This time three years ago St. Albert voters were lulled to sleep. They were so bored, in fact, 63 per cent stayed home rather than cast ballots for city council in a race bereft of vision or the hot-button issues of years past like the leisure centre plebiscite or Ray Gibbon Drive.
Vision might be too much to ask, but don’t expect a snooze-fest this time around. The municipal election race doesn’t kick off until Monday when candidates file their nomination papers, yet already there’s no shortage of contentious issues and it’s only going to get worse, even nasty.
After months of emotional debate, the furore over 70 Arlington Dr. is about to come to a head. The public hearing resumes Monday for the 34 units Habitat for Humanity Edmonton plans to build, though a really big stick was thrown into the developer’s spokes this week when about a dozen Akinsdale residents filed a lawsuit seeking to block the project. The timing of the action suggests residents knew the writing was on the wall with approval likely and went to the courts as a last resort. Filing suit a few days before nomination ensures 70 Arlington Dr. remains on the forefront of voters’ — and candidates’ — minds heading into forum season. We’ll get to see whether the often rhetoric-laced arguments from Akinsdale can sway voters outside the neighbourhood or whether there’s a quieter majority of St. Albertans who believe in the need for affordable housing in locations where it makes sense, near services, shopping and transit.
The Arlington debate is symptomatic of a wider concern about increasing densities in mostly single-family St. Albert. Council might have rejected several versions of smart growth but not before the community had an opportunity to reflect on whether we need to change how our new neighbourhoods are developed and where higher densities are appropriate. That continued during the downtown redevelopment hearings, when the densities — up to 25 storeys in some spots — were at times blasted, along with public buildings and projects that could see future capital budgets swell.
Speaking of budgets, this election should shine an intense spotlight on city spending and taxation. Both have always been an election issue in St. Albert, but the decibels will only rise as the St. Albert Taxpayers’ Association — and candidates with close ties to the group — make an offensive push to challenge the track record of the incumbent mayor and councillors. Of course that offensive is already months old, but should really ramp up Sept. 28 when the taxpayers host a forum at the Arden.
The mayoral race should be an interesting matchup between incumbent Nolan Crouse and challenger Shelley Biermanski. Crouse is a well-known commodity who does his best to steer clear of verbal conflict but that might not be possible if he falls under heavy fire. Biermanski is a relative unknown, but through her blog shows she’s not afraid to throw jabs: “The current mayor is not presiding over the public welfare of the people of St. Albert but is on his own agenda making … the mayor is not a suitable representative of what the core of St. Albert is.”
It’s not exactly the stuff of American-style attack ads, but they’re strong words for St. Albert where polite, recycled platforms are the yawn-inducing campaign norm. Soon we’ll find out if anyone is actually tuning in or whether it’s all background noise.
Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Stay up to date on the civic election at www.stalbertgazette.com.