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People and politics

Professional Profile
|Written By Charlotte Santry
People and politics

Mary Ellen Bench says she can count on one hand the number of days she hasn’t wanted to come into work over the course of her 30-year career. It’s not a sentiment one regularly hears, but five minutes of speaking with the City of Mississauga’s solicitor is enough to know her enthusiasm is genuine.

“The municipality deals with people everyday,” she says. “We deal with barking dogs, we deal with garbage and potholes, with what buildings are going in your neighbourhood. So you’re constantly dealing with people, interacting with people; impacting their lives.”

She can often put a face and a name to the people in a particular neighbourhood likely to be affected by a council decision informed by her team’s work.

Making a tangible impact is important to Bench, who “got caught up in the whole Trudeau mania” in high school and completed a political science BA at York University before attending Osgoode Hall Law School.

Describing what she sees as the main draw for people to work in municipal government, she says: “Usually it’s people who want to make a difference. You want to be able to point to a piece of legislation and say: ‘I had a say in how that got worded.’

“You want to be able to point to a building and say ‘I was involved in how that got developed.’ You leave your mark on a city in a way you don’t really get to in private practice.”

A career in government also appealed to her interest in policy-making and urban planning. “If I wasn’t a lawyer I would’ve been a planner,” she says.

Bench launched her career at a firm that provided legal services to the City of Etobicoke, and moved to the regional municipality of Peel after three years as an associate.

Eighteen months later, she joined the City of Toronto as a solicitor, working her way through the ranks to become director of municipal law. After a decade in Toronto, in 2001, a headhunter called with an offer she couldn’t refuse — to take on her current role in Mississauga.

While the job title has stayed the same, the role has expanded dramatically, partly due to Mississauga’s population explosion and huge growth plans. There are already 20-per-cent more people living in the city than when Bench started out in the role, and an additional 18-per-cent boost is expected by 2041.

“I had four lawyers when I first started, now I’ve got 14,” she says. “We can’t keep on top of the work.”

To avoid having to constantly call on outside counsel, Bench has brought in specialist expertise in areas including information technology, real estate, development, and tax.

The most recent addition to her team is an environmental lawyer — a vital role in a municipality with ambitious plans for high-density urban zones and vastly improved infrastructure. “We’re not dealing with farmers’ fields anymore,” Bench points out, when asked whether the business case for taking on extra staff has been a tough sell.

While the city’s growth has provided plenty of interesting projects to work on as well as the chance to expand her team, she didn’t foresee any of this 13 years ago. As a Mississauga resident, her move from Toronto was partly inspired by the desire for a shorter commute and the chance to be more involved with the extra-curricular activities of her two sons, now aged 17 and 20.

Her younger son’s passion for competitive sprint kayaking also encouraged Bench to volunteer with the Mississauga Canoe Club. She’s the club’s past commodore, a role that sometimes took up 15 to 20 hours of her time each week.

She says: “I’ve always wanted to be involved in more than just work, in giving back to the community. But I also think it helps to balance your perspective, in terms of how you see things at work, when you have broader interests in the community.”

Bench is also involved in a learning disabilities association, and works with the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association on ad hoc projects, most recently on the certification process that aims to beef up the business leadership skills of in-house lawyers.

Playing a dynamic role in helping an organization fulfill its goals requires a “big picture” vision and a willingness to get fully behind strategic objectives without

being unrealistic about legal challenges, she believes.

She explains: “I don’t want the legal department to be seen as the place you go to get a no, I want us to be seen as the place that gets you the results you want.

“I’ve always told my clients I may not be able to get you 100-per-cent of where you want to go, but I’ll get you as close as I can, so if I can get to 85- to 90-per-cent of the way I consider that a win and so do they.”

Bench has a lot of respect for the city’s long-standing mayor, Hazel McCallion, who is stepping down later this year at the age of 92, after 36 years in the job. 

McCallion has been the subject of a conflict of interest inquiry into a land deal involving her son’s company, for which Bench had to act as a witness — an experience she describes as “tough.”

The episode taught her about the need in highly politicized situations to sometimes step back and bring in objective outsiders. “You have to be transparent and accountable,” she stresses.

Knowing where to draw the line between legal and political guidance is a large part of the job, according to Bench. “You have to know your role and keep that separation — you can’t cross that line,” she adds.

That said, legal advice is by its nature a grey area, she believes, and the need to avoid getting embroiled in politics doesn’t prevent her from casting her eye over policies. To the contrary, she sees that as one of the main perks of the job. “I can be a lawyer one day and be in policy, commenting on different programs or operations, another day, so it’s great,” she says.

But where next for the municipal government veteran? Bench admits some experience at the provincial level would have been useful earlier in her career, as “they have the final say on the policies that impact us,” but “it’s probably too late to do that.”

Federal government holds no special draw for her. “When you deal with health, or defence, it’s kind of way up in the stratosphere, you don’t really see how it impacts people, the connection’s not there,” she says.

For now, she is looking forward to seeing how Mississauga develops “from being a suburb to a real city” over the next five years. To illustrate the scale of the plans, she excitedly points to the window in front of her, where high-end retailer Holt Renfrew is set to be the anchor tenant in a major new development.

“That’s the transition we’re just on the cusp of at the moment and it’s great to watch,” she says. “It’s great to be part of. To move that forward, it’s phenomenal.”


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