Recently, I decided that I wanted to find out what our City Councillors and the Mayor expense to the taxpayers over the regular course of conducting the business of our City. I went on to the City of Edmonton’s website and searched…and searched…and searched. I couldn’t find a listing, link or webpage anywhere that itemized Councillors’ expenses.
I did not believe, at a time when transparency is so valued by constituents and in an era of informational accessibility, with scanners and accounting software making the posting of receipts and expenses on the internet so simple, that Councillor expenses would not be online somewhere. So I opened up Google and continued my search.
Two items caught my eye. The first, a listing on the City’s website indicating the total budget for Councillors’ and the Mayor’s expenses, the total amount they spent, but no itemized breakdown of the expenses themselves. And the second, an article written by Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF). What I read in this article truly dropped my jaw.
Currently, Edmonton’s Mayor and Councillors do not have to publicly disclose their expense claims. The public can make a freedom of information request for that information and it would have to be provided, but the City can set fees for processing these requests. When the CTF made Freedom of Information requests in the fall of 2012 for the expense claims of Mayor Mandel, four sitting Councillors and one former Councillor, the City’s response was staggering.
They did not outright deny the requests. Instead, they levied unbelievable search fees totalling $11,580. My immediate thought was that there must be some sort of justification for charging these incredible fees, but then I kept reading. The exact same Freedom of Information requests made by the CTF for the Calgary Mayor’s and Council’s expenses cost just $25 each.
I simply do not understand what the difference is between the two scenarios, but on the surface it seems that the Edmonton fees are designed to discourage individuals or organizations from pursuing an investigation of Edmonton City Council’s expenses.
Now, I want to be clear about two things. I am not levelling any accusations of wrong doing and I do not have an official answer from City Hall regarding why the fees were so high. I do believe, however, that it is worthwhile to implement policy and bylaws to avoid any appearance of deception or wrongdoing and to open up Council’s expense claims to public scrutiny.
If I am elected to City Council, and if the current Council has not yet addressed the issue of expense disclosures, I will reach out to and work with my fellow City Councillors to put into place bylaw and policy that makes it mandatory for the Mayor and Councillors to publicly disclose their expenses. Given all of the controversy that has continued to arise over public employee’s expenses, like the AHS and Senate scandals, it simply makes sense that elected public officials expose their expenses to public scrutiny and show the Edmonton tax-payers that their tax dollars are being spent responsibly.
In Ward 5, one issue that residents continue to bring up is road safety. And this is not just a concern in the growing, newer communities, but also in established neighbourhoods. In the Hamptons area for example, the wide boulevard design of Hemingway Road, which has been acknowledged by city officials as a design that will likely not be employed again, has created ideal conditions for an unfortunate event to occur. The wide road design makes it more comfortable for drivers to travel at higher speeds, with the curves and bends in the road limiting visibility. This is of particular concern in the area surrounding the community’s schools, Sister Annata Brockman and Bessie Nichols. While the city has implemented some low-cost measures, such as crosswalks without warning lights, council recently voted to shelve proposals to allocate funds for traffic calming measures and safety upgrades.
In the established community of Westridge, speeding, street racing and even high-speed police chases have caused residents serious concern. Wide and curvy Wolf Willow Road has become a prime location for street racers and speeders because it is isolated, long and wide enough for side-by-side racing. Residents along this roadway have continued to express their frustrations to me when I have been at their doors, noting that despite numerous complaints, a temporary speed limit reduction from 50km/h to 40km/h (which residents say did little) and repeated attempts by residents to address the issue with the City, a solution has still not been implemented. One resident, who lives near the end of the road, told me that a speeding vehicle had jumped the curb and ended up through her fence, in the backyard and mere feet from her house. And it was not the first time it has happened. When she has contacted City administration, she has simply been told that the typical solutions usually employed by the City, like speed bumps, are not available on Wolf Willow Road. My question is this: does someone have to get seriously injured or killed before someone starts thinking outside the box and comes up with a creative solution?
As our communities continue to grow and change, I believe it is important we are adequately adapting infrastructure, signals and major roadways to properly address challenges that arise from increased usage. Safety should always be our top priority. In the new communities west of the Henday, it is disappointing that the proposed safety upgrades advocated for by the area’s Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee were not adopted by the City. Some relief will come as Guardian Road is upgraded this summer, with new pedestrian signals, turning lanes and relocated bus stops easing the congestion and frustration felt during rush hour. It is unfortunate, however, that the widening of 199 Street, south of 62 Avenue, will not also proceed this summer. This section of road and the intersection servicing it have become increasingly busy. It would have been ideal to widen it as part of the improvements already scheduled this summer.
In Westridge, we cannot simply tell residents, who are concerned for their safety and their family’s safety, that there is nothing to be done, that the same old solutions will not work to solve this ongoing problem. If the same old solutions will not work, maybe we need to come up with new, adaptive solutions. I believe looking to other municipalities around the world for ideas is a great way to start. In Japan, for example, several communities have applied three-dimensional images to road surfaces, causing drivers to slow without actually installing speed bumps or other calming measures. This solution may not necessarily work here, but at least it starts a conversation about different ideas that may result in finding new approaches for Edmonton.
All in all, I think we are seeing progress that is “good enough” but not necessarily forward thinking. When I look at the kinds of capital investments being made elsewhere in Edmonton I am forced to wonder why we are not investing some of those resources in Ward 5 to address our infrastructure, growth, transportation and traffic challenges. I hope in my conversations with you over the next several months we can find new approaches to address challenges instead of the same old solutions to the same old problems. It is healthy in our democratic system to shake things up sometimes and I believe I offer a fresh new perspective that will inject some creativity into how we address growth and livability in Ward 5 and the City of Edmonton.
As I have been getting out into our community and talking with residents about the issues of concern to residents in Ward 5 and in Edmonton, the Downtown Arena continues to come up as a serious issue. Many are uneasy with the deal in its current form because they feel it gives away too much to Mr. Katz and puts us on the hook for the cost of this huge project. People want to know what my thoughts are so I thought it was time to clearly and publicly state my view.
I fundamentally support the concept of a Downtown Edmonton entertainment and arena district. I DO NOT support the financial framework that has been negotiated and I would not support this deal if I were on City Council today. I have a number of concerns with the current deal, but perhaps most significant are the following:
1) The City of Edmonton takes the lion’s share of the risk and bares the majority of financial burden while receiving almost zero direct benefit from the facility.
2) While there have been many impressive projections about the kind of development the arena will spur, the tax revenue it will indirectly generate and the role that the Community Revitalization Levy plays in paying for the arena, they are just that, projections.
3) Despite the Provincial Government’s adamant assertion that they would contribute no direct funds to the arena project, some on Council remain quite convinced that they will and are ready to push the deal through, effectively approving an underfunded proposal.
4) It is the City of Edmonton, and by extension the taxpayer of Edmonton, that is being forced to find the missing money, not the private development group.
5) Council voted to direct annually funding from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative to cover $45 million of the missing $100 million, but that fund is at the whim of the Province and could disappear tomorrow if they choose to do away with it in these difficult budget times.
6) There is still $55 million dollars missing and the City is scrambling to beg, borrow or steal it from wherever they can.
I truly believe the arena will be good for Edmonton and I believe our City deserves a vibrant, dynamic Downtown. The public, however, should not be put in a position where they fund and own an asset like this arena without any of the benefits from the venue being returned to them. I also take real issue with how long this saga has dragged on. If we are going to do this then let’s do it. If Edmonton is fronting most of the cost anyway, the City should own it, operate it and receive the profit from it. Mr. Katz can then reach a tenancy agreement with the City of Edmonton for the Oilers to play at the venue, paying rent like any other tenant. He can choose to purchase naming rights from us or we can sell the naming rights to some other entity, using that revenue to help pay off the cost of the facility. And if we are not going to do it then vote it down and be done with it. If we are not going to do either of those things, then we need to negotiate a more equitable agreement with Mr. Katz before we forge ahead. I agree that Downtown Edmonton deserves its fair share of City investment too, but this deal is not fair.
This past weekend I did a driving tour through the neighbourhoods in our community on the west side of Anthony Henday Drive and it is incredible to see the growth and development that has been happening. The Hamptons, Glastonbury and Granville neighbourhoods have really come alive and are thriving spaces in Ward 5. While it is so encouraging to see the progress we are making as we grow in our community, my tour also opened my eyes to some of the ways we need to step-up city involvement.
There are several new community schools in the area, including Sister Annata Brockman and Bessie Nichols. Unfortunately, notwithstanding a public consultation that demonstrated a clear desire for a school to be built next to a newly constructed playground in a green space north of 62nd Avenue, the schools were constructed on the south side and have no playgrounds or amenities. While we should all commend the community for rallying together and beginning the process of raising new funds to build another playground, it is unfortunate that the concerns and opinions expressed in the consultation were not really listened to in the first place.
In my discussions with residents of the community, I have also discovered there are some very real concerns about a lack of pedestrian crossings, and specifically crossings with lights on busy roadways like 62nd Avenue. Driving that roadway, it became very clear to me that the volume of traffic already poses risk to pedestrians. With plans proceeding to twin Guardian Road, and continued development in the area, the increasing volume of traffic will make it difficult for residents to safely cross these routes. It is important that we recognize this now and address it before a serious injury or fatality forces the city to act. Being proactive and not reactive will make our community safer in the long run.
There have also been concerns about amenities, like the Costco on Winterburn Road, being completed and opened before adequate infrastructure is put in place to handle increased travel to and from these amenities. While it is important we recognize that city resources are limited, it is also important that we approach fast-paced growth areas with long-term vision. If we know that commercial and residential development will continue, we have to make the investments in projects now that will be able to adequately handle the traffic ten years from now, and not just today. With a little foresight in the present, it will cost our community less to plan for growth than it will for us to address it after it has become a problem in the future.
I think it is important for us to have elected officials that really listen to the community and advocate for our shared goals and values, but it would also be disingenuous for me to “promise” that these concerns will be immediately addressed if you elect me to represent our community on City Council. I do think however, that with the right advocate and proper community consultation, we can work together to make the process more proactive and progressive. So the promise I will make is this: I will always make citizen consultation a priority. I will always be accessible to hear what your concerns are so that our goals align and we are working as a team. After all, Ward 5 is my home too!