Five of Red Deer’s six mayoral candidates faced off on everything from downtown issues, to pandemic division and climate change in a virtual election debate on Monday.
Mayoral contenders James Allen, Buck Buchanan, Ken Johnston, Bradley Magee and Jeremy Moore answered questions posed by moderator Lorna Johnson, the executive-director of the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery on a Facebook Live event hosted by Friends of the Red Deer Public Library. Dwight Hickey, who’s also a candidate for Red Deer’s mayoral seat was absent.
Johnson also forwarded questions posted by members of the public.
Most participating candidates acknowledged the community division that exists over what to do about the temporary downtown homeless shelter — as well as how to handle the pandemic.
Allen, a former cadet who’s held various jobs, provided the most direct response to a question about whether the City of Red Deer should require its employees to get vaccinated. Allen said he’s against mandatory vaccinations for city staff, saying “I could not tell people to put something in their body or not get paid.”
Buchanan, a retired RCMP officer and incumbent city councillor whose image did not appear with his vocals on screen, revealed he was sick with the Delta variant in August. But “telling someone you have to do something is controversial,” he added. “As my mother always said, ‘If you go looking for a fight you are going to find one…’”
Moore, an electrician and entrepreneur, personally feels vaccines are helping, but knows some people feel otherwise. He fears “high consequences” could result from certain decisions, saying he fears another deadly mutation could arise, leading to more business shutdowns and fatalities.
Johnston, a retired banker and incumbent councillor, said whether city employees must get vaccinated is an operational decision, up to city managers and not council. But he praised municipalities across Alberta for showing “extraordinary leadership” in stepping up to protect public health when the province failed to do so. The City of Red Deer had been planning to re-introduce its own local masking bylaw this summer before the province finally came through with an Alberta-wide one as COVID cases escalated, he added.
Magee, a former oilfield supervisor, urged all citizens to “really look at the data,” regarding vaccinations and the pandemic. “If Central zone has an uptick (in COVID cases) we will need to come together,” he added, using a phrase shared by several candidates.
Division over moving the downtown temporary homeless shelter and the need to attract more local businesses to the city’s core were other major issues identified at the forum.
Magee took city council to task for failing to come up with a shelter solution, despite having almost 20 months since the temporary shelter at the Cannery Row site was opened at the start of the pandemic, to figure out where a permanent shelter can be built.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” Magee said — instead the city has been “dragging its feet,” failing to find a site for a permanent shelter, where all the supportive agencies can also relocate.
Moore wants more effort undertaken to tackle the local drug problem and used needle debris, saying, “We can’t leave the homeless on the streets for another three to four years” until a permanent shelter is built. He added city council should have come up with a plan by now: “the community is waiting for some real action.”
Allen believes the temporary downtown shelter should have had its operations extended at Cannery Row until a permanent shelter is built. “You can’t kick people out into the street in the winter.”
Johnston was one of the city councillors who voted to keep the temporary shelter open at three separate meetings — but was defeated by the majority on council each time. He said he favours using a “new community-focused housing approach” designed to get homeless people into housing quicker.
When it comes to measures taken to mitigate climate change, Buchanan believes, from his time on the Parkland Airshed Management Zone board, that the Red Deer area generally keeps carbon emissions in check. “We are doing very well,” he said, adding City of Red Deer staff are doing a great job on environmental initiatives.
Allen doesn’t feel Red Deer should add any municipal environmental measures on top of existing federal ones as he said this could keep new businesses from locating in the city.
Moore cautioned that city managers shouldn’t adapt new technologies before thoroughly investigating whether they are effective and cost efficient.
Most candidates said economic stimulation, as well as crime reduction and public safety, were key to their platforms.
Johnston believes the answer to retaining local businesses in the city is listening to the needs of business owners. He wants to start a new liaison committee to provide businesses with better access to the mayor’s office.
Buchanan favours a hybrid policing model that combines a local police force with some RCMP assistance for major crimes. Magee does’t think a municipal force is the answer, but wants better communications between the city and the RCMP.
Johnston said $40 million, or a third of the last city budget, went towards local policing costs. While some success was achieved in reducing local crime, he wants various strategies to be explored.
The municipal election is on Oct. 18 and 30 candidates are also running for city council.