Henry Braun says he never had any intention of being a politician but he leaves his two terms as mayor having led Abbotsford through some of the most tumultuous times in its history.
Braun, who opted not to seek re-election in October, officially steps away from politics when new mayor Ross Siemens and council are inaugurated on Monday, Nov. 7.
Braun spent eight years at the helm of the city during history-making events – the COVID-19 pandemic and the November 2021 floods – and devastating public tragedies such as the 2016 fatal stabbing of 13-year-old Letisha Reimer and the 2017 fatal shooting of Const. John Davidson.
But he said it was time for him to step down, driven by a desire, at age 72, to make the most of his remaining years.
Braun said he has some health issues – high blood pressure and arthritic knees – that were factors in the decision.
He said he asked his doctor if he were Braun, would he run for mayor again.
“He said, without hesitation, no. He said, ‘You’ve done great work and service for your community. You might want to think about spending whatever time you have left with your wife and grandkids.’ ”
Braun first entered politics in 2011, when he ran as a city councillor after years as co-owner, president and CEO of Abbotsford-based Pacific Northern Rail Contractors Corp.
He said former long-time mayor George Ferguson and others had been urging him for years to seek a council seat, but he was too tied up with his business.
He sold the company and retired in 2002, but it took eight more years to convince him to run. He wanted to make sure that his wife, Velma, was fully on board, and that occurred in 2010.
Ahead of the 2011 election, Braun was mostly fired up about the $300 million proposal for a new water supply and treatment centre at Stave Lake under a public-private partnership.
Braun was dead set against the plan, saying there was no need for it, and he also didn’t like the city’s financial state of affairs.
The election saw former mayor George Peary ousted – Braun believes it was due to the backlash over Stave Lake – and replaced by Bruce Banman, as well as the water project being defeated in a referendum.
Braun was voted in for what was then a three-year council term (now four years).
Looking back, he said there are some things he could have done differently in those early years.
“I was fairly aggressive in my first term on council … I asked a lot of pointed questions. I opened up a lot of cans, and people would refer to them as ‘cans of worms.’ And I would say, ‘Well, maybe those cans of worms needed to be opened,’ ” he said.
By the time the 2014 election neared, Braun was ready for a new challenge. He said he wanted to know more than just “policy and governance” and felt that he was “spinning (his) wheels” as a councillor, so he entered the mayoral race.
“I wanted to know how did we get to where we are today. I wanted to really drill down into our finances – our financial data – and also Stave Lake and our water because those are big-ticket items.”
Braun said he also thought there was “too much smoke and mirrors” from council at the time.
“I don’t know how else to say it: Be honest with the public. If there’s some bad news, deliver it and tell what you’re going to do to try to fix it,” he said.
His plan was, if elected, to sit for two terms, with a third one optional. Braun narrowly defeated Banman by 600 votes in the 2014 election and was re-elected in 2018 in a landslide that saw him defeat his next closest competitor – Eric Nyvall – by more than 12,000 votes.
Braun said settling into his role as mayor had a steeper learning curve than he expected, including spending more time on homelessness, mental health and addiction issues than he anticipated.
Braun said the city now has supportive housing that it didn’t have at the time he became mayor, and there is ongoing work being done around the issue and the related wraparound services.
He said he also could not have imagined the scope of the challenges that awaited the city, particularly in 2020 and 2021.
“People have said to me, ‘Well, you didn’t sign up for this’ … Actually, I did. I just didn’t know what was coming across my path … You have to be there for the good and the bad,” Braun said.
“One thing you have to be careful of is you don’t surround yourself with people who are telling you what they think you want to hear. I’ve told my staff many times, ‘Don’t do that to me. You’re not doing me any favours. I want to know the good, the bad and the ugly.’ And then let me and council wrestle with the political ramifications of whatever that is.”
Braun said, during his years as mayor, he is most proud of the work that he and council did to turn around the city’s financial picture, from $17 million in the red more than a decade ago to $349 million in the black at the end of 2021.
He looks forward to seeing the new council continue “on the fiscal side” and to push for provincial funding for the long-term flood-mitigation plan approved in June, which would include a new Sumas River pump station.
Braun described new mayor Ross Siemens as “an honest, hardworking man of character and integrity” and said he plans to keep a “low profile” for the next few months.
“I think, for the good of the community, I need to get out of the way and let somebody else take the torch,” he said.
Braun and Velma now plan to spend more time with family and on their ranch in the Hat Creek Valley between Ashcroft and Cache Creek.
Braun is also involved in a book, titled Follow the Black Lines: The Story of George and Margaret (Siemens) Braun, which details the story of his parents as they fled Ukraine from the advancing Russians during the Second World War. They ended up as refugees in Paraguay – where Braun and his brother were born – before settling in Abbotsford in 1953.
Braun commissioned local writer Elsie K Neufeld to write the book, which he initiated in 1985 with interviews and research. It is expected to be printed in December and ready for release in January.
“There are a lot of things to do, and I’m actually looking forward to it,” he said.