From a seaside city to the wilds of north central B.C. and back again — it’s been quite a journey for Debbie Comis.
The City of Parksville’s chief administrative officer — she took over from the retired Fred Manson at the beginning of 2016 — started working in municipal government in Mackenzie, B.C. in 1980. Comis and her husband Barry were high school sweethearts who have now been married 40 years. They left their hometown of Nanaimo so Barry could pursue a forest industry job.
Mackenzie is a two-hour drive north of Prince George. It was home to a thriving lumber and pulp industry when Comis arrived. It had a population of 4,500 then, about 1,000 more than it does now.
“We went for two years and stayed for 11,” Comis recalled when she sat down with The NEWS for a wide-ranging interview last week.
Born and raised in Nanaimo, Comis went to BCIT after graduating from Nanaimo and District Secondary School and learned about health data technology with an eye to being a medical records librarian. These were the early days of computers.
“We were still using the cards,” she said. “It was when computer programming was just coming to the fore — I’m dating myself, I know.”
She did get a job in the field back in Nanaimo at the Caledonia Medical Clinic before heading with Barry to Mackenzie, where she jumped into municipal government for the first time as the District of Mackenzie’s deputy clerk.
“I walked in there knowing nothing,” Comis recalled. “When I first moved to Mackenzie, we were so young. I didn’t even know we paid property tax. But every aspect of the job appealed to me — I really enjoyed the work.”
She took correspondence courses in municipal government and eventually earned a diploma in public administration and certificates in local government administration and a University of Victoria diploma in public administration.
The Comis family then moved to Burnaby — Debbie and Barry have a son and a grandson who currently live in Brandon, Man. — where she took a job with the City of Burnaby. She eventually became Burnaby’s first female City Clerk. She took the job as the City of Parksville’s second in command — director of administrative services — in 2011.
Comis spoke about the differences in working for communities with large and small populations. When she left Burnaby in 2011, it was home to about 230,000 people. Parksville has about 12,000 people.
“The difference between working in a large municipality and a small municipality has a lot to do with what you get to do on a daily basis,” said Comis. “In a smaller municipality where you don’t have all the resources, there’s a lot more variety in what you do.”
Comis is 60 years old. She is working under a five-year contract as the City of Parksville’s top municipal employee and it sounds like this may be her last gig.
“I think there comes a point in time when you need to finish work.”
Comis’ job, to put it in its simplest form, is to work with and for city council and direct city staff to follow what’s been decided by the elected officials.
“I have a great deal of respect for politicians,” she said. “Councils have a variety of reasons for making decisions and not all of them are based on the information provided by staff. You can’t take it personally when they don’t take your advice and it’s my job to help the other staff understand that as well.”
Comis said she wasn’t always so pensive and understanding about her role as a municipal employee. She spoke of a time when she was young and inexperienced.
“I actually asked a councillor one time if he had a brick between his ears — not a good move,” she recalled. “I know what it’s like to have a not-so-good council and I know what it’s like to have a great council. I definitely prefer the latter.”
If this indeed is her last job before retirement, it doesn’t seem like Comis is in coasting mode.
“I’m really energized by what I do,” said Comis. “I think Parksville is the greatest place I’ve worked.”