Bernie Morelli, a Man Who Inspired and Mentored a Generation of Hamilton's Leaders

Had Bernie Morelli not given me encouragement after my first delegation to City Council, it's quite possible you wouldn't be reading this now.

By Joey Coleman
Published January 15, 2014

Last night brought the news of the death of Ward 3 City Councillor Bernie Morelli.

It was known in Hamilton's political circles that Morelli was in his last days. Many of Bernie's long-time friends made a point of cancelling meetings and events to visit him in the past ten days. Some shared their memories of their friend Bernie with me at Levee's and during the past week.

It was clear from those conversations that, especially among younger, former City Councillors, he left a legacy of mentorship and friendship.

Bernie had an impact upon me. In fact, had he not given me encouragement after my first delegation to City Council, it's quite possible you wouldn't be reading this now.

Numerous times during the 16 years I knew him in public life, Morelli encouraged and believed in me.

I first met Councillor Morelli in the fall of 1996. At age 14, I was making my first ever delegation to a City Council committee, and I was there asking City Hall to give capital funding to renovate the Hamilton East Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club.

I was nervous, very nervous. Reading from a prepared statement, I started by saying what the Club meant to me, and then "when I was younger, I used to cause a lot of trouble."

Councillor Tom Jackson interrupted, "Excuse me Mr. Coleman, are you saying that we are old?"

He meant it as a joke, but I was so nervous I froze. In my inexperienced mind, I had just ruined my presentation and really messed up.

Morelli, who was the Chair of the Committee, sat on the other side of the long table, smiled, and said to Jackson. "Tom, we know you're old, but the rest of us are young. Carry on, Mr. Coleman."

After the Boys and Girls Club presentations, Morelli called a recess and took time to talk to us. I was uneasy when I ended, Morelli pep talk afterwards on the second floor of City Hall convinced me that I had done alright.

I lived all over during 1995 to 1997, until I found a good stable foster home on Harvey Ave in Ward 3. I would live there for two years, and Morelli was my Councillor. We next met at my doorstep during the 1997 municipal election campaign. He remembered who I was and asked how I was doing on the youth council at the Boys and Girls Club.

We chatted for a while, despite me being too young to vote, and he took an angry young man who was upset at the Common Sense Revolution - and by extension all politicians - and reminded me of the good in politics.

I came to sit on the School Board's transition committee governing information technology in 1998, and shortly afterwards, Morelli recommended to the Mayor that I sit on the Mayor's youth advisory committee, YSAN.

I regularly chatted with Bernie, and came to catch the political bug, being a regular at City Council meetings. Bernie, being my Councillor, gave of his time to help me understand how the City works.

In 1999, Bernie was one of the many who wrote letters of support for me when I was nominated for the YSAN-Rotary Youth Achievement Award.

In 2000, I decided to run for School Board Trustee in Ward 5, where I went to school and where I was living at the time.

Again, Morelli was generous with his time as I sought his advice on how to run a campaign. He called me election night when I lost, and congratulated me on a good run.

I left political life in 2001. Over the next few years, we would chat when we saw each other.

In late 2008, we had a lengthy chat, catching up over the years. He was one of those who planned the seed of my journalism in Hamilton during that discussion. I was working for Maclean's at the time, Bernie and I chatted about journalism, politics, and Hamilton.

When I livesteamed the Pan Am debate in 2010, Morelli was one of the strongest proponents of City Hall allowing its internet to be used for livestreaming. During the next few years, he fought those on Council who wanted to stop me from covering and streaming meetings.

When I needed assistance, I knew I could call on Bernie for help.

His illness this final term had slowed him physically at times, but he was still as sharp as ever with his emails and comments.

This term, Bernie and I often discussed our Catholic faith. I'm a relatively new convert, Bernie was a life-long devote Roman Catholic. He often spoke of his mother and her faith, and how strong an influence she was upon him.

When Bernie joined Twitter in 2011, he did it personally.

A couple of times, he beat me to fire scenes in Ward 3 and tweeted updates. I remember once, I was at City Hall getting ready to stream a meeting, saw a multiple-alarm call in Ward 3, and then saw that Bernie had it covered. It was a minor apartment kitchen fire, nobody was injured. When Bernie came back to City Hall, he kindly offered me lessons on reporting and tweeting.

We had a lot of fun both online and offline.

Bernie knew the end of his life was nearing this summer. I'll never forget the two hour conversation we had in October in his office. Bernie and I were conversing as two East Enders, and he was a mentor to me.

We both knew it would be our last lengthy conversation.

He offered me a lot of advice and encouragement, provided me with insightful life lessons he learned in his 70 years. It meant a lot to me when he told me how proud he was of me.

It was difficult in December filming what we all knew would be his last Council meeting and last press conference.

I'm glad that his last public appearance was as Chair of the Hamilton Police Services Board, a role he cherished and in which he provided outstanding leadership.

At that very same meeting, Bernie's son Mark was recognized for his outstanding work as an officer in handling a difficult situation that was filmed and posted on YouTube.

I can't think of a more fitting ending chapter for a man who served his City for his entire life.

Thank you Bernie.

First published on Joey Coleman's website.

Joey Coleman covers Hamilton Civic Affairs.

Read more of his work at The Public Record, or follow him on Twitter @JoeyColeman.


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By Ward 3 Resident (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:12:33

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By Ward 3 Reticent (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 13:36:29 in reply to Comment 96808

Too soon.

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By Stinson (registered) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:10:29 in reply to Comment 96808

You sir are not a classy individual.

Comment edited by Stinson on 2014-01-15 12:10:54

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:49:17 in reply to Comment 96808

Or he could just have a little class when the guy just died. Like, just last night.

It's worth discussing the positives and negatives of Councillor Morelli's legacy in the future, but for right now the polite thing to do is to give people who are grieving a little room, even if they say things you don't 100% agree with.

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By Mike (registered) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:53:15 in reply to Comment 96809

It makes me question the validity of an opinion when someone can't even find the be decent.

Bernie was first and foremost a great guy, worked tirelessly for this city, and always had its best interests at heart. I didn't always agree with him, but it was clear to me that he loved Hamilton and he loved its people.

Make no mistake, Hamilton lost one of the good guys yesterday.

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By MikeBelmore (registered) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 13:14:16

Bernie Morelli was not an "urban visionary" but he understood two very important things about local politics that the Richard Florida crowd often forget about:

1) Individuals and individual problems matter: By all accounts Morelli was as good a constituency politician as Hamilton has seen; if you called his office with an issue it was very likely to be resolved if it was within his power to do so (and sometimes even if it wasn't strictly or legitimately within his power to do so);

2) Having a vision is great, but in municipal politics, more than at any other level, you will accomplish only that which relationships, moral suasion and horse trading allow you to. There are no majority governments and no party discipline to impose visions which are not shared; City Councils are where the art of the deal reigns supreme, and again, by all informed accounts, Bernie was a past master of the deal.

The man was far from perfect and there are more than a few blemishes on his legacy. Bernie had his share of critics and I was very often among them, but he was indisputably a dedicated public servant and a ward politician who helped a lot of constituents that were not used to getting help. There is nothing in Code Red that you couldn't get a strong intuitive grasp of by walking the width and breadth of Ward 3, from the hardscrabble of Cheever St. to the sprawling comfort of St. Clair South. He was the son of a steelworker and although he was an ambitious man with multiple degrees, he never lost touch with the struggle of the working class and those further out on the margins.

The next Ward 3 Councillor is not going to be another Bernie Morelli and that's likely for the best. But before there was #HamOnt, before art was the new steel, there was the just plain old Hamilton where I grew up,a place with plenty of warts but a heart of gold. Bernie was that Hamilton through and through. It wouldn't hurt at all if his successor has a good bit of that Hamilton in them too.

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By PT (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 18:08:49

Like Henry Merling before him, Bernie is one of the last on an old gaurd. RIP Bernie.

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By Mark Coakley (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 20:26:52

I met Bernie Morelli once, at Hamilton Place, going up an escalator together. He greeted me by name and mentioned that he watched me on Cable 14's "The Opinionators" and said, "I always listen to what you have to say." Which was perhaps the nicest compliment I received in 10 years on-air. Bernie and I made some small-talk about the event (I forget what it was) and went our separate ways. If I hadn't had that single personal meeting, I wouldn't have understood that he was not a typical politician. The story of how he inspired Joey Coleman is inspiring. Thanks.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2014 at 23:39:07

Certainly unfortunate, but hopefully things will go better for the Pearl Company now that he is no longer councilor.

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted January 16, 2014 at 08:39:00

Nice story Joey. Well done!

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By New Legacy (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2014 at 21:24:24

Not to dump on Bernie, because the problems of the ward are far from his fault, but it is time to look at the times. We need a strong, new voice for the ward. One who understands the needs of newcomers and can change with the times. I think it is a sad end to an era, but I think many people will be happy with the future of the ward if Matthew Green, or his ilk get in. If Simmons, Agostino or DeMillio win say good bye.

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By Honest Citizen (anonymous) | Posted January 23, 2014 at 00:00:58

Now, let's elect a candidate that has class, a conscience, grassroots integrity, honesty and cares about the community now and into the future. Around the world, people have to start standing up for what they believe in, or else officials that "don't get it" will continue to spurn injustices that hinder a progressive society. Bernie was definitely not my role model, and that's putting it very politely.

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By GoGo (anonymous) | Posted January 24, 2014 at 13:09:28 in reply to Comment 97087

We better hope that Tim Simmons doesn't get in Honest Citizen, or Ward 3 be doubly doomed!

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