It’s election season, and on October 16, St. Albert residents will select a new mayor and council. The last four years have not been without controversy for the current city council. Debates were known to get heated, involving personal attacks and block-voting. In 2015, St. Albert’s Chamber of Commerce even stepped in to publicly scold council for their inability to work together. The new mayor will be expected to make some changes to the way council behaves, as well as to have a plan of action for balancing St. Albert’s finite budget with the plebiscite outcome to either support or oppose the development of a new library, pool and arena. We sat down with each of the three mayoral candidates as they weighed in on some of the key issues of the election. These are the full transcripts
t8n: You’ve stated a need for the new council to re-establish trust with the public and that your plan for achieving this involves council members committing to building stronger bonds and more positive working relationships with each other. In light of previous council’s difficulty establishing positive dialogues, what would you do if faced with council members who chose not to cooperate with this plan?
Heron: Well first off, I hope I don’t have to face that. There are steps you can take, even before the election, to prevent that. I’m trying to meet with as many of the candidates who are open to meeting. I’ve told them all that I’m available to answer questions and just talk about what kinds of projects they might want to pursue if they win. If I am elected mayor, I will meet with each council member one-on-one, right away. It’s important to understand where they’re coming from and what they want out of the next four years. They have their projects, and I can help guide them on how to get it done, and put them on committees that will help them learn what they need to do in order to achieve their goals.
But as for what I would do if I was faced with a councillor who wasn’t cooperative? We have a stronger code of conduct, and I’m hoping that with the support of the rest of council that we can work as a team to bring everyone into the fold. It’s been very obvious this term that when you spend time in-fighting, you forget the good work that you should be doing for the city. From what I can tell, everyone that’s running has a really strong foundation of love for this city. And that’s a great place to start building a new team. I think it’s also important to do a bit of socializing—get to know them—meet the spouse, meet the kids. Then when someone does something, you might have a better understanding of where they’re coming from.
t8n: Are you worried at all that the existing hostilities will carry forward?
Heron: I am. I’m seeing some division already in the campaign, but I’m staying out of it. So hopefully that division doesn’t direct itself towards me personally. But that’s a bridge we’ll have to cross when we get there.
t8n: You haven’t publicly announced your support of the library/pool/arena plebiscite’s outcome. Why is that?
Heron: It’s a complicated issue. None of the issues are black and white. I supported this plebiscite, and I still support it as a way of gathering opinion from the public. It’s going to be very simple. If there is an overwhelmingly strong “yes” to one of the three outcomes or a very strong “no,” then we have our marching orders. But if it’s somewhere in the middle, that’s where it gets complicated. My problem with the plebiscite questions is that there are three. You tend to go into a voting booth, and you’ll decide on one, maybe two or even none. It would be so much simpler if there was one question. If all three get 49%, that indicates to me that there is a strong support to build something. We just have to figure out what that is. But what if they all get 51%? I can tell you that we cannot afford to build all three right away.
The plebiscite questions don’t give any wiggle room in private funding models. We’ve had a company come to us and say that they want to build ice and a gymnasium and some courts. They would require some city funding, but not nearly as much, and they would cover the upkeep costs as well. To me, that is a very good option, but it isn’t one that is included in the plebiscite. So the “50% +1” scenario is difficult. I would say that this community is made of lots of different people with lots of different interests.
Not everyone likes a library, not everyone likes to swim, not everyone knows how to skate and so on. For facilities with such a narrow focus, it’s hard to find 50% of the population who will support it. Servus Place had 54% of the vote on a non-binding plebiscite question. That building has just about everything, and it only received 54%. So my strong suspicion is that it is going to be hard to achieve 50% support. But I think what builds a community is having all of those things available, and I think that just because you don’t get 50% support, doesn’t mean that it isn’t needed, we need to figure out a way to do it.
t8n: Would you say that it’s acceptable to disregard the plebiscite’s results if you don’t believe it’s in St. Albert’s best interests?
Heron: Well I would caution the use of the word “disregard,” because it’s not disregarding. You take every piece of information you have when you make a decision. And so that, for me, is the multiple studies done on the library. We’ve done a study on the ice, we’ve done two statistically valid surveys, and I’ll be door-knocking about 15,000 doors, and those voices will be important to hear, too. It’s a non-binding question, so to say “disregard” is not the right term. It’s the mid-range results that will be the most difficult because there is a demonstrated need for these facilities. We’ve got people driving to Bon Accord to get ice time. There is no question that there is a need for all of these projects. If it was one question, it would be very different. But if all three get 51%, and we start building all three because of a mandate that 50% +1 decides the outcome, and I get a phone call because someone who voted only for a pool is upset that their taxes are going up, that’s not fair. They didn’t know the ramifications of their decisions on the ballot that day. So it’s very hard.
t8n: Was the re-phrasing of the question that happened in council on September 5th an attempt to combat that?
Heron: It’s helped somewhat. My problem with the phrasing on the first version was that the construction costs are still so unknown at this point. They really are. I think we could build these projects cheaper if we combine them. If we share land, share parking, things like that. There is also the conversation that we have to have with the county and places like Morrinville. Because they use these facilities, and the province is really encouraging inter-municipal funding frameworks. So they should be supporting these projects too, just like we should be supporting anything that St. Albert residents use in other communities. Those conversations are yet to be had.
t8n: You’ve stated on your website that you want to revise the city’s budget model. What key changes are you planning to make, and to what advantage?
Heron: Some municipalities will sit down with their staff really early on in the budgeting process and say “we can only afford to go 1.5% over our projected costs, so make sure you stick to that model.” But in St. Albert, we find out later on that we’re already at 3% over budget, and then it’s on us to try to bring it down. So a closer conversation with our city manager and council on our projections would be a good starting point. There are also some things with staffing. We currently approve every position within the municipality. Other cities just present the city manager with a budget and say, “You get 2% of the operating costs for the new staff. You can’t go over that.” It’s awkward when different departments come before council and say that they desperately need a new position created, when the running of the city is not our job. We’re supposed to govern. These are questions that should be presented to the city manager. He should be making those calls. We should be instituting policies that allow our manager to make decisions on his own, within the budget set.
t8n: You’ve said that if elected, one of your goals would be for council to re-establish trust with the community. One of the ways you’ve said you’d approach this is by increasing the accountability among council members. What does that accountability plan entail, and how would you establish it?
MacKay: First off, I don’t want to slight anybody. I don’t think that trust has been broken with the public. But in order to improve it, one of the things I’ve worked towards on this council is bringing forward an integrity commissioner. So that’s an independent body, and if any ethical issues arise on council, then the issue can be examined independently and reported back to council. That way the public can be assured that the conduct among city staff and council is ethical and that it has had an impartial and independent investigation. That’s the one thing that really could have benefited this current council. We’ve had to address difficult issues, from one member on council using his position to obtain employment within the city, to double billing charges. These are ethical issues, but they’re determined though majority vote. It doesn’t always work out because the process is biased. An independent commissioner can really take council out of the equation.
t8n: Do you think that people would be less inclined to breach ethics under this system?
MacKay: For sure. It’ll increase accountability, which is always a good thing. It’s not necessarily that people want to do bad things, but people don’t always think about what they’re doing. Without a system of checks and balances, things just carry on and you find yourself in a bad situation. This will make sure everyone on council is on their toes and doing the right thing.
t8n: You’ve gone on record saying that you’d support the construction of a second library if the plebiscite passes with at least 50% +1 of the votes. However, in previous council sessions you’ve been opposed to the library, even when it was coupled with a petition of over 6000 names. Why has your stance on this shifted?
MacKay: So just to go over the facts a little bit, one of the things I’ve been criticized for is that I voted to support the library and put it into the budget. And there was another vote to bring forward the borrowing bylaw. I didn’t support it at that time. But to be clear, I support our library. I use our library. However, if this is something the public doesn’t want, I’m very happy to support their wishes either way. What I’m more interested in is representing the public’s priorities in council, rather than just picking the things that we would like. The pool and the rink, which are also on the ballot, also have tremendous need in the community. So I’m committed to supporting the results.
t8n: On September 5th, the plebiscite underwent a re-wording. It now asks voters whether or not they support further planning for these projects rather than focusing on the issue of actual construction. Has this changed perception of the issue?
MacKay: I would have preferred the old wording where people would be voting on a specific project. “Do you support a library with a borrowing cost of 21.9 million dollars and an operating cost of 1.3 million dollars, and a tax increase of 3%.” That’s very easy to understand, and you know exactly what you’re voting for. This new question has some higher stakes. If people vote no to further planning, to me that means that there is no further planning, and the library would be stopped dead in its tracks. But it’s also a bit loosey-goosey in that you’re not voting on anything specific. It’s very nebulous. I’m not sure what “future planning” would even mean because we’ve done all the planning that could possibly be done. I’m still prepared to abide by the results of the plebiscite, but I think the issue has been confused for the voter.
t8n: Your website states that you plan to improve services while reducing taxes. What services would you improve, and how would you do so with a lower tax base?
MacKay: Well not with a lower tax base, but with lower taxes than other candidates would have. Parks and snow cleaning are two things that are at the top of my list. I’d like to see better maintenance of our parks. For example, we had a very good growing season this year, and the city struggled to keep up with the plant growth. I’d like to see an improvement there. And I’d like to improve efficiency with snow cleaning as well.
Insofar as tax reduction, what I’d like to do is find some efficiencies within the city. One thing I did this last term was to get an internal auditor in place, and they’re going to be retained going into November. If we work with him, we’re going to find a lot of savings and efficiencies within the city where we will be able to deliver value to St. Albert residents. I’ve got an item in my 50-point platform, which is an efficiency bonus. If a resident comes forward with an idea where we can save some money or deliver a better service, they should be rewarded for that. We have a resident in the city who works for Telus, and he’s contacted the city saying that he could redesign our phone network so that we could save money every month. But as a council, we’ve never really looked at that kind of stuff coming from residents. I’d like to give that a try and give these people a small financial incentive to come forward and have their ideas heard. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, no harm no foul.
t8n: You’ve announced your candidacy late compared to your opponents, who have already been in the public eye for a few months. Why did you wait until now?
Parker: There are two things I always ask myself when I’m running for an election: Why am I doing it, and can I be committed to it. If I can’t give myself good answers on that, then I know that I shouldn’t be doing it. But now I understand why I’m running. I strongly believe that I’ve got the skill set that the community needs. I’ve got the experience of having been on council. I’ve got really strong business experience. When you look at running a city, with the size of a budget like that, you need someone with those skills. I think I’ve got that skill set. The second part of that is when I look at how this council has performed these last four years, I can see that it’s been very dysfunctional. They haven’t worked together as a team. If you ask the public, that dysfunction is one thing they’re seeing. So we need someone in there without baggage, and get the city rejuvenated again.
t8n: So you think that your lack of an association with the current council will be an advantage to you in this election?
Parker: Yes. I know both Cathy and Cam. I’ve worked with them. But I wasn’t there to be part of that last council. I thought about running in the by-election, but I had other things on my plate. And that brings us back to the whole question of commitment. I won’t do things unless I know I can give it my all, otherwise I’m fooling myself and I’m fooling the residents of this city.
t8n: Much of the conversation surrounding this election has focused on the library, arena and pool plebiscite—issues that you haven’t weighed in on yet. You have, however, spoken to the need for improving infrastructure and roads. Why is this the issue you’ve chosen to address?
Parker: One of the things I learned while I was on council was that the number one issue that all municipalities have is their infrastructure. When we talk about infrastructure, we’re talking about roads, bridges, parks, buildings and all those things that really matter to the community. If you want to keep the community a place where people want to live, work and play, you’ve got to upkeep that infrastructure. When you start spending money, you want it to go to water lines, sewers and all that stuff otherwise people are going to become very unhappy. If your roof begins to leak are you going to spend the money to fix that? Or are you going to go out and buy yourself a new toy? That’s why I focus on the infrastructure.
The library is a top issue for a lot of people simply because it’s been in the news for the last while. It’s going to be on the ballot, but I think the issue with the library is with the proposal process the old council followed. This is where my business experience comes in. The business case that was presented for the library probably wasn’t done as well as it should have been. What you want to do is figure out your objective and then justify very strongly why you need to meet that objective. Weigh the need, the demand, figure out the design and the cost, and present all those things very clearly so that council can make the appropriate decisions. That’s where this issue has fallen off a bit. They came in and approved a plan for 17.9 million dollars or whatever it was, the next time the plan comes in it is projected at 22 million dollars. And then you start hearing that costs could be as high as 30 million dollars. In the projects I manage you’re allowed to go 10% over projections, but if you’re going much over that, you should be revisiting the whole proposal. The issue isn’t so much about being for or against the library. There is a borrowing bylaw wherein the province loans money to municipalities for these things. But they’re going to be looking for pretty solid justification from the community that this project will be a success.
t8n: So you’d like to revisit the approval process?
Parker: Yeah, I think we’ve got to look at it. I’d want them to show me what you’ve got now. One of the issues is that if these proposals aren’t done well, then it means that you’re asking a flawed question. So we start with that, and we find out whether the city needs a library now, or whether they can wait five years.
t8n: You’ve stated that your financial plan for the city doesn’t involve cutting costs, but rather a need for being more cost-effective. What isn’t working with the current financial plan and what specific changes would you make to it?
Parker: You can’t come in with a 120-million-dollar operating budget and say, “okay, we’ve got to reduce that.” Because sometimes you have no choice but to spend money for the community, like in the case of infrastructure. So what I would like to do is sit down with the city manager and look at the budget. I’d like to get a good feel for it and find out what things in the budget are necessities. We can even work toward changing the way we do our budgeting. I think we can find some opportunities to cut back. We need to set priorities and then go back to the city manager with clear areas of focus.