Lake Country's Mayor Baker calling it a day at age 80, and 40 years of public service | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Lake Country's Mayor Baker calling it a day at age 80, and 40 years of public service

Lake Country Mayor James Baker, 80, will not run for re-election in the fall.
Image Credit: District of Lake Country

It was 41 years ago James Baker was first elected to serve as regional district director for what is now Lake Country in the Central Okanagan.

But his history as a community leader started a few years earlier when he first discovered there was no local government in the place he choose to call home.

That propelled him, eventually, to help create the District of Lake Country and to, later, serve as mayor for 17 consecutive years – a term that will come to an end this fall as he will not be running for re-election.

“I couldn’t believe Winfield wasn’t incorporated and didn’t have their own council,” Baker, 80, told “I remember, I went to get a burning permit. I asked where the municipal hall was to get a burning permit. They said: ‘Do you mean the irrigation office?’ I said ‘I don’t think so.’ But the irrigation office was the only government we had here at the time.”

Baker had grown up in Lytton, a small town of 600 that had its own council and municipal office and “ran things for the community.”

It was in Lytton, where his grandparents were early settlers, that he learned about natural crops from the First Nation elders and developed his life-long love of archeology and anthropology.

“I grew up collecting arrowheads on a lot of the exposed river banks and lake shores where there had been old encampments for over 10,000 years that people had lived there,” Baker said. “There was a lot of detritus and a lot of debris and a lot of interest. That’s a large part of why I was doing archeology.”

Baker got his masters degree in archaeology from Simon Fraser University and taught for four years at Langara College before taking a similar position at Okanagan College in Kelowna in 1974. This was where the plateau First Nations lived as opposed to the Coastal nations.

He initially lived in the Glenrosa area of what is now West Kelowna but, along with teaching archeology and anthropology at the KLO campus, he taught evening classes in Vernon.

After a couple of years he decided to relocate between the two campuses and bought land above Carrs Landing “when prices were affordable,” he joked.

READ MORE: This Lake Country home could be the most expensive in the B.C. Interior

It was from there that he had his burning permit epiphany and started taking an interest in local government.

That was after the NDP government forced the amalgamation of Kelowna with its outlying neighbours of Rutland, Okanagan Mission and Glenmore.

The boundary between the expanded Kelowna and the unincorporated areas of Winfield, Oyama, Carr’s Landing and Okanagan Centre was, initially, Beaver Lake Road.

At the time, John McCoubrey was the regional district director who argued vociferously that Kelowna couldn’t cut into the Winfield tax base after residents there had agreed to pay 30% of the cost of the Winfield Arena.

The province got Kelowna to cough up $50,000 annually to help pay for the recreation complex, in perpetuity.

After that, however, Kelowna kept expanding into Winfield.

“Any time businesses built on the north side of Beaver Lake Road they extended their boundary to include them because an incorporated area can extend into an unincorporated area without any referendum or anything by the people who are affected,” Baker said. “The more jurisdiction for municipalities, the less cost for the province so the province always agreed to it.”

After McCoubrey left, Rolly Hein took over as regional director. When Hein chose not to run for re-election in 1981, Baker, who was head of the minor hockey association, was encouraged to run and won.

It took another 14 years before Lake Country, led by Baker, was incorporated in 1995.

“Initially, we could sway the regional board to some extent, doing developments that were suitable for our area, but Kelowna has always had the majority vote,” Baker said “It was a little difficult sometimes to get things that we didn’t want to have to happen in our area. Whoever wanted to do the development knew who to lobby beyond the board because they could talk to the Kelowna reps and get it happening.”

Given that experience with Kelowna’s power, there were few in Lake Country who considered amalgamation with Kelowna as opposed to incorporation on their own.

As regional district director, Baker had an advisory committee with people like Rolly Hein and Bob McCoubrey (John McCoubrey’s son) sitting on it. That became the amalgamation committee.

Even though Baker was the lead person at the time, he was too busy with his teaching and his research to take on the mayor’s job.

McCoubrey became mayor and Baker won a seat on council.

One unique aspect of the District of Lake Country is that it has a ward system, with two councillors elected at large and one for each of the four wards that make up the municipality.

Baker retired from his teaching job in 2000 and chose not to run for re-election in 1999 so he and his wife, Anita, could travel. Hein replaced McCourbrey in the mayor’s chair.

By 2005, however, Baker’s travels were over and Hein choose not to run so Baker became mayor. When he leaves, it will likely be the first time since the regional district was formed in about 1967 that a McCoubrey, Hein or Baker will not be in a leadership position.

“I thought to let somebody else in there,” Baker said. “Any one of our current councillors would make a good mayor. Just as long as they don’t all run. We need the experience on council.”

There was another important role that Baker played in the development of Kelowna and the Central Okanagan.

As an instructor at Okanagan College he had a keen interest in bringing degree granting status to the region.

He was a key member of a committee made up of local business people, professionals and other academics who, initially, met in living rooms and plotted a course to lobby government for university status.

That was accomplished in the early 1990s with, first, the creation of Okanagan University College followed by a a campus being built in North Kelowna.

“It didn’t have the drawing power for getting research done in the same way as UBC or Simon Fraser University did,” Baker said. “The push became to get a UBC campus.”

Some argue that UBCO has been a major driver of the dramatic growth of Kelowna and the Central Okanagan since it was officially opened in 2005. It’s now in the process of building a “vertical” campus in downtown Kelowna.

READ MORE: UBCO unveils plans for an innovative 'vertical campus' in downtown Kelowna

While Baker was part of that ground-breaking process, he doesn’t take a lot of credit for its success.

“Others did more than I,” he said. “I was still doing research. We weren’t a research institution but I always had a summer project and did field work with students.”

Baker feels he’s accomplished most of what he wanted on council in terms of building the community.

“Simply trying to do measured growth in ways that are providing more services to the community but, at the same time, keeping the agricultural and rural aspects as much as possible, even though it’s difficult,” he said when asked about the highlights of his time in office.

His regret is that there is still no resolution to the traffic nightmare where Glenmore Road crosses Highway 97 to become Beaver Lake Road. There are just too many interests represented at that intersection. Along with the province, Kelowna and Lake Country there is Okanagan Indian Band and locatee properties involved.

“It seems to me we are getting close to a suitable resolve,” Baker said. “I hope to see that done in the next term. I won’t be leading the charge.”

Highway 97 also divides the community by the fact that most people live on to the west of the highway but the businesses are to the east. And there are areas at the north end of town where it’s virtually impossible to get across the highway, he noted.

As for his future, the 80-year-old is not going to just go quietly into the night.

“I still am interested but Anita and I would like a little more time for ourselves,” Baker said. “Both Anita and I are getting up there a bit. More time with extended family is always great fun.”

He has four grandchildren and many grand-nephews and grand-nieces.

“I still have an interest in the archeology and anthropology and the native history so want to do more of that and attend more lectures in my retirement time.”

He not only attends lectures but still does talks where “people are interested in local government as well as my academic background.”

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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