Moose FM’s Mike Gibbins sits down with Adrian Bell, a candidate in Yellowknife’s 2015 municipal election.
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MG: What’s been achieved by this council?
AB: I think the first thing is that we really turned the budget review process on its ear. It was a process that was characterized before, by residents, as sort of a rubber-stamping. They felt that there wasn’t enough scrutiny applied and we definitely changed that right away. We now take a lot longer during that process and I think the results were very clear. We’re going through it line-by-line and we managed to achieve 1% tax increases over the year which is quite a bit better than the 4% increases per year that was achieved by the previous council.
Another big thing that isn’t really talked about is the fact that we removed the middle man on downtown issues. For years I was involved with the Downtown Enhancement Committee and the Smart Growth Committee and while they were full of well-meaning volunteers, really what they did was protect city councillors from making tough decisions and as a result we didn’t make a lot of progress.
In 2002, the downtown place was produced but we didn’t get enough traction on the recommendations, we didn’t make some of the tough decisions we should’ve been making and so as a result, I think we were set back about a decade. Now that’s been resolved and city councillors bear the brunt of, and right so, not only of responsibility but of criticism if we don’t make progress on the downtown.
I also think we did a good job of keeping the microscope focused on improving customer service culture and corporate culture at City Hall and that involved increasing training, apps like Click & Fix and even the renovations at City Hall to bring together all the retail functions in one area. We’ve still got a long ways to go on customer service culture particularly with respect to municipal enforcement and the permitting of construction.
Finally, and another issue that went unnoticed, during the last budget process, this council – for probably the first time – took steps towards macromanagement of the budget instead of really delving down into the weeds. In a lot of these areas we’re not specialists and we shouldn’t be expected to be. That is something I think we can do more broadly and I think a lot of people who have been on other boards and other organizations would like to see us do more of that because they know when it gets down into the weeds, it can really be difficult for councillors to really be authorities on that type of spending.
For you, what should the City’s focus be for the next three years?
My platform identifies five key areas: improving core services where 90% of our dollars are spent, better lobbying for strategic objectives since I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of making our voice heard at the legislative assembly, spending transparency and scrutiny, broadening our downtown strategy and improving accountability.
How can we ensure Yellowknife concerns are heard more clearly in the legislature?
I think a lot of that comes down to the mayor’s position so we have to communicate with the mayor and work together as a council to come to a consensus on our strategic objectives but then keep it high on the list of priorities. In the past, we’ve had quarterly meeting with the Yellowknife MLAs and it just didn’t work. Things like getting a stretch of Highway 4 between Niven Gate and the Explorer transferred over to the City should’ve been done years ago. To do that type of thing it takes a concerted effort, it means us taking a firm position and taking a stand. We can also put some time into some of these key economic objectives that really are behind our control like homelessness. We can take positions, research them, put them forward and then just repeat and hammer the message but we don’t do enough of that. We’re missing the boat on some of these issues that we have to stand up and speak about.
What’s your impression of IserveU?
This has definitely been an interesting campaign mostly because of the IserveU variable. If I were to highlight one question, I think it’s an issue of moral authority and I know that a lot of people are struggling with the same issue. As an example, in 2012, the ninth place candidate received 1,900 votes and that was the runner-up. If the IserveU platform were to have people voting on an issue and fewer than 1,900 people weigh in, then they have less of a right to be controlling the vote of a city councillor than that ninth place runner-up who didn’t make council.
Having said that, if 5,000 people sign up to the platform and half of them vote yay or nay, then you could argue that they have the moral authority to control that vote in that instance so really the devil is in the details. How are issues like that dealt with? Is it going to be 5,000 members or 500? I know people are a little bit concerned about experimenting with our process. If we had five candidates and it looked like there would be a situation where they’d have control over council, that’d be a situation that I’d actively campaign against. It could be very interesting and it could be a powerful tool. The problem I’m hearing from people is that we do have a need to get more people engaged, they just don’t like the sheer number of questions about this platform. The bottom line for me is that the devil really is in the details. It could be a very powerful and helpful tool if it’s done right and if there’s enough freedom on the part of those councillors to take or leave that advice of the platform members depending on how many people participate.
You’ve cited safety concerns as a reason why a commercial plaza might not work at 50-50. What would you do with that lot?
There are a variety of options and first of all, I want to look at options. To have a report come out like the one we did that doesn’t address the realities of safety and the atmosphere of the downtown core, I think is a glaring deficiency. We know this is a complex issue and we have to talk about that complexity. We can’t presume to simply design away our problems with streetscaping, we have to have a strategy for dealing with them. For me, the proposal just didn’t employ enough of the tools that we need and didn’t look at it from enough angles for us to be able to achieve something. There are some caveats on that lot that have to be dealt with. Could you put a building on that lot or could you put a building on part of that lot with some public high-traffic functions and perhaps have a smaller courtyard in front of it with some public art? It seems silly to just be throwing around ideas like this but that’s exactly what we did when we went to administration and asked for options.
Step number one, I want to see options. Step number two, if there’s going to be any public space there involved at all we have to have a strategy to make sure it’s safe, friendly and welcoming. I wouldn’t support anything unless we’ve done that. And step number three is patience. We can’t jump to a quick decision on this. The downtowns that have faced issues like ours – that have dragged themselves out of it – have taken years and even decades to do so. I’m prepared to sit on a piece of land if there is not a right opportunity to do something that will affect long-term change.
Everyone needs to be patient and hope we don’t have councillors who will try to make some knee-jerk moves to show partial victories here when we know this is complex and a lot of work has to go into this to get it done right.
Going forward, what needs to happen to address the issue of homeless in Yellowknife?
Collaboration is key and through the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness we’ve done some good work. We’ve partnered on a variety of projects aimed at helping those who are vulnerable to homelessness – Bailey House, Lynn’s Place, Hope’s Haven and the day shelter. People talk about this being a territorial issue and it is but we’ve been crossing over into it for more than a decade because we want more for our residents. Housing first is obviously a very promising project and we need to try it. Whether its housing first or the next iteration, we have to keep working on this. Our residents deserve to have a home over their heads in addition to addictions and mental health services. A lot of this comes back to stronger lobbying of our partners but also the spirit of collaboration.
What should Yellowknife to do help Syrian refugees?
There are groups who are better positioned, who have more expertise in this area and who can act more quickly than a municipality in a territory can. I think Yellowknifers’ doors are open and we want to help so individuals and community groups need to get together on this and move as quickly as we can and frankly that’s probably a lot faster than the City of Yellowknife can move. We need to get in touch with those right groups to try and help with this very serious crisis.
In a minute, why Adrian Bell?
I find this kind of work to be very fulfilling. I was supported three years ago and I take that responsibility and that honour very seriously. I work very hard at city council and I believe I’m pretty analytical and I can work well with other councillors. I also work hard to bring forward a lot of motions and I think there should be more of that. I’m absolutely obsessed with city issues and improving the quality of life for Yellowknifers. I’m asking for a vote because I really love what I do. I also want to underline the importance of getting in touch with your councillors. I think the threshold for people to call their councillors is too high.