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Jack Knox: A punk legend's advice for new city councillors

Punk legend by night, city councillor by day, Joe Keithley has plenty of tips for council newcomers, including this one: Disagreements are fine, but confrontation won’t get you far.
Joe Keithley, a.k.a. Joey Shithead, is a punk rocker by night and Burnaby city councillor by day. JENNIFER GAUTHIER, BURNABY NOW

Punk legends D.O.A., fronted by the aging but still raging Joey Shithead, play the Victoria Event Centre this Saturday.

On Tuesday, Coun. Joe Keithley will ponder ­residential rezoning applications at ­Burnaby City Hall.

Same guy. And, he says, same ideals. It’s all about chasing ­justice, fairness.

OK, but it’s still weird to think of the singer of Smash the State and the author of the memoir I, Shithead as a twice-elected Burnaby councillor. Joe in a jacket and tie? It conjures up an image of Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Men In Black, an alien taking on a human form that doesn’t quite fit.

Except in reality, Keithley, 66, has been living a political life since 1971, when he took to the streets to protest the Amchitka nuclear-bomb test. He ended up with his photo in the Vancouver Sun, which he kept away from his conservative father.

“I hid the front of the newspaper up in my room,” he recalled Thursday. When his dad asked where it was, teenaged Joe blamed the paperboy.

The bridge between music and politics is not, in fact, that long, not for a band like D.O.A., whose members a British ­journalist once labelled “cultural politicians.”

They’re far from alone. ­Texas’s Beto O’Rourke was in a punk band. In 2018, Duane ­Nickull, who had played under the name Duane Chaos in ­Rampage, a band fronted by one-time D.O.A. bassist Randy Rampage, sought the B.C. Green nomination in Nanaimo. In 2009, when B.C. held a referendum on proportional ­representation, ­Nirvana bass player Krist ­Novoselic wrote an impassioned opinion piece for the Times ­Colonist, which might have ­temporarily hiked the TC’s hip factor but ultimately failed to turn the tide for electoral reform.

Still, the jump from ­shouting-from-the-sidelines activist to on-the-field player was remarkable enough to make Keithley the subject of a documentary, Something ­Better Change, following his first ­Burnaby council victory as a Green Party candidate in 2018.

The transition from outside to inside also taught him ­lessons that could apply in Greater Victoria, where October’s local elections left some councils dominated by newcomers who were suddenly handed the keys to a bus they weren’t quite sure how to drive.

Seven of eight Victoria ­councillors have no previous elected experience. Ditto for four of six in Colwood. It’s five of six in Langford, where Mayor Scott Goodmanson is also a ­neophyte.

What would be Keithley’s advice to those new to council ­chambers?

“The big thing is when you get there, you’ve got to be a sponge.” The more time you take learning how the system works, the faster you’ll be able to turn your ideas into action.

Learn the process, how bylaws are built, where the ­limits of decision-making powers are. Outside of Vancouver, which has its own charter, municipal powers are more ­limited than many realize. ­(Victoria council discovered that a few years ago, when it tried to go off on its own with a ­plastic-bag ban, only to get slapped down for ­exceeding its jurisdiction.) Keithley has learned that when people demand council act on a ­problem, sometimes the only reply is: “We can’t, but we’ll talk to the provincial government.”

Consult municipal staff, he urges. “You have to lean on their knowledge and use it to help you along.” Just remember that the actual decision-making is up to elected officials.

Forget simple answers to complicated problems. Keithley got into Burnaby politics to stop demo-victions and explore more housing options. He’s still bashing his head against that boulder. “Every time I hear a politician say: ‘We’ll build affordable ­housing,’ I go: ‘Ha, ha, ha, right.’ ” His focus is now on ­affordable rentals, as he is convinced affordable ­ownership isn’t attainable, not now, not in ­Valhallas such as Vancouver and Victoria, where there’s a ­never-ending demand.

Also, he says, learn to work with people you disagree with. It’s not like provincial politics, where MLAs in ready-to-burst-a-button suit jackets hurl insults across the legislative chamber. A municipal council is a small group where you had better make nice and genuinely listen to others if you expect them to listen to you, he says.

If that last bit blows the mind of anyone who ever heard him sing Class War, just consider that there are different paths to the same destination. Joey ­Shithead still likes getting the emotions going on stage, ­getting the crowd riled up, he said Thursday, reached while loading D.O.A.’s gear after the ­previous night’s show in ­Gibsons, the band’s first live appearance since July. Joe Keithley likes being able to get things done.

To quote D.O.A.’s slogan: Talk minus action equals zero.

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