‘Nasty’ debate tone causes concern on council

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But governance expert says it's no surprise in an election year

It should come as no surprise to anyone, elected official or otherwise, that politics can get nasty and St. Albert is no exception.

But when does the debate get too nasty? And what impact can this have on government operations and on residents?

For Coun. Cathy Heron, the kind of feedback she heard from residents during the recent petition drive came pretty close to the line if it didn’t cross it. The petition asked council to reconsider borrowing $21.9 million to build a branch library.

Heron described the “vile nasty way” some people communicated their distaste for the library project and the borrowing bylaw.

“In the last week or so I have had emails with the words: “stupid, dildo, elitist, con artist, liar, greedy politician…” she wrote in a Facebook post, shortly after a petition of 6,700 signatures was presented.

In an interview later Heron said she believes the problem has gotten much worse during this council’s term than last council’s term. She expects it may ramp up over the next couple of months as we approach the Oct. 16 municipal election.

But part of the problem, as she sees it, actually dates back to the last election.

“It was very much set up in the election, because the election and some of the third-party promoters of certain candidates really made it nasty,” she said.

That nastiness spilled over into council debate, she said, in which “lines in the sand” are already drawn in many cases along a 4-3 split – with councillors Sheena Hughes, Cam MacKay and Bob Russell often opposed to the rest of council.

In her mind, this is causing a lot of unnecessary delays and inefficiencies with respect to actually getting on with the business of running the city.

“I feel like we’re wasting a lot of time and I also feel like we don’t really sit down and discuss things in a respectful way,” she said. “We force it to go to motion in council chambers and our discussions are had during debate.”

Furthermore, she sees spillover from the divisions within council in the public sphere.

“I think the public becomes aligned with either the three or the four. So what happens in chambers hss become very much an on the street conversation, and I think a lot of the time the on-the-street conversations are inaccurate,” she said.

MacKay said he disagrees for the most part with Heron’s assessment. MacKay said with the library petition for example, people are upset, and one way or the other council should respect the opinion of residents.

“There certainly are some differences of opinion on this one, and that’s not an unhealthy thing at all,” he said. “That’s how democracy works best.”

As for a more over-arching problem with tone, he said no matter what you’re doing some people are going to be especially negative and you’ve got to accommodate them as best you can.

And rather than just tone of debate, MacKay claims the problems are rooted in several behaviours on council, rather than just words. One example he cited was a city councillor being hired for a senior city management job while sitting on council.

“The things I’ve had a difficult time dealing with go beyond ideological opinion and into ethics,” MacKay said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse, who has courted his fair share of controversy during his 13 years on city council, is no stranger to the kind of political attacks that Heron refers to, and agrees one of the key problems has been with respect to third-party advertising during election campaigns.

According to provincial law, municipal election candidates must declare all donations that are used to fund their campaign and they’re limited in how much they can spend – but if a third-party organization chooses to endorse candidates and run advertisements they can do so without disclosure or limitation.

During the 2013 municipal election, for example, sometimes-anonymous third parties such as “St. Albert Insight” and “St. Albert Think Tank” ran advertising specifically opposed to Crouse.

But he said the nasty tone dates back even to before his own time on council.

“It was terribly nasty, even before then,” he said. “It was nasty in many ways in the previous one because there was a lot of debate on Ray Gibbon Drive and whether it should ever be built.”

On his term, similar nastiness emerged around Servus Credit Union Place.

And as emails and social media become more pervasive, those who share similar views are more easily able to organize around a municipal issue like a library project and share their sometimes-nasty criticisms of elected officials.

“Things have changed to the point in the last 15 years where absolutely, it’s easy to rally, it’s easy to get people together, it’s easy to find 50 people to do a petition,” Crouse said.

But as seemingly nasty as politics can seem to get in municipal politics, regardless of what issues are at play, one long-time political watcher says none of this is anything new.

Dr. Jim Lightbody, an expert in Canadian municipal governance from the University of Alberta, said potential conflict among residents and councillors may indeed be getting more pronounced, but he points to more generic causes rather than specific.

For example, in a situation like this where a long-time incumbent mayor has announced he won’t seek re-election, council members will often begin posturing and playing politics to try to keep their names in the public spotlight.

“When council gets divisive, that’s pretty normal in an election year,” he said. “They have to set themselves apart in a sense. Name visibility is so important on a ballot.”

Most people, he said, pay little attention to their municipal government unless there’s an issue they feel affects them personally regardless.

But as for the politics and debate spilling over into actually getting on with the business of running the city, Lightbody said there’s really no cause for concern.

“The government will run just fine,” he said. “The bureaucracy is pretty much in control and council won’t have much impact on that. The garbage will be picked up, employees will be paid and the tax bills will be sent out.”

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Doug Neuman