Review of council's first year shows gaps between intentions and actions

· The Pulse

One year into their term, members of Edmonton's city council have shown themselves to have a lot of ambition but perhaps not the statecraft to achieve their goals, Taproot's city hall observers suggest.

Agenda management has been a challenge for this council, with many meetings going overtime and a lot of time spent on procedural back-and-forth. That is a reflection of a desire for change on a council with a new mayor and eight of 12 councillors who are rookies, said Speaking Municipally co-host Troy Pavlek on Episode 195 of Taproot's podcast on civic affairs.

"This is a new council with big dreams, (that) wants to get things done, and they are pushing for it, perhaps pushing past their limits," he said.

Maybe so, but there's a difference between activity and effectiveness, countered co-host Mack Male.

"I feel like ... the hallway conversations that previous councils seemed to have aren't happening with this council. So when things get brought forward to committee or to a council meeting, they haven't been developed. They don't have buy-in from their colleagues; there's no sense of whether something's going to move forward or not. It feels very much like many of the new councillors are trying to individually push these things forward without realizing that you need seven votes to get it done."

In a series of tweets posted in response to Male's remarks, Coun. Andrew Knack argued there's value in debating ideas in public. "Municipal governance can be messy but that often means it's working exactly as it was designed," he said.

The 2023-2026 budget process that begins on Oct. 31 may be an opportunity to get past the re-litigation of previously settled matters and move on to new decisions.

That said, by approving a police funding formula for 2023, council has already significantly eaten into the money it has for other operational spending, Male noted. A series of decisions has resulted in the tax-funded portion of the Edmonton Police Service budget rising from $385 million in 2022 to $414 million in 2023, before even taking into account any increases that will result from the negotiation of a contract with the Edmonton Police Association.

"The majority of this council (had) indicated that they want to freeze or cut the Edmonton Police Service budget," Pavlek said, referring to the candidates' answers to a question about police funding on the Taproot Survey during the 2021 election campaign. "I would say if we were grading their first-year performance on this file, it would not be aces."

A smiling Amarjeet Sohi in front of three golden balloons in the shape of the number 365

The current city council, led by Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, marked the one-year anniversary of its election on Oct. 18. (Twitter)

Sohi voted against approving the funding formula for 2023 on Oct. 7, and although he lost that vote, he seems freer to speak his mind since that debate, Male said.

"I feel like it has opened the door for Mayor Sohi to be more openly critical of both the police budget and the police commission."

On the capital side of the ledger, neighbourhood renewal will be another tough budget decision. Council received a report proposing the diversion of $151 million to $212 million from neighbourhood renewal to other critical infrastructure needs, pushing the date by which all of Edmonton's neighbourhoods would be deemed better than "poor" to six to 10 years beyond the current target of 2038. A dedicated tax levy for infrastructure renewal is also on the table.

All of this is in light of a $4.7 billion gap in capital funding that Sohi would like to see filled by the province, though Alberta Municipal Affairs remains non-committal on that point.

The shortfall is the legacy of planning decisions made by previous councils, Pavlek said: "We are being bankrupted by urban sprawl, and this item is a very clear example of that."

As a homeowner eager to install solar panels, Pavlek remains hopeful that council will find some money in this budget to renew the solar rebate program that ran out of money on Sept. 2.

"We've seen it in their election platforms and in their responses to the Taproot survey — they believe that we need to do more to combat climate change," he said, referring to the candidates' answers to questions about the Community Energy Transition Strategy and the relevance of climate to every decision council makes.

Male is more skeptical that the program will survive budget discussions. "I think they're going to get into this budget ... and might feel OK to cut the thing that solves the problem that is down the road versus the thing that we run into and hear about every day," he said.

Hear more about these issues as well as opinions on the affordability of Blatchford and a police news release that needed more scrutiny on the Oct. 21 episode.