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City Hall by Paul Dechene | Saturday, November 7, 2020
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As if we didn’t already have enough election-related anxiety in our lives this past week thanks to the fate of the Entire Freaking World hanging by a figurative chad in Pennsylvania, we still have a municipal election that’s yet to happen.
Previously, as it’s the one I’m the most engaged with, I have found local elections to be thrilling and fun. But the taint of 2020 has infected even the current Regina city election race and it’s just adding to my anxiety.
Here are a few of the things about it that are contributing to my insomnia…
1. Bob Hawk Down?
We first met Ward 2 councillor Bob Hawkins when he joined council in 2012. In those early days, he was turning his lawyerly training toward the defence of dubious council priorities such as the stadium financing plan — and not making many friends in the gallery while at it. Back then, the first thing someone would say to me when they found out I covered city hall was a variation on, “Man, that Bob Hawkins… we gotta get rid of him.”
Of course, council was unanimously in thrall to stadium groupthink back in those days. Since then, as he’s matured as a city councillor, Hawkins has demonstrated that he is reasonable and open-minded, and in recent years he has become one of the strongest and most eloquent defenders of council’s new environmental policies. It has been an absolute pleasure watching him turn his rhetorical skills to climate action.note This is not to say that I agree with everything Bob Hawkins does on council. Far from it. He was one of the stoutest champions of the move to protect R1 zoning during the Zoning Bylaw review. In short, administration recommended doing away with R1 zoning, which is zoning for single-detached houses. R1 was to be replaced with a looser zoning which would permit duplexes to be built in areas which were exclusively single-unit homes. Residents in R1 areas revolted, arguing that an intrusion of duplexes into their neighbourhoods would destroy their property values, with one delegation to council going so far as to growl, “I don’t want to be hounded by duplexes!” Hawkins led the debate to get the administration recommendation squashed and R1 zoning was preserved. Sounds like a dull, fiddly detail but it was actually a huge deal. R1 zoning is the most widespread zoning in the city and by retaining it, council has prohibited any gradual increase in the residential density of most of Regina. Duplexes and townhomes, meanwhile, are a lower-cost housing option that is hard to find in established neighbourhoods. They’re an attractive choice for new families, renters, and lower income people. For many Indigenous families and families of newcomers to Canada, duplexes and townhomes are the way they enter the housing market. ¶ And let’s be honest with each other for a second, the people worried about being hounded by duplexes aren’t offended by the aesthetics of having two front doors on a building — they’re worried about low income people and people of colour moving into their neighbourhoods. ¶ You can’t believe Black and Indigenous Lives Matter then simultaneously fight to preserve R1 zoning. Sorry.
On top of this, he’s council’s most gifted orator by a long shot and as such he’s a goldmine of great quotes for the radio show I co-host with Aidan Morgan (Queen City Improvement Bureau, Thursdays 7 p.m. on 91.3FM CJTR). Our show will be considerably less entertaining if we lose him.
Take this bit from a council debate on a proposed Winter City Strategy:
“I hate winter. Now that the days of summer are dwindling down to a precious few, I remember how much I hate snow, ice, winter tires, frosted windshields, dead car batteries, home heating bills, storm windows, burst pipes, long nights, dark mornings, minus 40, wind chill, lost gloves, frostbite, flu shots, runny noses, snow routes, water main breaks, Christmas bills, Valentine heartbreaks, cabin fever and seasonal depression. I dislike it when people say, embrace winter. The only thing I want to embrace in winter is my parka and, in the unlikely event that I’m lucky enough, a warm body. Forget the Winterlude activities, a better solution would be to make an offer to buy Hawaii. President Trump wants to purchase Greenland. Maybe he’d take Baffin Island in exchange for Hawaii? I’ll support the Winter City Strategy, but only because of my respect for Councillors Bresciani, Stevens and Findura, and because a motion to abolish winter altogether is not on the floor.”
Magnificent! Can you see how I’d hate to see him lose on Monday?
Unfortunately, this election may be more challenging for the Hawk than what you’d expect an effective and high-profile incumbent councillor to face.
Reason being, before this cycle, Regina went through a ward boundary review and Ward 2 was one of the districts the review committee radically altered. It has become the Harbour Landing/Albert Park ward and no longer includes Lakeview, where Hawkins had been a long-time member of the community association and likely held a lot of support.
Hawkins is facing three challengers and, of them, George Tsiklis looks like the best poised to upset the ward. Tsiklis has a strong social media presence and a lot of supporters who’ve been helping him with door knocking, flyer drops and sign distribution. It’s difficult to know how widespread his community support is. But voter turnouts are obscenely low in municipal elections and being able to motivate even a small core of dedicated residents to get out to the polls can have a huge impact.
Meanwhile, Hawkins will not be able to count on the Lakeview votes he could in 2016. And while he’s been representing the Harbour Landing/Albert Park end of the city for the eight years he’s been on council, I can’t say if those residents feel he’s sufficiently stood up for their suburban interests over that time.
As such, I have no idea which way voters are going to swing and that’s why I’m rating Ward 2 a toss-up.
If he loses, the endless hours I spend covering council will be considerably less interesting as none of the incumbent councillors or council challengers impress me as being able to fill that entertainment gap.
The Hawk is irreplaceable.
2. Is This The Ascension Of Katherine Gagne?
The low point for the current Regina Public School Board was their shenanigans with a Pride celebration motion.
The motion had been brought by trustee (now MLA) Aleana Young and was intended to support LGBTQ+ students and teachers by enshrining Pride celebrations as part of the school year.
It read, “BE IT RESOLVED that Regina Public Schools recognize and support the celebration of Pride and fly the rainbow flag at our facilities each June.”
In case there’s any question, I personally 100 per cent support the word and spirit of this motion. But the public school board voted it down, arguing the language of the motion was too vaguenoteImportant note: The trustees had the motion in-hand for four months prior to the meeting and could have suggested wording changes at any point during that third of a year or even during the proceedings of the meeting. and the board needed to take a more cautious, reflective approach and asked administration to produce a report on the subject.
Parents who’d filled the meeting room to show their support for the motion were loud and angry as they departed.
The school board chair at the meeting, and for many years previously, was Katherine Gagne and responsibility for how the board mishandled this motion fell mainly at her feet.
She did not help matters when she attempted to rationalize the board’s no vote by writing on Facebook:
“I’ve been elected to provide leadership and a shotgun for every man (school) for themselves approach is simply irresponsible. We can’t have one school thinking a drag queen storytime to kindergarten students is acceptable or a teacher telling a grade 3 student that they don’t need to choose their gender yet is acceptable.”
Uhhhh… Her explanation reads like bad stand-up comedy at an RNC rally.noteIn a publicly available video, Gagne can be seen speaking to her church community on issues such as the need for the church to take a leadership role in the provision of social services. She muses admiringly about using secular, politically correct language to advance a church agenda and specifically speaks about someone using their position as a student dormitory leader as an opportunity for surreptitious Christian ministry (Speak Up, Speak Out, Aug. 11, 2019 on YouTube). While everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, should be fully engaged with civic life, when this video was posted to social media, many raised concerns about what they say about Gagne’s views on keeping church and state at a distance.
“Hahaha! Drag queens in schools and nuance around gender notions?!? Can you believe these snowflakes?!? Also, lesbians and their haircuts, amirite?!?”
Gagne later apologized for her Facebook post. And the public school administration has since set guidelines for how schools can celebrate Pride.noteThe direction from the diversity steering committee says the public school division should affirm LGBTQ rights as universal, that the diversity steering committee should help in future Pride-related decisions, that parents should be informed a week before any Pride celebrations and that schools should be able to apply to fly a Pride flag. Which makes me wonder: if LGBTQ rights are universal, why the application process to fly a Pride flag? I guess, it wouldn’t be a committee if it didn’t conclude that more paperwork is needed?
But the damage was already done. In fact, some parents were so angered by the direction the school board had taken that they were inspired to run for school board this election themselves so they can make sure that LGBTQ kids are never made to feel so excluded by their own school division. (You can read how all the public school board candidates responded to a survey on LGBTQ issues here).
Gagne meanwhile, to bury a lede, has decided to hang up her trustee hat and is now running to be a councillor in Ward 9.
And if you think her performance during the Pride motion debacle was concerning, her presence on council should be doubly so.
She is running against five dudes, one of whom is incumbent Jason Mancinelli.
Mancinelli is not the loudest voice on council — like, literally; I frequently have trouble hearing him — but he has typically voted in favour of many of council’s progressive-leaning issues, such as the Renewable City motion. And I have heard he is well-respected in his ward.
But, thanks to her long years of service on the school board and her deep ties to her church community, Gagne has a very strong profile in the area.
Mancinelli, meanwhile, has had a much quieter roll-out to his re-election campaign.
I suspect Mancinelli’s council incumbency advantage is basically cancelled out by Gagne’s position as long time trustee for the area. In a way, she’s an incumbent too.
That makes Ward 9 another toss up.
And as I was very not happy with how the public school board handled the Pride motion, I wouldn’t be super-excited to see how Gagne would meet her responsibilities as a councillor.
3. Will The Pay Cut Crew Conquer Council?
Earlier this year, an independent commission recommended city councillors should get a pay raise. It was a big one: 26 per cent to be phased in over three years starting in 2021.noteIt was recommended the mayor should only get a 1.6% pay increase.
Council passed it. Not unanimously. But they passed it.noteCouncillors Bryce and Findura and Mayor Fougere voted against the council pay raise.
And if you read through my Twitter mentions, you’ll note that there’s a sizeable contingent in this city who seem to think that this was the only fucking thing council did over the last four years.
Not surprisingly, then, there are a host of candidates for council who name reversing or scaling back the pay raise as their job one.
For a few, this is the only notable item in their platform.
Okay, we’ve been over this before, but council salaries actually impact the quality and character of the people you end up getting on your council.
As the remuneration committee found, the current council salary is a significant obstacle to people considering a run for office. If you’re supporting a family and have a job that doesn’t allow you to shuffle your schedule to go to daytime council events, you can’t even run. Councillor salaries are just too low for you to drop your day job.
This makes running for municipal office prohibitive for most of us but especially for Indigenous people, newcomers to Canada and low-income people.
But it’s not a problem if you’re a retiree, a university professor, a real estate agent, a developer or someone who’s self-employed and well-established.
If you’ve ever lamented how the composition of our council doesn’t represent the diversity of our city, well, our low councillor salaries are one reason for that.
I don’t know what you all want. Should sitting on council be a volunteer gig? A hobby? Should the privilege of answering all those unhinged friggin’ e-mails about potholes, overgrown weeds, back-alley housing, lack of parking and whatever NIMBY thing is happening this week be the whole of a councillor’s reward?
I’ve been watching council for 12 years now and, despite what some of those who’ve never set foot in Henry Baker Hall might think, councillors actually work pretty freakin’ hard for you.
Gone are the days where a spot on Regina council could be a side hustle for the city’s business class. It’s more than a full-time job now and deserves to be compensated as such.
But there are a slew of candidates who haven’t really thought about the larger issues in the council compensation debate.
That kind of myopia should be a strike against someone running to be a public servant. But this “OH! THEY SHOULDN’T BE VOTING THEMSELVES A RAISE IN A PANDEMIC!” rhetoric plays very well — especially since there aren’t really other meaty municipal issues to rally behind.
The main worry with getting a few of these fiscally conservative, “I’ll give my pay raise back to the people” types on council is that it could shift the voting balance.
The outgoing council has been remarkably interested in loosening the purse strings and investing in the city. The COVID relief grant for small business, the Renewable City framework, the Maple Leaf and Wascana Pools projects, the airport transit service pilot, the Regent Par 3 park project, multiple new dog parks and the annual recreation infrastructure renewal fund (paid for with an annual 0.45% property tax increase) are all recent council initiatives that come with big price tags. They will all contribute to a much more vibrant and interesting city and the middle of an economic crisis brought on by a pandemic is precisely the time when governments should be investing in communities.noteWhile the height of an economic boom is exactly the wrong time to be investing in expensive, unnecessary-but-maybe-nice-to-have megaprojects like, say, oh… I don’t know… a football stadium. — Why? Because the government — which spends from a functionally limitless reserve and can ignore little things like, “Is this stupid project even economically feasible?”— drives up the friggin’ price of labour and materials which in turn makes it harder for private construction firms — especially small, locally owned ones — to do business.
But who knows what’ll happen with a few budget hawks on council? Will they put the brakes on any new spending initiatives? Will they nickel-and-dime the ones we’ve already passed?
We don’t know. And I don’t want to find out.
4. Who Will Claim The Lair Of The Mayor?
If you need more proof that there’s something missing this city election cycle — whether it’s missing from the media coverage or the platforms of the candidates — it’s that a lot of people — I mean, A LOT — have been reaching to ask me who to vote for mayor.
Look, yes, I follow city council closely. But my pick for mayor is based on what is most likely to amuse me the most over the next four years.
That’s a horrible metric upon which to base a vote.
Regardless, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not really stoked on anybody who’s running for mayor. I mean, I’ve met them all and they’re great people. I like them. But do we align philosophically on how the city should go forward? <eye roll> I don’t friggin know. </eye roll>
Fougere’s tax freeze. Masters’ hunt for the 15-per cent-in-efficiencies. Flegel’s “downtown hockey arena + warehouse district ball diamond + ?? = profit” masterplan.
Even Jim Elliott, whose commitment to environmentalism pleases me, hasn’t exactly been close enough to power that he’s had to work out the details on how he’ll wrangle all the various squirrels with money — especially our beloved and eternal Sask Party government — to implement his well-intentioned notions.note…and the rest.
And so, a pox on all their platforms on all their WordPress sites.
Look, all I want is a mayor who’s equal parts Barack Obama, Jane Jacobs, city councillor Jack Layton (not NDP leader Jack Layton), Greta Thunberg, Anand Giridharadas, any McElroy brother, the guy who wrote The High Cost Of Free Parking, and one of those plain donuts from Country Corner Donuts on Broad Street.noteBecause, round about word 3,000, I always start thinking about those damn donuts at Country Corner Donut on Broad Street.
IS THAT REALLY TOO MUCH TO ASK?!?!?!?!?!
At least I can console myself with the fact that mayors are not prime ministers, premiers, presidents or monarchs. They’re just one more vote on council. (A vote with a sweet office on the top floor of city hall.) No matter who they are, they can’t dominate council’s agenda and, as we’ve learned over the last four years, councillors who work together can drive the agenda themselves whether they have buy-in from the mayor or not.
So maybe I can just relax.
And maybe voting for who would be the most entertaining mayor isn’t the worst idea after all.
Though, please, my advice should never be followed.