Transparency and council dysfunction seemed top of mind during the all-candidates council byelection forum hosted by the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
In a byelection triggered by a councillor resignation to take a position with the city, almost two years through a council term that has been marred by dissention that has taken on a personal tone and following an election where there were accusations of slates and questions around funding, the people wanted to know how candidates would address council dysfunction and who was funding their campaigns.
Seven of the eight candidates were there – Mark Turnbull had sent his regrets to the chamber. Approximately 300 people attended to hear what the candidates had to say.
More standard issue questions were present, too – questions about tax base, affordable housing and planning – for a candidate that could help swing the voting balance on council.
Even in their introductions, a couple of candidates went straight to the issue of former councillor Gilles Prefontaine’s resignation as part of their opening spiel.
But the first question out of the gate was about how to make the “dysfunctional” council functional again.
“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” said candidate Edward Ramsden. “Once that motion has been passed, you need to move on.”
Bob Russell had a similar take.
“With experience comes trust from your fellow council members. I’m not there to start fights,” Russell said, adding if he loses a motion, that’s the end of it.
Their comments were echoed by many of the other candidates, with players like Mark Cassidy calling for more compromise, Natalie Mikus also of the “move on” after the vote school of thought, Hughena Burke floating the idea of strengthening the team dynamics and Tash Taylor calling to build people up and perhaps revisit the code of conduct.
Dawne Fowler said the role of council is to set policy, the role of administration is to enact it and she might break out the phrase “point of order” frequently as many business items are addressed in chambers that are not really part of council’s function.
The candidates were questioned on their campaign funding and whether any interest groups were supporting them, financially or otherwise.
Most of the candidates said they were self-funded, while Russell said he’s supported “by a large cross-section of people and small businesses.” Taylor said she’s had a small group of Edmonton friends and Ramsden said while he’s funded by friends and family, anyone in the crowd was welcome to chip in.
Taxes – and increasing the tax base by filling up the so-called “employment lands” – were other topics of interest.
Fowler and Mikus both suggested that council has to stand up to developers who push to turn lands meant for commercial purposes to residential.
Taylor said her dream for the lands in the west of the city is to have light industrial.
Cassidy suggested getting better infrastructure, like increasing the number of lanes on Ray Gibbon Drive, would help make it more attractive to businesses, which Ramsden also highlighting a need for infrastructure. Ramsden also suggested making sure St. Albert is a better place to do business.
Burke suggested more non-residential development will be better, but should be done in an environmentally-friendly way and needs to have lots of input.
Russell pointed to his certification in planning and said the general municipal plan needs to be updated.
No one disagreed that more non-residential rate taxpayers were needed.
When it comes to the high taxes, however, opinions were a little more divided. No one tried to dodge the idea that St. Albert has high taxes, but some pointed to the service levels residents get for their money.
Taylor pointed to Beaumont, where taxes are starting to soar, she said, but they don’t have “half” of what St. Albert offers.
Cassidy said in his experience selling real estate, it often comes up, but those who live here think it’s worth it to pay more taxes. The realtor did say the city needed more commercial tax revenue to help reduce residential tax, though.
Mikus was of a similar mind, saying more commercial is needed and she sees value for the taxes in St. Albert, “but I think we need to be careful we’re not spending money just for the sake of spending money.”
Burke said we get good services here but the city also needs to review how tax money is spent.
“You can have the best place to live or you can have the lowest taxes but you can’t be both,” Ramsden said.
Fowler noted that St. Albert has low debt per capita compared with other municipalities in Alberta, and reeled off the various amenities, such as the parks and pools St. Albert enjoys.
“This doesn’t’ come free. We are an absolutely blessed city,” she said, but added she’d like to see the flat-rate stormwater utility rate revisited.
Russell blamed out-of-control hiring by the city administration and said council has to take more control.
Housing options and keeping young people in the community were other questions fielded by the candidates.
Walkable communities were a popular answer, as was affordable housing, a bigger variety of housing types and transit.
Candidates were asked about the idea of bringing back a Municipal Planning Commission to St. Albert.
Russell was in favour, having experience on them in the past, and Fowler also was on board.
Ramsden was worried about adding more layers of bureaucracy. Burke wanted to find out why it had been disbanded. Taylor also worried about bureaucracy and the lines of authority while others spoke about public engagement in general.
The byelection is June 24.