Edmonton Journal

New year gets off to very busy start with problems piling up at city hall

- KEITH GEREIN

Though it has strayed into laughable cliché, I found myself on Jan. 1 making a New Year's resolution, again, to get more exercise this year.

I meant it this time. Truly, I did. And while I still have 48 weeks to make good, I really expected to get off to a good start in January, because that is usually a slower time for those of us who often cover city hall.

The news factory of early 2024 apparently had other ideas.

While encampment­s and last week's active shooter scare have dominated the dialogue, there have been a number of other negative developmen­ts in city leadership and intergover­nmental relations that have somewhat slipped under the radar.

This column is an attempt to get caught up, so I can finally make some time for the treadmill. (Let's be honest, I'll probably use the time planning vacations I'll never take and getting caught up on Succession.)

THE PENDULUM OF CITYPROVIN­CIAL RELATIONS

One of my recent columns criticized much of city council for their risky decision to declare a homelessne­ss “emergency.”

My main concern was that the vote was done in defiance of provincial wishes, just hours after ministers had extended an olive branch by hosting all of council at a cabinet meeting and briefing them on a substantiv­e new encampment strategy. Shrewd diplomacy this was not.

However, there have also been some frustratin­g reminders lately that provincial hospitalit­y toward municipali­ties goes only so far, making that olive branch seem more like a toothpick with a desiccated kalamata on the end.

Case in point was the recent unusual demand that municipali­ties provide a list of all direct agreements they have with the federal government.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver insisted his government just wants to understand the full scale of these deals to allow the province a better negotiatin­g position with Ottawa.

And if that's really the case, great.

Yet it also comes across as a half-baked rationale, one that a number of municipali­ties aren't entirely buying.

Instead, there is a sense the UCP government might be most interested in increased control, given its criticism of Ottawa for “sidesteppi­ng” the province in favour of making deals directly with cities and towns.

(This presumably includes Edmonton's pending agreement for federal Housing Accelerato­r Fund dollars that remains inexplicab­ly delayed.)

In principle, I agree the province should be consulted on these deals as a courtesy and to avoid duplicatio­n of spending. At the same time, this should not be an open door to add more unnecessar­y politics, interferen­ce, bureaucrac­y, red tape and delay to the negotiatio­ns, not to mention further disrespect to the autonomy of municipali­ties to manage their own affairs.

CONTROVERS­Y ON SINGLE- USE ITEMS

On that front, the province is also sticking its nose into recent civic bylaws that restrict or charge fees for single-use items.

Officially the government is calling it a jurisdicti­onal concern even though it's really more of an ideologica­l concern for them, with a dose of micromanag­ement thrown in.

In other words, the UCP doesn't like the bylaws and seems to be looking for an opportunit­y to interfere, even though the more principled approach would be to leave it to municipal leaders to bear the accountabi­lity for their own programs.

(Admittedly, the single-use item policies may not yet be working as intended, and are certainly drawing complaints in the meantime. The cities need to produce more hard data. But if waste management isn't a municipal issue, then what is?)

Either way, if the province decides to banish the bylaws, which are designed to produce less waste, then it seems only fair it help the cities with their litter and landfill costs.

Likewise, the province could show respect for city voters by consulting them properly — perhaps even via plebiscite­s — before legislatin­g a massive change to allow political parties into municipal elections.

I've written before about this bad idea and I'll have more to say if the province's considerat­ion turns to action, but I think it's pretty obvious at this point that Calgarians and Edmontonia­ns don't want it.

EXECUTIVE EXODUS WORSENS

Still, as tumultuous as intergover­nmental relations are these days, council's ability to succeed on that file, or any file, is likely hampered by the upheaval taking place within its own civic bureaucrac­y.

Though it doesn't get much attention, there has been a string of departures among most of the city's executive leadership team of late. A lot of skill and experience in the form of five deputy city managers have walked out of city hall in the past year for various reasons.

The latest to go is the biggest name of all, Adam Laughlin, who many of you will remember stepping in as acting city manager during the early pandemic years when he shepherded the municipali­ty with skill and compassion.

He's been a stalwart at the city for more than 18 years. Even when he was passed over to be the permanent city manager, Laughlin effectivel­y returned to his deputy role managing some of the city's most technicall­y difficult portfolios on infrastruc­ture.

I've always appreciate­d the command he shows of his files and his ability to be frank with council, including a willingnes­s to push back on councillor­s who are being obtuse or asking too much.

Still, everyone has their breaking point. To be clear, I don't know Laughlin's reasons for leaving or what's taken place behind the scenes, but all agree it was his choice to go. Council would do well to reflect on what's happening here because this doesn't feel like a healthy exodus.

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