Keith Gerein: Council's departing captain takes controversial step to keep Edmonton on course

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So, you want to be Edmonton’s next mayor, or a new city councillor?

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Here’s a few things you ought to know, courtesy of outgoing Mayor Don Iveson.

Talking to the prime minister and premier is cool, but a much bigger part of the mayor’s job is working with leaders in the Edmonton region.

Moving ahead on the city’s climate change strategy is going to be expensive, though not nearly as costly as holding back.

There may be an opportunity in the next few years to look at creating a single police force for the entire Edmonton region.

These are just a handful of morsels Iveson is serving up as part of his Open Transition project, which aims to share with candidates — and the public — many of the duties and challenges that will fall on the plate of the next council.

The thing is, Iveson isn’t merely content to ensure a transparent transition for the incoming group of elected officials.

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He also wants a say on who those officials are, which is why he has decided to wade into a number of council ward races by making endorsements, three of which were announced on Monday.

Uncommon and controversial, the move is the latest wrinkle to an increasingly perplexing civic election that has already seen the emergence of a small-c conservative slate and an infiltration by members of the provincial NDP.

Given that context, Iveson’s decision to endorse may seem somewhat fitting, or even helpful to cut through the noise, though I remain skeptical that this is an entirely wise choice for an outgoing mayor.

But before I get into that, it’s worth examining a few threads of the Open Transition project, which was born of Iveson’s belief that he did not receive a sufficient transition when he stepped into the mayor’s office.

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For example, in the area of regional economic development, Iveson suggests how Edmonton and neighbouring municipalities should work together to create a range of industrial park options with differing levels of municipal services, fees and taxes. This would help attract businesses of various sizes and needs, and allow participating jurisdictions to all benefit with a piece of the action, he said.

Similarly, he would like to see the region create an environmental, social and governance (ESG) brand to attract companies looking to make ethical and sustainable investments.

On fiscal policy, he said he believes a tipping point is inevitable where cities will need access to more elastic forms of revenue such as consumption or payroll taxes. In part this is because new tech businesses that drive the economy will have less need for property, and therefore won’t be paying property taxes.

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And as for supportive housing, Iveson said convincing a “defiantly uncooperative” UCP government to get on board may require the city to better track the social impacts of housing investments, then take on some of the risk, by agreeing to pay costs if promised savings to the health and justice systems don’t materialize.

Purportedly, the Open Transition is designed to “demystify” what goes on at city hall.

However, it’s clear Iveson is also using the project as a last attempt to continue framing the agenda.

This is where the endorsements come in.

To be fair, Iveson said those he’s endorsing don’t necessarily agree with him on every policy, but have demonstrated an ability to deal with the complexity of such issues. And that may be true, but one also can’t help but notice the wards he’s picked.

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As an example, one of the endorsements is for YEGarden Suites founder Ashley Salvador who is running against a number of other “progressive” candidates in the very crowded Ward Métis. Interestingly, members of the provincial NDP have already sought to raise one progressive, Cori Longo, above that crowd. Iveson, who has railed against such partisanship in municipal politics, has now countered with his own progressive endorsement.

His other two endorsements, former city planner Anne Stevenson in O-day’min and former city poet laureate Ahmed ‘Knowmadic’ Ali in tastawiyiniwak, are a direct shot against two incumbent, conservative councillors running in those wards, Tony Caterina and Jon Dziadyk.

How much Iveson’s endorsements will help those candidates remains to be seen, but it is not necessarily a slam dunk, even among voters who support the mayor.

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In part, this is because endorsements from outgoing mayors, though not unheard of, tend to go against tradition. But why the tradition?

For me, it’s because the selection of a new mayor is supposed to be a moment of change for a community, but that change can be disrupted by a departing leader who still wields enormous influence with voters. And there is something that feels unsettling, perhaps even anti-democratic, about a mayor who tries to choose his or her successor, or attempts to build a pseudo-slate for a council they will no longer be leading.

Sure, such endorsements can help some voters cut through the noise of a messy election, but it can also create awkward relationships for the new mayor, and can further marginalize candidates with no political connections.

In other words. while I applaud Iveson’s lesson of what it takes to navigate the currents of city hall, his decision to make endorsements feels like too much of an attempt to keep steering the ship.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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