In a sea of platitudes, are there any specifics?

It’s true that this election lacks a big, divisive issue like the arena or the city centre airport. There’s little disagreement among candidates about the path Edmonton is on or even about what Edmonton will look like in four to eight years. Yet despite all of that similarity, candidates aren’t doing much to differentiate themselves. With just ten days until election day, all we seem to hear are platitudes. Where are the specifics?

“Let’s get our city’s taxes and debt under control,” reads mayoral candidate Kerry Diotte’s digital brochure. The text offers some numbers to illustrate how Edmonton’s debt has grown over the last decade, but details on how to get that debt “under control” are nowhere to be found. “Reduce wasteful spending” is another common refrain from the Diotte camp, but how? In our #yegvote Hangout, Kerry said he’d need to review “wants” versus “needs” but wouldn’t offer any specifics, suggesting he’d have to do that in collaboration with the new council.

(BTW, it’s remarkable how similar Ward 2 candidate Don Koziak’s vision for City Council is to that of Kerry Diotte.)

Over in Ward 4, incumbent Ed Gibbons offers policies like: “is working with administrators and developers to ensure the appropriate growth of our community,” and “supports appropriate redevelopment of older communities for both new and existing residents.” What is appropriate growth? How do you quantify that? What does appropriate redevelopment look like?

Ward 1 candidate Rob Pasay has five platform statements, each about three or four sentences long. Here’s his “Power To The People” policy:

Put an end to corporate sponsorship of Councillor and Mayoral candidates. Encourage a city-wide vote on any project whose total initial cost is greater than a certain percentage of the City GDP. Increase voter turnout by investigating the use of malls and seniors homes as voting stations. Actually balance the budget.

Greater than a certain percentage of the GDP? What’s the percentage? 1%? 50%? Does that even make sense as an idea? How would you hold a city-wide vote in the middle of a four-year term? It’s a crazy thing to say without any specifics to back it up.

The policies put forward by Ward 11 candidate Mike Nickel are even more laughable. Here’s his entire policy on municipal taxes:

Our tax dollars must be spent effectively with an eye reviewing the City’s current expenditures and debt load. There is no room for civic waste or financial mismanagement.

Some of his other policy statements are even shorter, and he ends each one with a question: “How do you feel about this issue?”

I can understand why a candidate might hesitate to get too specific – they could then be held accountable if they got into office. For instance, what if they promised a 5% cut, but could only achieve a 3% cut once elected? Would that be seen as the candidate misleading voters? It’s better than making only vague promises with no real plan, in my mind.

I suppose platitudes are better than misinformation. There are clearly a large number of candidates who haven’t done even the most basic research on issues like homelessness or LRT funding. Still, I wish there was more substance to the policy statements being put forth by so many of the candidates. A statement of intent is useful, but why stop there? Even just a little more detail would help to differentiate many of the candidates from their competitors. When the candidates themselves remark that “we’re all saying basically the same thing” at forums, there’s a problem.

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To be fair, there are some candidates that offer more than just platitudes (but not many). Ward 2 candidate Ted Grand gets specific in his neighbourhood renewal policy:

The City has recognized it fell behind in maintaining infrastructure in the City’s mature neighbourhoods. In the 2013 budget they set funding support of the renewal program at 1.5%. I will be working to restore the program back to the 2010 level of 2%, so more neighbourhoods can be completed sooner.

In the mayoral race, Don Iveson is consistently highlighted as the only candidate that seems to know the facts and can offer more than just an opinion. Even the Edmonton Sun’s Lorne Gunter picked up on this, writing “on every issue, he understands the problem and has thought through a solution.” Consider Don’s policy on funding the city. He offers a short-term plan with some specifics:

“I will introduce a program called “Council’s 2%” in which Council will work with city administration throughout the year to find an annual 2% increased efficiency in our city’s tax-supported operations, which should yield approximately $80 million over the next four years.”

And he saves any platitudes for the long-term vision:

My vision is that in 20 years, the city’s over-reliance on unfair property taxes is long behind us. Edmonton, and all Canadian cities, need better tools to pay for the services we expect and the city we envision.

The main reason I’m interested in specifics is not differentiation, but confidence. I want to be confident that the successful candidates have what it takes to do the job. Specifics and detail are a large part of what City Council deals with on a daily basis. There’s a reason that a Councillor’s workload “averages at least 60-70 hours per week.” No doubt some of that time can be attributed to attending events, but there’s a significant amount of effort that goes into understanding the issues.

But don’t take my word for it – here’s what current Councillor Kim Krushell told me:

To be an effective City Councillor you have to be prepared to not only attend countless Council and committee meetings but be willing to lead Council Initiatives. The biggest part of the job is reading. Councillors get most of their agendas the Thursday before the week of meetings. This means spending countless hours reading on the weekends. When you sit on other Boards such as the Police Commission or AUMA (Alberta Urban Municipalities Association) there is a significant amount of additional reading the Councillor has to do.

She added: “The job is not easy but it is rewarding!”

With so little time before election day, we’re not likely to see much change in the information that candidates are providing. And that’s a shame, because deciding between “I support better public involvement” and “I support better public consultation” is not going to be easy.

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