Torch-toting villagers might be chasing the wrong monster
by Paul Dechene
Of all the things I thought I’d end up writing at the half-way point of Mayor Fougere’s first term, I never expected it to be this: The guy knows how to draw a crowd.
And hoo boy, what temperamental crowds they are.
Here we are, coming up on two years of this new council and off the top of my head I can think of six particularly raucous council meetings involving angry — sometimes even heckling — masses1. Add to this another six that were quite civil but still drew notably large groups who were in some degree disgruntled with council’s direction2.
Council’s latest brush with an enraged constituency was at their July 28 meeting when well over a hundred current and retired public employees showed up to express their displeasure over recent developments with their pension plan.
The plan covers employees from the City of Regina, Buffalo Pound Water Treatment Plant, the Board of Education, the Public Library and the Regina Qu’appelle Health Region, and it has been in the red for many years — at least as far back as 2008. Currently it sits at a stadium-sized $240 million in deficit.
And despite negotiations to solve the problem being ongoing, last month, the province’s Financial and Consumer Affairs Authority (FCAA) threatened to cancel the plan entirely if the involved parties didn’t come to a final agreement by December of this year.
Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with anyone actually involved in the plan. And while the provincially imposed deadline might kickstart more earnest negotiations, publicly the City and the employee groups are turning on one another. The city claims the Pension and Benefit Committee (PBC) — a group representing civic workers — won’t meet with them to resume negotiations. The PBC, as part of their Honour Our Deal campaign, allege that the City isn’t negotiating in good faith and is using the FCAA’s threat to end the plan as a pretence to dilute the pension and reduce the benefits retirees will earn from it.
Expect the rhetoric to only get more heated. And that means we’ll probably see the gallery at Henry Baker Hall fill with angry citizens again — and again — in the months to come.
But the thing is, it might be easy to lay all these various explosions of citizen frustration — past and future — at the feet of Fougere. He’s been mayor since October of 2012 and was a councillor for five terms before that.
But when you look at the issues that are drawing the really angry crowds3, there are a couple common threads. The first is that they all represent really hefty bills coming due for the city: the wastewater treatment plant, the stadium, the pension crisis and the infrastructure deficit.
The other common thread is that they are all things that we’ve known about for a very long time. In fact, they’re all issues that we were supposedly dealing with back when Pat Fiacco was mayor.
And while we got a lot of slick vision statements and sloganeering, all those bills were kind of left on the table when Fiacco walked away.
It was a Fiacco-led council in 2009 that opted to delay raising contributions to help with the pension liability. And his hand was on the tiller when the stadium transformed from a simple renovation into a mega-project. Council acknowledged as early as 2008 that changes to federal government regulations would require a new wastewater facility but work on a new plant didn’t begin in earnest until Fiacco was on the way out. And while he was instrumental in organizing two National Infrastructure Summits, Regina is still struggling to fill its potholes and upgrade its water systems.
“You can’t unring a bell,” was one of Mayor Pat Fiacco’s catch phrases. He’d pull it out any time a reporter (sometimes this reporter) asked him why council hadn’t acted differently or earlier to solve a particular issue.
And here we are, more than two years after he moved on to new things4 and there are a lot of alarm bells ringing in Regina.
And it seems Fougere is the guy left in charge of un-ringing Fiacco’s legacy.
1. Jan 28, 2013 on the stadium financing plan, 15 speakers; Feb 19, 2013 on the possible closure of some outdoor pools, nine speakers; Apr 29, 2013 on the housing strategy, 13 speakers; Jul 8, 2013 on a proposed development at 2220 Edward St, four speakers; Jul 22, 2013 on the Wastewater Treatment Plant petition, 22 speakers; Aug 14, 2013 on the Wastewater Treatment Plant referendum terms, six speakers; Jun 23, 2014 on Connaught School heritage recommendations, 13 speakers; July 28, 2014 on the pension plan, one speaker but a packed and heckling gallery. Only the Edward Street and outdoor pool items ended with the delegations walking away somewhat mollified — in the former, council admitted it needed to deal with flooding issues in that neighbourhood ASAP; in the latter, council committed to keep the pool open. In every other case, the crowds left more upset than they arrived.
2. Jun 10, 2013 on the housing strategy implementation, four speakers; Oct 15, 2013 on the rooming house strategy, seven speakers; Feb 24 2013 on the municipal budget, 14 speakers; Feb 27, 2014 on the taxi bylaw, six speakers; April 14, 2014 on the local improvement program, four speakers.
3. I can’t speak to what things were like during Pat Fiacco’s early years in office as I only started covering city hall in 2007. I’ve heard that there were some feisty council meetings over proposed changes to the library system. The largest sustained controversy that I witnessed him deal with was over the way council exacerbated the housing crisis by approving a lengthy series of condominium conversions in contradiction of their own condo policy. But the crowds that have come out in the last 18 months to speak against stadium financing and the WWTP P3 have dwarfed the ones that came out to speak against condo conversions.
4. Yep. I know that the city election was only 22 months ago. I can do math.