Ballot questions questioned

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The construction of a new branch library is shaping up to be the most contentious issue this election. With four months to go before the residents cast their ballots and no mayoral candidates to shape the debate, the new branch library is the only major issue to date.

But should it even be an issue? At least one political observer doesn’t think so.

Dana Popadynetz, co-founder of Polywings – an informal political discussion group in St. Albert – says the library branch is a manufactured election issue.

Popadynetz believes there may have been a concerted effort by certain councillors to turn the construction of a new library branch into a divisive election issue on which to campaign.

“It’s the only real election issue that’s come out to date,” Popadynetz. “If it stays that way, that’s what people are going to build their campaigns around. But it really shouldn’t be. We’re beating a dead horse now; this has already been approved a few times.”

He pointed to the fact that council unanimously approved the project twice already – once in December 2015 when the project charter was approved and again in December 2016 when council agreed to finance the project using debt financing. Popadynetz questions why it suddenly needed to be added to the ballot.

Councillors Sheena Hughes and Bob Russell both rejected the idea that they were trying to create a campaign issue by stalling the library project. Both councillors introduced motions to put the issue to a plebiscite in October.

Russell said his failed motion was intended to get away from all the lobbying from stakeholder groups, while Hughes said her motion, which passed with a margin of 4-3 last month, was intended to gauge the real level of public support for the projects.

She noted issues with the city survey conducted last year where respondents did not have a “none of the above” option and said the start of a citizens’ petition influenced her motion.

“I’m there to respect the results of the plebiscite and to see what the real level of support is,” said Hughes. “If the plebiscite comes back and reflects the results of the survey it will be clear to move forward.”

She added that going forward without better consultation was more likely to turn into an election issue.

Mayor Nolan Crouse believes that council members should be the ones deciding the future of the library.

“I feel that council is voted in to make difficult, complex decisions,” he said.

Crouse has concerns about lack of information. The ballot will also contain questions gauging support for the building of a new ice surface and aquatics facility in addition to the branch library. Crouse said it will be very difficult to ensure the public has all the necessary information to make an educated decision, given there are a number of variables that could affect the price tag of each project.

Council has approved a $10,000 education campaign.

Popadynetz is also concerned about misinformation. He said answers will likely come down to personal preference as opposed to community need and could leave the incoming council in a very difficult position.

“There’s a risk that none of the projects have majority support. Then what does the next council do? We know that we have a recreational capital deficit that needs to be addressed in the city,” he said. “The next council is really set up for failure.”

“What you’re doing is forcing next council’s agenda,” he added, “which is unfortunate and unfair in some ways.”

While some members of council intend to serve again next term, and therefore could view the ballot questions as passing the ball on to themselves, Popadynetz said the community has taken note of the divisive nature of this council.

“I don’t think there is going to be a huge benefit running as an incumbent this year,” he said.

Popadynetz hopes council will go forward with the borrowing bylaw, authorizing the city to borrow up to $21.9 million to finance the construction of a new branch library, despite the ballot question and the petition.

Council will be presented with options to respond to the issue at its meeting on July 10.

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Michelle Ferguson