Battle For YQR

The mayor’s chair and most wards are up for grabs in Regina’s wildest election in decades

City Hall by Paul Dechene

Back in 1997, when you were Tubthumping with Chumbawamba and not being nearly squigged out enough by the age difference between Buffy and Angel, Michael Fougere won his first election to become the city councillor for Ward 4. Then in 2012, while you were, “Oh yeah! Four more for Obama! The good times will never end,” Fougere moved up to the mayor’s office.

That means Michael Fougere has been involved in every significant decision in Regina for the past 23 years. And if you’d asked me back in June how I thought things would go in the municipal election this Nov. 9, I’d have said it was a cinch he’d add another four years to his total.

Now I’m not so sure.

Fougere faces eight contenders and at least two of them are credible threats to his position.1 The first is Ward 10 councillor Jerry Flegel, who left his council spot to seek the centre chair. But the mayoral candidate with the most buzz is Sandra Masters, a former Regina Exhibition Association board chair who has been running a slick and well-supported campaign.

Meanwhile, at the councillor level, things are equally dynamic as, I’d argue, eight out of 10 council seats are in play.2 Flegel’s mayoral run has left Ward 10 wide open and with Councillor Mike O’Donnell choosing to not run again, Ward 8 also lacks an incumbent. As for the other wards, based on social media presence and the number of signs I’m seeing around town, there are highly motivated challengers across the city who could topple any of the incumbents. (Wards to watch: One, Five and Nine… and Seven. And Two. And also maybe Six.)

If Fougere were to lose and even a couple wards flipped, that dramatically alters the dynamic of council.

Is that likely?

As turnout is low and most voters don’t follow municipal politics closely, the name recognition that comes with incumbency is a massive advantage. But if enough people start grumbling about a few high-profile, unpopular council decisions, they might look around for new names and find them on lawn signs and YouTube videos.

And I’ve been hearing some grumbling…

What Are People Grumbling About, Paul?

Property taxes. People are grumbling about property taxes. It’s a city election. Of course they’re grumbling about property taxes. But this year, there’s a special urgency with the COVID lockdown putting financial pressure on families and businesses. Nobody wants to be seen saying they’re going to add to that pressure by voting for a tax hike.

It’s no surprise then that Mayor Fougere’s first campaign promise would be to freeze property taxes in 2021 and into the foreseeable future. He followed that up by challenging other candidates to make a similar pledge.

Masters, meanwhile, points to how property taxes have risen under Fougere’s tenure and commits to finding 15 per cent in savings through an operations efficiency review in her first six months.

(Which begs the question, 15 per cent of what? If it’s operations, that’s a budget of $470 million meaning she’ll be asking administration to find over $70 million in savings. Good luck with that.)

Of the most prominent mayoral candidates, only Flegel hasn’t made a tax freeze a centrepiece of his campaign, choosing instead to focus on investments in undeveloped city land like the Railyards and the old Taylor Field site.

Of course, we’ve been through the no-new-taxes wringer before. Regina froze property taxes in 1997, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009. And the increases in 2000 and 2003 were so close to one per cent they couldn’t even cover inflation. That might sound grand to the No Tax Crew but if you’re wondering why your roads are potholed, your water mains are bursting and your property tax increases have consistently been well above three per cent in recent years, there’s your answer.

Maybe a pandemic is a good time to be frugal and eat into our reserves but eventually, every tax freeze will have to be paid for somehow, either in stiffer tax bills down the line or deteriorating services and infrastructure. Which of course carries its own costs.

And as for making up for lost revenue by finding efficiencies, we tried that too with 2004’s Core Services Review3 which identified, best I can tell, $8.6 million in savings. Which is nice to have, sure. But falls well short of 15 per cent of… whatevs.

The Other Bee In Regina’s Bonnet

Over the past year, an independent commission comprised of a member from the Chamber of Commerce, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy studied councillor compensation in Regina and concluded that our municipal officials are being paid way less than their peers in other cities and less than the time required of their job merits. In August, council voted eight to three in favour of the commission’s recommendation to raise council salaries by 26 per cent phased in over three years starting in 2021. The mayor’s pay will only increase by 1.9%.

In voting against the recommendation, Mayor Fougere said that voting on a pay raise at this time would send the wrong message to the public. Boy howdy was he right. Multiple council candidates have made the pay increase their signature issue, saying they will roll it back or donate their income to charity.

The pay increase has become emblematic of financial recklessness at city hall.

However, discussion at council on the pay increase centred not on “gimme more money”, but rather on how the city has to compensate councillors adequately for what has become full-time job if they are to increase representation among women, Indigenous people, people of colour and lower income people. That side of the issue has been lost among the pitchforks and the torches.

Reminder: pitchforks and torches are a lot less constructive than angry villagers think.

Quickly: Diversity Still An Issue

In the current campaign, of the 45 people running for council seats only 13 per cent are people of colour or Indigenous while only 24 per cent are women. Fully 67 per cent are white men.

Things are more stark in the mayoral race where only one woman is running and the remaining eight candidates are white men.

Quickly: What Nobody’s Talking About

At their Oct. 28 meeting, council is expected to pass a recommendation to start the process of designing a framework so the whole city can shift to renewable energy by 2050. Mayor Fougere and Councillor Findura fought hard against having this on the agenda before the election, saying they wanted to know the full costing of a decadal shift to renewables before they’d vote to start the process to figure out the cost of a decadal shift to renewables. The rest of council, however, sees the city’s renewability pledge as its signature achievement and have been wanting to have this vote since late last year.

Despite its importance to the current council, many council challengers seem unaware that this is a thing and only mayoral candidate Jim Elliott is talking about it that much.

Seems like an oversight considering the climate crisis didn’t end because everybody started worrying about COVID.

Quickly: Vote!

The city election is on Monday, Nov. 9 and unlike the provincial one, where polling suggests the outcome is all-but determined, anything could happen here. And voter turnout for city elections is always really small. That means every vote counts and tiny groups of voters — like, say, the readers of Prairie Dog — can shift the outcome.

Learn more about the candidates at www.regina.ca/elections/whos-running/ then go out and vote, my droogies. 


Footnotes

1. Two crazy rumours I’d heard over the summer: First, that former Sask Party MLA Kevin Doherty was planning to run for mayor of Regina; second, that Sask NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon was also considering a run for mayor. Both tips came to naught. But holy crap, how interesting would this election have been if they had thrown their hats in the ring? Regina would have become the site of a proxy war between provincial powers. Personally, I like to believe there was some substance to the rumours at one point but then these two oppositely charged possibilities collided on a quantum level, making it impossible for either to exist in reality.

2. Councillor Lori Bresciani, in Fougere’s old Ward 4 stomping grounds, is the only councillor to win their seat by acclamation.

3. The city launched another core services review in 2017. It was expected to uncover $2.6 million in efficiencies in its first year. But council hasn’t exactly been trumpeting the outcome of that review the way they did the one completed in 2005.