Michael Walters and Scott McKeen both announced months ago that they would not be seeking re-election onto city council. But, even though neither will be part of council after the autumn election, they have insights into what lies ahead for municipal government.
It will be time to tally up the costs of years’ worth of city-building projects — think of money spent on LRT expansion — and recover from the financial blows COVID delivered to the population.
So, in the years to come, the relationship between the citizens of this city and local government will have to change.
McKeen thinks we need to take the famous words of John F. Kennedy and play with them a bit. “Ask not what your city can do for you — ask what you can do for your city.” He sees a future where citizens may need to take over some responsibilities that had been taken on by city staff in the past, from planting flowers in parks to making sure that playgrounds are maintained.
“For cities to thrive in the future, we need to tap into people’s ideas and sweat equity,” McKeen says.
Walters, who, like McKeen, spent two terms as a councillor, says that the City has to look to the private sector to lead the post-COVID recovery.
“I think what we need is an economic renaissance at City Hall, versus what we’ve had over the last four years, which is more of a social-policy City Hall,” says Walters. “It’s more about the city, what the citizens and business owners and people of Edmonton do, and less about what City Hall does. I think over the last four years, and even eight years to some extent, it’s really been about ‘City Hall is the city builder.’ It’s been about council and administration being the doers and innovators and all the attention has been on the things that we want to do. I think that needs to shift dramatically. It’s more about what the community of Edmonton — the business community, the not-for-profit community, the arts community, the people, the neighbourhoods — wants to do.”
A Wild Goose Chase
Walters edited Our Voice, a publication which published stories about Edmonton’s homeless population, worked as a policy consultant, and headed the advocacy group, the Greater Edmonton Alliance, before going into politics. He was named to the Top 40 Under 40 in 2009, and ran as a provincial candidate for the Alberta Party before moving to city politics. So, when he talks about the need for a mayor who can get out of Edmonton’s way in order for an economic recovery to begin, these aren’t words coming out of someone who’s always been on the side of big business.
“If we are going to continue to build the city, it is going to be done by private-sector investment. It’s not about what City Hall spends,” he says. “What we need to be talking about over the next four years is how we support private investment, which is so important when it comes to the success of any municipality.
“Our hope for new investment, new creativity, will come from the private sector. We need to make pathways for that investment to come. We’re going to need a mayor and council that’s going to have that kind of spirit and not feel the need to control everything. I think we have so much to be optimistic about. I think this city has so many amazing people and they need to be supported.”
Walters supports local businessman and former councillor Michael Oshry’s run for the mayor’s chair. He admits that he’s pondered a run for mayor himself, but it didn’t align with his family life.
“The only thing I was going to do was run for mayor, if I was going to stay. Eight years on council was plenty for me, it’s a good stretch of service. I had to level up or level out — that was my perspective.”
Plus, a lot of the issues Walters cares deeply about — economic diversification, homelessness and housing, climate, innovative clean technology — aren’t really the purview of municipal government. He says it “can be a wild goose chase” when municipalities go after these issues. And he admits he’s frustrated when City Council chooses to debate and make motions on issues that it really has no power to take action on unless the feds or the province come on board.
“When you approach these issues from a municipal level, you’re really taking a knife to a gunfight.” He says the City has too many “triangular” conversations on issues that require the feds and the province to weigh in.
“That needs to stop.”
McKeen says that cities — not just Edmonton — have been guilty of making promises they can’t keep. “They’re trying to do everything [they] can for everybody.”
In that vein, incumbent Andrew Knack has signed a pledge produced by the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to “keep elections local” by campaigning only on issues that municipal politicians have influence over.
McKeen is 62, and he admits the job wears on him. While he calls being a councillor the “greatest privilege of my life,” and he’s proud of work he’s recently done in terms of bringing motions asking that the opioid crisis be declared a national emergency, he admits that, frankly, he’s tired.
“There is this constant negative headwind that you’re walking into. Criticism by constituents or big social-justice groups. Now the police are angry. It seems, these days, there’s a real ramping up of discord and frustration and anger.”
While McKeen stays off of social media, he still receives emails that aren’t just critical — but insulting and even threatening.
Walters has sympathy for anyone who enters the public realm in today’s social-media age, no matter the political stripes.
“On the whole, politics now is far more hate-filled than it has been in my life,” Walters says. “It’s more about who you hate and why you’re angry as opposed to critical thinking and debate. I was surprised how much some people in Alberta hated Rachel Notley when she got elected, those from the conservative base. And I’m equally surprised how much certain people in parts of the left or progressive communities hate Jason Kenney. I find that the level of hate and anger has socially become a vehicle for which people can go off half-cocked, undisciplined and say the first thing that comes to their mind. It’s very unattractive to people who are more community minded and policy minded.”
Some Parting Advice
McKeen believes that, post-COVID, opioid and mental-health crises will need to be addressed, and that’s where the next council may need to spend money, meaning there might not be much left to, say, cut the grass.
And he’s been asked by more than a few candidates about what it takes to be councillor. He believes that two-term limits for councillors should be looked at. But he lauds Michael Phair’s time in council and Ben Henderson, who, like McKeen and Walters, isn’t running again. He thinks they were able to remain vital on council despite long stints. But he thinks they’re exceptions to the rule. For council to become more diverse and vital, it needs fresh ideas and no career councillors.
“If you can’t get something done on council in eight years, you’ve been too passive as a city councillor,” he says. “The citizenry should see someone going into their third term as a candidate and ask, ‘Why are you still running? Why aren’t you stepping aside for new people, new ideas?’”
McKeen’s old ward, which took in downtown, Oliver and Glenora, has been integrated into parts of two new wards, Nakota Isga and O-day’min. He offers his advice to those running in those wards:
“I want to shake them by the shoulders and say, ‘Are you sure? Why?’ But I do challenge them all. I say: You have to have something to stand on. And that something to stand on is ‘Why you?’ And that has to be that you have the experience, the education, the vision, the ideas that will be of service to the community.”
Walters’s old ward has now been split, with the northern part of the old Ward 10 territory being ceded to papastew, and the southern portion integrated into Ipiihkoohkanipa-iohtsi. His advice to the two councillors who will represent his old territory?
“The advice I’d give to both of them is to walk with the community. Let the community lead you. The great irony of politics is that we think that politicians need to be leaders. But good leaders can also be good followers. Make sure you’re walking with the community, when people are creating amazing things. Stay out of people’s way, but be helpful and supportive. It’s less about you and more about them.”
SHOT ON LOCATION AT THE CREATIVE HIVE HAIR AND MAKEUP DENEE NOEL OF MODE MODELS STYLIST ALYSSA HABCHI CLOTHING PROVIDED BY ALBERTA BIKE GEAR, SIMONS, FRANCO NEGRELLI SUNGLASSES PROVIDED BY MILLCREEK OPTOMETRY CENTRE
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Edify