Keith Gerein: City-provincial relations need a solution in Edmonton, but is it possible?


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As a child, schoolyard bullies always presented a strategic conundrum.

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Standing up to them never seemed to work as often as it does in the movies, especially when they were bigger, stronger, and already had more friends sporting facial hair.

Sympathizing or trying to be their friend has sometimes averted disaster; sometimes it just made them angry.

Which meant giving in to the bully tended to be the short-term path of least resistance, except that all of this ensured he would come back for more.

While the schoolyard policy is not a perfect analogy for the state of provincial-municipal relations in Alberta, I think there are at least some similarities to the Edmonton mayoral candidates who pointed out the need to “repair” the city’s relationship with the province.

The goal is of course important, but achieving it with a government that tends to use its power advantage to dictate instead of collaborating is no easy task, especially in a city where most voters are likely to seek a foil for this government.

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The depths of UCP’s dysfunctional relationship with municipalities – and particularly with Edmonton – are detailed in a new report from the left-wing Parkland Institute titled An Unfair Deal.

I won’t go into all the details here, but the list includes major cuts to infrastructure funding, imposing more conditions on funding, clawing back municipal fine revenue, downloading more maintenance costs. order and disaster recovery; and the tearing up of a major city charter agreement that would have given Edmonton and Calgary access to some form of revenue sharing.

Other provincial decisions, even if they are not specifically addressed to municipalities, still have a strong impact. Think of cuts to universities, refusals to properly fund social services and housing, and failures to implement appropriate COVID protections

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That said, where the report fails is that it only deals with one side of the relationship. It does not assess, for example, the claim that Alberta municipalities have been better funded than their counterparts elsewhere in Canada. It also doesn’t address the – valid I think – argument that many towns and cities in Alberta have been delayed for a thorough review of their structure and spending. (COVID has sped up this process).

The question then becomes how to restore the relationship to a more productive basis, which of course – at best debatable – assumes that both parties agree that it needs to be reset.

For example, when asked for his opinion on Friday, outgoing Mayor Don Iveson could really only offer frustration instead of advice.

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“I’m not sure it’s possible to have a working relationship with a dysfunctional government,” he said.

Iveson probably isn’t the best person to ask at this point.

But several of the contenders vying to succeed him suggested they saw a better way forward, so I pushed them to define their strategy.

Michael Oshry, for example, has been among the most critical on this issue, saying Edmonton has played the second fiddle behind Calgary and lost the provincial investment because of “the art of playing politics with the office of the mayor ”.

His solution is to develop a joint program with the Premier of four or five projects in which the city and the province see mutual benefit, and then let the relationship develop from there.

Kim Krushell also stressed the importance of getting wins for everyone, finding ways to structure requests so that they benefit the provincial agenda. Pushing back is sometimes necessary, but it is essential to avoid public divisions, she said, adding that her lack of previous party affiliations makes her the ideal candidate to work with prime ministers, prime ministers. ministers and ministers of all political stripes.

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Amarjeet Sohi’s response focused on building consensus in the community for a particular program, presenting a united front that would be difficult for the province to ignore.

“As a minister, I have seen with my own eyes the impact that other cities have had in approaching government as one collective voice,” he said.

Cheryll Watson said “the housing talks” have left the city out of critical conversations with the province. His approach would try to get the city into the right books of the PCU by reducing bureaucracy, supporting businesses and finding areas of mutual alignment.

Mike Nickel said his only request to the province was to fund more mental health and addiction beds for the homeless.

All in all, while I would have liked to have heard the candidates plead for more municipal powers to improve the rules of the game, there have still been thoughtful responses, including promises to better hear the concerns of the province. .

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At the same time, I also feel a certain naivety, especially around the idea that a change in town hall will suddenly lead the province to put aside partisanship and pettiness.

Instead, all signs point to this will continue to be a very delicate minefield for the next mayor, who must find a way to voice the opposition voters will expect, without burning the bridges that residents ultimately need it.

It’s fair to blame Iveson for diplomatic failures in this area, as there may have been too many caustic personality clashes with provincial leaders.

But just because there will soon be a new kid in town with a different strategy, that doesn’t mean the old bullies will be willing to change theirs.

[email protected]

twitter.com/keithgerein

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