St. Albert’s four mayoral candidates faced off during a virtual forum on Thursday night.
The two-hour forum on Zoom was hosted by the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce, and moderated by Curtis Crouse, the Chamber's 2021 volunteer chair. There were 320 forum attendees. Those who missed it can watch a recording online on the Chamber's Facebook page.
Topics ranged from supporting business downtown, making the city friendly for people who do not drive, regional collaboration, and transparency. Each candidate began by highlighting the top issue of focus for the election. David Letourneau and incumbent Cathy Heron both spoke to the importance of economic development.
"There's Mitsubishi and other projects on the go right now within the region," Letourneau said. "Just yesterday, Dow made a big announcement. St. Albert can position itself as a service hub for these projects."
Heron said a key aspect of her platform is revitalizing the downtown.
"That's part of the recovery out of COVID-19, but I also believe a top priority needs to be servicing the Lakeview Business District," she said.
Bob Russell named transparency as his top concern.
"People do not want council to spend 30 per cent of their time in in camera meetings," Russell said. "People want transparency, so my number one goal is to cut that in-camera meeting level down by at least half in my first term."
Angela Wood underscored fiscal responsibility, arguing the city must prioritize "looking inward for efficiencies."
Candidates were asked how they would ensure a collaborative city council. Russell and Letourneau both spoke to their past experience — Russell as chair for the Edmonton Regional Planning Commission, and Letourneau in his current health-care work collaborating with senior leadership, front-line staff, and operations.
Heron directed viewers to watch the recent term's final city council meeting on Sept. 13.
“Every member took a chance to talk about how great this term was for collaboration,” Heron said. “Everyone’s opinion was respected … we really taught ourselves … the votes were not personal; the votes were about the issues.”
Wood said there needs to be respect for all points of view, and respect for residents looking to speak at council.
“I encourage anyone to look at the Aug. 30 council meeting," Wood said. "Residents were coming to speak and were quite disrespected. I think that needs to change."
Crouse also asked about candidates’ views on amalgamating services with the City of Edmonton, such as fire and policing.
All candidates agreed their stances would be dependent on the service in question. Russell brought up a civic police force that could be shared with Edmonton to reduce costs, Heron said she would want to explore all options and mentioned solid waste and regionalized transit as two key areas.
Wood said she would be hesitant to look at regionalizing fire and police services, and said “with respect to the Regional Transit Authority” she would not support something of that nature.
“I would not want to lose a lot of our autonomy and our control over to a city that would have a higher majority vote and veto power,” Wood said.
Candidates weigh in on openness, transparency
When asked about their plans to increase the accessibility of a government to residents, Russell promised to have a phone line right to his office; Heron spoke of utilizing her Facebook account to communicate with the public; and Wood spoke to the need to answer difficult questions. Letourneau described what he called the need for “real engagement.”
“We need to be looking at real engagement and not just engaging the population to check a box,” Letourneau said. “Taking that feedback … and bringing it back and having thoughtful discussions about it.”
Crouse also asked candidates how they would look to change community perception of a lack of transparency, citing the 13-per-cent increase in time council spent meeting in private this term.
Letourneau highlighted the importance of communication and building trust with residents.
“If you have that trust up front, then you don’t have to worry about things like [in camera time], that’s more of a symptom,” Letourneau said.
Russell said he believes in camera meetings have to be used in a “very limited way."
Heron said the most recent council has gone in camera for reasons required by the Municipal Government Act, such as land, labour, and legal reasons.
“That is it,” Heron said. “We have never gone in camera for any other reason than is required by the MGA, and any decision is always made in public."
Wood said the future council could mitigate “excessive in-camera use” by not having standing weekly meetings with the city’s chief administrative officer in camera.
“It’s reasonable to also question the excessive workshops that also occur and the conversations that take place there,” Wood said. “I think we can make some positive changes.”
Shaping the city
Crouse asked candidates about the city's new, high-level planning document council approved in April.
“One responsibility of city council is creating and modifying other city plans to align with this master planning document,” Crouse said. “Can you please comment on the elements of the new Municipal Development Plan (MDP) you think will lead to increased opportunity for St. Albert, or will cause challenges?”
Heron highlighted the document’s focus on the environment, and Russell said he would want to review the MDP for how it addresses affordable housing. Wood mentioned the need to incorporate density strategically, while Letourneau said the Lakeview District as an example of a challenge.
“Under normal circumstances, you want developers to lead, but unfortunately that’s not happening,” Letourneau said. “I think the city needs to take the bull by the horns a little bit and direct what businesses we might want up there."
In discussing their vision for St. Albert’s downtown area, Letourneau, Russell, and Heron, spoke of the need to have a “draw” to increase traffic to the area. Wood argued it will be important to seek ideas from business owners, and she and Heron both spoke to the potential of creating a committee to guide downtown planning.
“I’d like to shut down Perron Street once a week, but I could probably live with doing that once a month,” Heron said. “We need to have street performers, but not food trucks, because I want people eating in the restaurants down there.”
Another question Crouse posed was how candidates would make St. Albert friendlier for people who don’t drive.
Heron mentioned the importance of supporting active modes of transportation, and planning for 15-minute communities where amenities residents need are within walking distance. Letourneau, Russell, and Wood spoke to evaluating transit service and looking for improvements.
When asked whether council should approve more infill and high-density focused projects, Heron said the city “absolutely needs to curb urban sprawl.”
“Canada and especially Alberta will be one of the few places in the world able to produce and export enough food to feed the planet in a short time,” Heron said. “In order to grow responsibly as a city … we need to be denser.”
Heron noted this doesn’t always mean high rises, but could also include zero-lot lines and duplexes. Wood noted infill needs to understand the “character and charm” of neighbourhoods. Letourneau emphasized the importance of sustainability, as well as clear communication with residents in an established neighbourhood. Russell highlighted the downtown as harbouring the best potential for high-density.
Competing with the private sector
One question around land use and planning asked whether the most effective use of the salt-contaminated Badger Lands would be the city-proposed solar farm, noting the farm would compete with the private sector.
Russell highlighted the importance of determining the cost to remediate the lands through soil testing.
“We have to really do some work and use logic to find out what is the best use,” Russell said.
Heron said there would always be an opportunity to find a partner for the solar farm, giving the example of energy firm ATCO, who conducted the project’s preliminary business case.
“I’m fine with it, but every time you partner you are now sharing any of the revenue,” Heron said.
Wood argued the city is a government and “not a business.”
“This specific venture just financially doesn’t make sense,” Wood said. “The numbers don’t warrant a prosperous outcome and the risks would be substantial to the residents of St. Albert.”
Letourneau said, from his perspective, it seems like “a big red flag.”
“If it was that profitable, I would think ATCO — or whomever — would be … trying to get the city to partner as opposed to taking it on themselves,” Letourneau said.
The Chamber is holding an additional event Oct 13, where attendees can meet St. Albert’s mayoral candidates. The event will be virtual, and take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Registration is available for the event online on the chamber’s website: www.stalbertchamber.com.
Two additional virtual forums for council candidates will be held the evenings of Oct. 12 and 13.
The election is on Monday Oct. 18.