It’s an experiment still evolving five decades after it began.
The Regional District of North Okanagan officially launched Nov. 9, 1965 as the provincial government moved towards governance linking incorporated communities and rural counterparts.
“There was a tremendous distinction between rural and urban but I believed we had to work together,” said John Baumbrough, one of a five-person committee who pursued a regional structure for the North Okanagan starting in 1963.
The primary focus was the sprawling rural areas outside of Armstrong, Coldstream, Enderby, Lumby, Spallumcheen and Vernon.
“We were disenfranchised. We had no say in what happened locally,” said Baumbrough, who still lives on his family’s Swan Lake farm.
“We went for it because we had a belly full of what the cities were doing.”
Committee members toured the region to gather input and while there was general support for regional governance, not everyone was on board. Among them was an elderly woman in Hupel, just west of Kingfisher.
“No damn way did she want government. She wanted to live out her life,” said Baumbrough.
But eventually RDNO formed and the goal was to create functions suited to specific jurisdictions.
“We wanted good planning that transformed into good growth,” said Baumbrough, who was a director from 1965 to 1967 and first the chairperson.
“The regional district is now way beyond what we anticipated.”
A highlight was working with individuals such as Charlie Sihlis, Cherryville’s inaugural director.
“He really believed in the regional district and that Cherryville had an opportunity to do something for itself,” said Baumbrough.
But even with the optimism, there were challenges over development and some jurisdictions promoting their interests.
“We should be co-operative more but it didn’t always happen. Any city wants to grow and it can only expand into the regional district,” said Baumbrough.
Board directors have come and gone over 50 years and some strong personalities have stood out.
“One thing we liked most were the people we associated with,” said Earl Shipmaker, rural Enderby director from 1975 to 1999 and chairperson for 14 years
Among them were Coldstream’s Russ Postill, Pat Duke from Lumby, Hans Blattner from Spallumcheen, Vernon’s Neil Davidson and Alan Hill from Okanagan Landing.
Shipmaker is convinced the regional district has the potential to meet the needs of its participants.
“For many years, it was ground-breaking in sub-regional parks and recreation. It allowed Enderby to have an arena,” he said.
When Peter Mackiewich became chief administrative officer in 1973, RDNO’s total annual budget was $200,000 (operating/capital budget in 2015 is $65.2 million).
“The regional district has evolved over time. It’s a co-operative or federation of doing things together. The concept is still a great one,” said Mackiewich, who was on the job until 1997.
Mackiewich downplays conflicts between jurisdictions over the years.
“A regional district is like a marriage. There is good and bad but you’re there to do things together.”
Wayne McGrath, former Vernon mayor, sat on the RDNO board from 1990 to 1999.
“Over those years, I enjoyed working with committed individuals from the jurisdictions,” he said.
“During the nine years I was there, we had excellent staff. I always have to commend them.”
However, McGrath insists there are too many levels of government.
“I looked at other provinces where there are expanded municipalities. There should be the provincial government (for rural areas) and local municipalities.”
From its humble roots, RDNO now has 65 services ranging from Kal Tire Place in Vernon to planning in the electoral areas, landfills, volunteer fire halls and water utilities large and small.
Grants are provided to many community associations and property taxes are collected for capital works in local health care facilities.
Currently, 101 employees serve a population of about 81,237.
“Co-operation is key and it’s a good system. The regional district allows all residents to have input into issues that effect everyone,” said Rick Fairbairn, long-time rural Lumby director and current chairperson.
Often, the regional board advocates for individual communities on a range of issues, including meat regulations, school bus cuts and the spread of invasive species.
“We provide a voice that would otherwise go unnoticed,” said Fairbairn.