for someone else.

“I had no question about retaining Jan,” Shepherd said. “I wasn’t new to the system because I had been a city councillor. I knew her. I knew how she worked. I knew her habits. I had no question about wanting Jan to remain.”

For her part, Johnston had nothing but kind words to say about all the mayors.

“I was very fortunate,” she said. “The three mayors I worked for were just wonderful – completely different people, different styles, but wonderful people – and great councils. All the councillors I worked for were just wonderful.”

She described Gray as a “big ideas guy” and very funny.

“He had this blotter on his desk and underneath, if you lifted it up, there were little scraps of paper, napkins and receipts and little scraps and he wrote ideas or quotes or just messages,” Johnston said. “He was always thinking, always had ideas.”

Shepherd was much more grassroots.

“She dealt with the little people,” Johnston said. “Anybody who came into the office she had time for. And she was very passionate.”

Current Mayor Colin Basran has a whole different vibe.

“Colin Basran is a real modern man and a great promoter of our city – all three of them are great promoters of our city – but young,” she said. “Colin Basran was half the age of Walter when he took office.”

One of the key jobs as a mayor’s secretary is to schedule their appointments and make sure they get there on time.

“Colin Basran has two young children so he was balancing taking his kids to school in the morning and picking them up and working at home on weekends,” Johnston said. “He couldn’t do all the things that Walter and Sharon did at the drop of a hat because he was a dad of young children. So he had to be really cognizant of his time, making sure he had time for work and home.”

For his part, Basran acknowledged that he benefited greatly from Johnston’s organizational and scheduling skills after he took office in 2014.

“The best thing about Jan is her personality,” he said. “She is legitimately one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Her main talent was just her ability to relate to people and how you felt around her.

“She had this unique ability to just make you feel good, to feel welcomed, to feel loved. Even people who would call in with a complaint would leave, probably, in a much better mood than when they initially called because Jan’s warmth and friendliness just rubbed off. It’s contagious.”

When she started, Johnston was secretary both to Gray and then-City Manager Ron Born. She ran the office, ordered supplies, made coffee, watered the plants and was “like a mom to everybody,” she said.

When Ron Mattiussi took over as city manager in 2004, he got his own assistant, which eased Johnston’s heavy workload.

“There were hundreds of emails every day you were dealing with and a lot of phone calls and correspondence that you had to reroute, like a gatekeeper,” Johnston said. “You assign these letters, phone calls and inquiries to staff who would be able to assist or just get background information for the mayor so he could return phone calls or meet with people and be knowledgeable about certain issues. There was a lot of research.”

She even wrote many of the mayors’ speeches.

“The short ones,” she stressed. “The welcome speeches. The ones where they go to conferences. A lot of two-, three-minute speeches.”

The longer ones went to communications director Tom Wilson.

Dealing with the public was a huge, often stressful and occasionally risky part of the job.

“I think, sometimes, she did put herself in danger,” Basran said. “But, that’s just her personality. She wants to help everybody and, I think, sometimes that put her in maybe a dangerous or awkward spot. Fortunately, nothing ever came of it.”

Sometimes people came in off the streets who had mental health issues. While there is a security system so people have to be admitted through a locked door into her office, she was frequently called out to deal with the public.

“There were a few times when I was unsure of my safety,” she said. “Some of the people I dealt with, it took some diplomacy and a lot of empathy to calm them down and listen to them. A lot of the time people just want to be heard.”

If things started getting heated, the receptionist would call security.

“There were a few times when security would come and almost escalate things,” Johnston said. “So sometimes that didn’t work out too well.”

She also took a lot of abuse over the phone because most people who want to speak to the mayor are upset or angry about something.

“When people would phone up to say something positive or kudos, you would go 'wow, thank you,'” Johnston said. “You were surprised.”

One of her “frequent flyers” was Kevin Lee Barrett, who was sentenced in January to six years in jail for attempting to murder his mother.

READ MORE: UPDATED: West Kelowna mom beater sentenced to another 2.5 years in prison

“I saw him maybe once a week,” she said. “You could tell when he was off his meds. He liked me. He’d come in and chat with me. Then you find out later what he’s capable of. There were a lot of people like that who came in. Lots of people who were angry and you just had to diffuse them."

That’s one part of the job she certainly won’t miss.

“It does take its toll,” Johnston said. “There were times, even on the phone, when you were brought to tears by the negativity. People would phone and get angry and abusive.

“I think, once or twice, I had to hang up on people. Most of the time, people just want to be heard. They just want their voice to be listened to and their message passed on. That usually diffuses things. There were a few times it got pretty scary."

That negativity wasn’t why she retired.

“I turned 65 in November,” she said. “I always said I’d go when I’m 65 and I’ll go in the spring because I’m a gardener. Time to pass the desk on to somebody younger and I’m sure they’ll change it and improve it.”

After two weeks of retirement she’s still kicking about the house taking it easy, doing the cooking and cleaning that her husband did before. He had a home-based business but is now working full-time.

She was happy to sit down and actually read a book through, rather than in bits and pieces, although she did feel a bit guilty about that.

The highlight of her career was meeting people like actor John Voight, politician Ed Broadbent and Lesra Martin, the lawyer who helped free former boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter.

But the best was at a meeting held on the promenade by the Grand Okanagan hotel.

“Mayor Basran called me up on his cell and said: ‘Jan, can you come over? I need some more city pins.’ I thought: ‘what, I gave him a bunch of city pins.’ I thought: ‘OK, I can zip over.’

“So I put some pins in a bag and hurried over there and he made me stand beside him and there was Justin Trudeau,” Johnston said, her voice rising in excitement. “So I got to meet him and shake his hands – he has soft hands – it was so nice. That was very cool.”

Now, that’s all behind her.

“It was a great job,” Johnston said. “I felt very fortunate, quite blessed, to have an interesting job and meet so many people and make a bit of a difference, I think, and just help people out.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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