An Election Perspective
Wood Buffalo’s current municipal council has been accused of a lot of things – especially in 2013, when major points of contention came to the forefront in council chambers. But one thing it most certainly cannot be accused of is inaction. Over a period of three years, a total of 12 councillors and one mayor have made some sweeping changes, but more importantly have laid a plan for an utter transformation of the municipality – both administratively, and practically.
So, too, can it not be accused of wasting time on petty squabbles. Despite the largesse of most meeting agendas, and the replacement of two councillors midterm due to the provincial election, council remained perhaps the most agreeable elected body in democratic history (just a slight exaggeration there). The vast majority of major votes were unanimously approved, with disagreement and opposition only beginning to surface in the most difficult of cases, like downtown expropriation for the construction of a new hockey arena.
There is a wealth of new initiatives that were given the green light by this most recent council – many of which will likely return to the spotlight come election time – and far too many than can be covered in one simple article. What is attempted here is a somewhat condensed summary of the most prominent of achievements of the preceding three years – achievements that in many cases range in public perception from that of a historic triumph to that of a colossal mistake.
The Municipal Development Plan (MDP)
The most significant and impactful piece of legislation to come through the most recent council term might be its least discussed – and for understandable reasons. It’s an incredibly long (170 pages) and detailed document. But without it, very few of the subsequent accomplishments of council could be made practical or possible.
No, the MDP was not handwritten by councillors themselves – but neither was it a self-styled document crafted by city administration solely to fit their own personal objectives. The estimate from its project manager was that city officials interacted with residents more than 13,000 times in developing the plan – whether electronically, at the office, or at events out in the community.
It sets out the plan for Wood Buffalo for the next 20 years – a period that is expected to see the population balloon to 230,000 people. The plan will guide what gets put into new land as it finally becomes available from the province. This means instead of cramming identical prefabricated homes into new spaces to fit more temporary energy workers, the city can build the kind of retail-commercial and recreational space that people have wanted for years. Even at the current population, it’s estimated that the city could support three times the retail space it has right now.
The MDP also means a focus on diversifying the economy, with more non-oil sands jobs in small businesses, the service industry, and professional services, with concomitant affordable housing development so that long-term residency is possible for those who don’t make six figures.
This may be the most high-profile agenda item from the most recent council, but it necessarily comes below the MDP, because downtown redevelopment (or to be needlessly verbose, the “City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan”) wouldn’t be possible without the overarching vision of the MDP. Where the province has made it near-impossible for the city to continue to build “out” (at least until long-awaited land release comes on stream) the city has taken the initiative to build “up” with the unanimous support of its municipal council.
That means a focus on high density development, the elimination of restrictions on building heights in certain areas, and a vastly improved downtown road network. Councillors looked past the short-term financial handcuffing that came with dedicating a huge portion of the budget to redevelopment, and decided that borrowing to finance long-term benefits like a four-lane Prairie Loop Boulevard running parallel to Franklin Avenue was a worthwhile cause.
There was vast public resistance to some elements of the project, especially the plan to modernize and redevelop the waterfront along the Snye and Clearwater. But apart from an insistence by councillor Phil Meagher that Morimoto Drive retain its name (an issue he expressed willingness to vote against the plan based on), true opposition was never expressed by a single councillor. They are confidant that existing river users, whether boaters or float planes, won’t be pushed to the curb. Time will tell as to whether that administrative promise is kept.
By far the most discussed issue of the most recent council (with the possible exception of the Bag Ban), the downtown arena (or to be diplomatically verbose, the “Downtown Sports and Recreation Centre”) created the most vocal of public opposition thanks to the necessity of expropriating downtown properties. This project’s benefits would not be felt until 2017 at the earliest, but it’s negative effects were being felt right away through the 2013 closing and demolition of businesses in the Franklin Avenue area.
Given the vocal opposition, one could consider the project a major political risk. But candidates outside of the current council will have to be willing to take that risk. Phil Meagher is the the only incumbent opposed to expropriating businesses to build the project, and because he received a vote on about 72 per cent of ballots cast in 2010, it’s not likely he’ll need ensure re-election by bringing down his fellow returnees.
Widely accepted misinformation on the issue may work against incumbent councillors, though. Despite explicit plans to the contrary in the City Centre plan, and the identification of the current site of Longshots as a spot for the first downtown parkade, claims continue to be made that “no parking” is planned to support the arena project. Similarly, despite ongoing construction to improve downtown traffic flow and access from Highway 63, projects that will be long finished by the time of the arena’s opening in 2017, many are led to believe that unbearable and constant traffic congestion will be brought about by the project.
When the potential benefits of the project are highlighted – such as a prominent hockey tenant, high-profile concerts, conventions, and events – public enthusiasm tends to swell. The question will be which element of the project – the benefits to be felt in 2017, or the inconvenience to last until then – will frame the election campaign.
The Taxi Bylaw
It’s intensely hated by the vehicle-for-hire industry but it may be one of council’s most consumer-friendly achievements in the last three years. A radical reimagining of taxicab administration in Fort McMurray seeks to transform a casually regulated industry into one with strict standards of safety. Removing the ability of taxi companies to inspect their own vehicles and setting flat rates for trips outside of the McMurray limits would be seen as no-brainers by most similarly-sized communities, yet current councillors accepted a severe industry backlash in exchange for pushing through the new rules.
The Bag Ban
Time truly does heal all political wounds, as one of the most controversial decisions made in this council’s early tenure moved into broad public acceptance within the span of only a couple of years. Now, in many ways, Wood Buffalo is pointed to as an environmental trailblazer when other communities consider following suit on banning the distribution of plastic shopping bags, although we’re still waiting for one to actually do it.
But the issue also showed the willingness of local politicians to ensure new regulations are tailored properly to consumers. Then-councillor Mike Allen insisted on some form of review of the bylaw if he were to support it. This was granted, and resulted in common sense modifications to the bylaw that have allowed limited use of plastic bags in areas that are unlikely to cause a large overall spike in their use.
The writing was on the wall for Diversified as the provider of public transit in Wood Buffalo. The municipality seemed set on making a change as it tried to make public transit a key part of the transportation picture rather than just a side note.
With Tok Transit now in charge, council has pushed towards a modernized bus system that includes smartphone apps and in-bus stop announcements, among other changes. This system will be key to things like downtown redevelopment.
The keys to successful public transit are simple – being cheap, fast, and convenient. Point number one is more than taken care of with $1.25 fares and future free fares on Franklin. The final two remain a work in progress.
With all the bright new plans, the explosion in public sector employment, and massive increase in annual budget (topping $1 billion for the first time ever), one would expect, in most communities, for the financial burden to be shouldered by residents.
Yet the streak of frozen residential property taxes in Wood Buffalo (at least municipally – the province is another issue) continues.
That may indeed be the easiest accomplishment for incumbent councillors to point to this October. Homeowners are not currently, nor are they in the future, expected to pay the price for Wood Buffalo’s municipal makeover.