What three words are pretty much top of mind for Sturgeon County’s two mayoral candidates? Capital. Region. Board.
The Capital Region Board (CRB) and, by association, intergovernmental relations, have been top of mind for Sturgeon County council during this last term, as opposition from St. Albert, Edmonton and other regional councils has frustrated the county’s plans to grow the way it wants.
Both candidates Don Rigney and Tom Flynn have criticized the CRB, but, as the Gazette learned, they stand far apart when it comes to what to do about it and the county’s relations with its neighbours.
Rigney: we’ve done nothing wrong
Rigney has been a vocal critic of the CRB for many years, calling it “an obscenity to democratic principles” as recently as last August. A motion from him last August to have the board support the county’s request to the province to let it leave the CRB was defeated 4-3.
If re-elected, Rigney said he would make another attempt to have the county leave – or, failing that, reform – the CRB. The board was undemocratic, he said, and gave Edmonton inordinate influence over the region. “This is about growing the region. It is not about using the CRB as a cudgel to bludgeon your neighbours into submission.”
When the CRB started, Rigney said, the capital region had some of the most competitive housing markets in Canada. “Now we have one of the least. We’ve gone from eight or nine upgraders to one.” Industry is leaving, costs are spiralling, and the CRB was to blame. “The Capital Region Board is slowly strangling the area.”
The CRB was holding the county to a different standard when it came to development, Rigney said, “Nobody else was required to do the road studies,” he said. “Nobody else was required to comply with some of the things we had to do.”
At the same time, Sturgeon County had done much to support neighbours like St. Albert. “I have supported, as mayor, everything (St. Albert) has tried to do,” Rigney said. “On the other hand, Edmonton and St. Albert have vetoed or opposed virtually everything we’ve tried to do.”
Rigney said the county would hold its ground on its projects and hope for some reciprocity from its neighbours. “I’m not about to surrender. I don’t believe we’ve done anything wrong.”
This was a matter of principle, he said. “You don’t surrender. Are we going to be Neville Chamberlain? ‘Peace in our time’?” The county held its ground on rights to its regional water line, he said, got the support of the Alberta Utilities Commission, and negotiated a deal with Morinville and Legal over it.
St. Albert will eventually need something from Sturgeon, Rigney said, and he was confident the city would change its attitude when that happened. “We’re not just a land bank, we’re not just a source of revenue and our citizens are not freeloaders.”
Flynn: clear the bad blood
Flynn blamed the current state of relations on clashing personalities, aggressive tactics and 50 years of accumulated grievances. “You can’t start negotiating with people, anybody, by starting with poking them in the eye,” he said. “You have to build those relationships.”
The county took the wrong approach with the Villeneuve area structure plan (which was sunk by the board), for example – it proposed to build what amounted to a new town of about 5,000 people in the region, Flynn said, and pushed its before the CRB with an attitude of, “Well, we have the right to do what we want.”
“I’m really, when I think about it, not that surprised that the region would say, ‘No,’” Flynn said. Had the county proposed something different – say, 1,000 new residents – it likely would have won the board’s support.
Flynn said he led a push in county council to bring in a provincial mediator to work on St. Albert-Sturgeon relations. The first meeting is set for next February.
“The intent is to get all the cards on the table,” he said, and build trust between the two governments. Get that trust, and both councils could work together on commercial growth along Hwy. 2 and other big issues.
The CRB is a challenge, Flynn said, but it’s clear that the province would block any attempt by the county to leave it. “If we want to sit here and poke our fingers in the provincial government’s eyes, we’ll propose those things, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Other governments also have issues with the board, he said, but they’re not seen as they guys stirring the pot. “We cannot be seen as the problem.”
The county has to be willing to work with the board while at the same time pushing for reform. “There are inherent problems with the voting structure and the way things are there, and we have to be a catalyst for change,” he said. “We must be at the table to do that, because we’re so directly affected by what might happen in the capital region.”
Next week, Flynn and Rigney will talk about leadership.