Keeping an open mind to the thoughts and opinions of others amid the COVID-19 pandemic was a common thread over the past year for Coun. Ray Watkins, who took time to reflect on the last year of his first council term.
In a year-end interview with the Gazette, Watkins said he is "really proud" of the city's work managing the impacts of COVID-19 as one of his many highlights of 2020, while recognizing the impact the pandemic had on the community.
"I'm really proud of the response to COVID and the excellent job that staff and council did at recognizing the potential issues associated with facility and program closures and the impact on staff and revenue," Watkins said, noting the city's work at bringing down a forecasted $14.4-million deficit to $500K.
On the other hand, he said he's sad to see the impact COVID-19 has on residents and how divided conversations around the pandemic have become, pointing to conversations around the city's face covering bylaw.
"I really am saddened by the satellite reactions on both sides, those in opposition to masks and those who are supportive of masks. This has really polarized our community, it's polarized families," he said.
"We need to open our minds and our hearts to other people who have opinions and fears associated with this virus ... As a politician, I'm trying to be more tolerant. And I'm trying to open my mind to both sides of the argument, and be respectful of both sides."
Pushing for a park in Kingswood was a major accomplishment for Watkins, after he said he helped in negotiations with a local developer to acquire land that's owed to the city for park space instead of council having to go down the expropriation route.
In February, councillors approved acquiring a 2.3-hectare parcel of the land for the Kingsmeade Park. Then in June, recreation and parks applied to redistrict the land on developer Canterra's behalf. After gathering public feedback during the summer, a final park design has been completed.
"The city has been attempting to get that park for decades, and having been in that industry, I was a little more familiar with the process," he said. "I'm really happy I could help get that land."
Advocating for more affordable housing in the city was another accomplishment Watkins noted, including voting in support of recent changes to the city's land use bylaw to diversify housing options in St. Albert. Watkins said he also brought forward an idea for staff to put out a call for proposals to potentially bring an affordable housing project to civic land downtown by the courthouse. Council heard early details of the proposal in camera on Nov. 30.
In October, Watkins also initiated a joint meeting between the city's seniors advisory committee and the youth advisory committee after recognizing the need to connect older and younger generations of the community. Together, they came up with a new idea – mental health Zoom calls for seniors – which Watkins said he plans to bring forward as a notice of motion.
"I heard the concerns of both groups and they were very, very similar. It was very encouraging to me, because a lot of them feel lost and almost desperate during these times. Seniors actually provided (youth) with a lot of support, verbally telling them, 'Don't despair, we've been through tough times.' The meeting was very successful."
As far as challenging decisions, Watkins said COVID-19 pretty much dominated that realm, though he did point to his vote against Boudreau Communities' Riverbank Landing proposal back in June.
"I was very disappointed that we couldn't find a win-win there for the community and for the developer. That one was very challenging for me," he said.
With the municipal election coming up in the fall, the Gazette asked Watkins whether he would seek re-election or run for the mayor's seat. He said at this point, he isn't thinking of running again.
"I've given for four years to the city, and I'm very proud of the fact that I got elected. I'm very proud of the fact that I was the first person of colour ever to get elected to the City of St. Albert. I would love to do it, but I just can't afford to do it anymore. I got to get back to working, making a living and doing other things."