The wise vs. the wishful
For those among us who are drawn to Red Deer city council deliberations, a word of warning: what was once a mostly orderly, business-like process is morphing into something far worse — and exceedingly important.
It’s a cyclical thing, always arriving in the waning days of a mandate, and ramping up as we head to the next election. But it seems more pronounced this time around.
For hardened observers, it’s humorous. So much posturing, platform-building and pontificating fills the council chambers, and webcasts of meetings, that it seems like a scripted play.
For the uninitiated, it might be enough to sour them on municipal government, and its players.
For keen voters, it should be informative as we begin the process of measuring Cindy Jefferies and Tara Veer for the mayor’s job, and determining which, if any, current councillors deserve our votes.
But you will need to have your antennae finely tuned to filter out the static and just hear the words of value.
Suddenly, councillors have a great deal more to say on any number of issues, and they won’t be outdone by their colleagues. Once-brief council deliberations seem to have stretched into a series of ponderous statements (and we have four more meetings to go before the civic election).
We can safely say the campaign has begun and those who can (council members) will take advantage of the public forum regular meetings offer.
What we can’t safely say is where it will take us.
Few municipal elections in the last three-plus decades of Red Deer’s history have been as significant.
Much more is at stake this year, as Red Deerians prepare to head to the polls on Oct. 21:
• We are losing a fine mayor, who understood that leadership in and out of council chambers requires an open mind, a deft social touch, intelligence, a long-term vision, preparation and consistency. We must determine which of the candidates — chiefly Veer and Jefferies — can do the same, at some level. And we must assume that whichever one wins will, on balance, be with us for two or more terms; incumbents tend to win followup elections, unless they stumble significantly during their first term. So we need to make a careful choice.
• There is a movement afoot to lay bare the financial heart of city operations. It is never a bad thing to ask if taxpayers are getting value for their money. It is always a bad thing to enter into a conversation about the services offered to almost 100,000 people with pre-conceived ideas about their value; there is always more to a mammoth operation like the city than neophytes can know. The best councillors — and there are many such on council now, and other quality candidates stepping forward — actually listen to as many perspectives as possible before coming to decisions. Ideology should not dictate over thoughtful, pragmatic decision making.
• Councillors will be elected, for the first time, for a four-year term. The revised provincial statue has added a year to the mandate. It is a huge investment in time, and money, to be a good councillor. Even at the pay structure now in place, many quality candidates will not be fairly compensated for the time lost from their professions. And four years is a long time to take a pay cut, never mind the burdens that public officers must carry for us all. We must take care to elect candidates who are deeply committed to the process. No one-issue, fly-by-night candidates need apply.
• The plebiscite on the possibility of establishing a ward-based council will be on the ballot. This is a significant public conversation (and it’s not about what councillors think, it’s about what voters think), and it is a conversation that is long overdue.
• This city’s remarkable growth over the last three-plus decades has given it an identity crisis, never mind a looming shortage of lifestyle-based infrastructure. The next council, even with the decision-making tools in hand provided by the current council (including the multi-pronged charters, the Identity Project and the new policing benchmarks), will need to be agile, decisive and inventive. Our future as a progressive, livable city depends on it.
So as councillors, and their challengers, begin to demand our attention, we need to pay attention — with discretion, and a filter to sort the wise from the wishful.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.