Edmonton City Council could have its first by-elections in 20 years

With the potential loss of two Councillors this year, Edmonton could have it’s first by-elections for City Council in more than two decades.

Councillor Amarjeet Sohi, who represents Ward 12, announced in January that he would seek the federal Liberal nomination in Edmonton-Mill Woods. He was acclaimed on February 12. You can see his campaign page here. Sohi has said he would take leave from Council during the election.

Amarjeet Sohi - Ward 12
Amarjeet Sohi, photo by Dave Cournoyer

Councillor Tony Caterina, who represents Ward 7, was named the Progressive Conservative candidate in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview on March 28. He was first elected to City Council in 2007. Curiously, Caterina has said he will remain active on Council during the election, but will not draw a pay cheque.

Tony Caterina - Ward 7
Tony Caterina, photo by Dave Cournoyer

On the school board side, Sarah Hoffman is running as the Alberta NDP candidate in Edmonton-Glenora. She was elected to her second term on the Edmonton Public School Board in 2013 and stepped down as chair in January. She still holds her seat on the school board.

Sarah Hoffman - Ward G
Sarah Hoffman, photo by Dave Cournoyer

Now that we know the provincial election is taking place on May 5, a by-election for Tony Caterina and Sarah Hoffman’s seats would take place sometime before August 4 (assuming they win office). The federal election is slated to take place on October 19, so if Amarjeet Sohi were to win, a by-election for his Council seat would need to take place by January 16, 2016.

By-Election Rules

Sections 160-168 of the Municipal Government Act deal with vacancies and by-elections for councils. Here are the key points:

  • Resignations must be made in writing and given to the Chief Administrative Officer (in our case, City Manager Simon Farbrother). The resignations take effect on the date they are received.
  • The Chief Administrative Officer must report the resignation to council at the first meeting after receiving the resignation.
  • A by-election must be held to fill the vacancy unless:
    • It occurs in the 6 months before a general election, or
    • The council consists of 6 or more councillors and the vacancy occurs in the 18 months before a general election (and there’s only one) or in the 12 months before a general election and there’s enough remaining councillors to count one more than the majority
  • A by-election must take place within 90 days of a vacancy, otherwise the Minister of Municipal Affairs may order a date for one or take any other action he or she considers necessary.

The next general municipal election will take place on October 16, 2017, which is still about 30 months away, so none of the “unless” clauses apply. If any of the three mentioned above resign, a by-election would need to be held within 90 days. And since it is very unlikely that Councillor Sohi would resign before winning a seat in October, we’ll almost certainly be looking at two by-elections – one for Caterina and/or Hoffman’s seats, and another for Sohi’s seat.

The nomination and campaign periods would be set by Council following the vacancy becoming official. In practice, the City Manager would bring a report to Council to inform them of the vacancies and would make a recommendation on the nomination and election dates. The same would apply to the Public School Board, except it would be the Chief Returning Officer (Alayne Sinclair) that would bring the report.

By-Election History

Edmonton has had six by-elections in the past, the two most recent of which were for councillors making the jump to either provincial or federal politics:

  • 1907 – Morton MacAuley resigned eight months into his term and left politics.
  • 1911 – James McKinley resigned to protest the firing of two city commissioners.
  • 1912 – Herman McInnes and Charles Gowan both resigned.

julia kiniski
Julia Kiniski at a campaign meeting in 1949, courtesy of the Edmonton Archives

  • 1970 – Julia Kiniski died on October 11, 1969. She had held office since 1963, when she finally won after about a dozen previous attempts. Her son Julian won the by-election, and was the last person to be elected at-large in Edmonton as the ward system took effect in 1971.
  • 1984 – Bettie Hewes resigned after being elected as MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar.
  • 1994 – Judy Bethel resigned after being elected as Liberal MP for Edmonton-East.

What to expect

Although Council has requested that the Minister of Municipal Affairs amend the Local Election Authorities Act to permit alternate forms of voting (which would make online voting possible) that has not yet happened and so online voting would not be an option for these by-elections.

City Clerk and Returning Officer Alayne Sinclair tells me that turnout is often even worse for by-elections than it is for general elections, so the City would try to pick a date that would maximize turnout. There would also be ample opportunity for advance voting.

With provincial and federal elections, and possibly municipal by-elections, all taking place this year, Edmontonians will be busy at the polls.

We all have skin in the game

I’m registered to speak during tomorrow’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with Executive Committee (though I expect we’ll see more than just the five standing members in attendance). I’m yet to hear anyone on Council say they are looking forward to it, however.

“If you own the land and you want to grow berries, go ahead. If you don’t own the land, I would say the same thing, get the heck out of the way. You have no interest. We’re going to have everybody with no interest, financially or otherwise, coming forward supporting something that they really have no skin in the game about, and those that do, are going to suffer the consequences.”

That was what Councillor Caterina said at the September 5 meeting of Executive Committee, voicing his opposition to the public hearing (ultimately he did vote for it along with the rest of the Committee).

No interest? No skin in the game? Councillor Caterina could not be more wrong, and let me tell you why.

First of all, we’re talking about the Food & Agriculture Strategy, not the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.” Food is something that touches all of us, and if we’re going to take a position as a City on the importance of food to our community, I want a say in that.

I think we screwed up by attaching the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the specific land issue in the northeast. I want a WinterCity Strategy-like approach to food. There is so much that was left unexplored, and so many people that were not involved that have important, valuable contributions to make, and that’s largely because the discussion was dominated by the northeast.

Secondly, Council is largely responsible for turning this into the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.”

I have not seen any concrete evidence to suggest that we can sustain our outward growth, nor have I seen any concrete evidence to suggest we can’t. There’s lots of anecdotal information, and certainly there are dozens of other places we can point to that clearly demonstrate the unsustainability of sprawl, but we need facts and figures for Edmonton. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into new areas, what that costs the city. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into existing areas, what that costs the city. Then we can start to determine whether or not we can afford to move ahead with more sprawl. My educated guess is that we can’t.

We should have had those numbers from the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan (IIMP) and the Growth Coordination Strategy (GCS), but that’s not going to happen. In September, Administration asked for the IIMP to be treated as a “framework” rather than a plan, then provided a meaningless two-page document to serve as the framework. Council let them get away with it.

The GCS is slated to go to Council on November 19. A draft was released in May, but it has been rewritten and was distributed to select stakeholders at the end of the day on Tuesday. The deadline for comments? Tomorrow. And beyond that select group, there has been zero public consultation, and there’s no indication that a public hearing will be held for the GCS. The purpose of the GCS is to “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” so can you guess what was removed from the latest draft? Anything related to mature areas, transit oriented development, and infill. So much for the “coordination” part of our growth strategy.

As our elected representatives, Council should be the ones asking why. Why do we still lack the information we need to make smart decisions? Why have we rushed these documents? Why haven’t we included the public in their creation?

In short, Council has not provided citizens with confidence that we can grow sustainably, nor have they provided opportunities for citizens to have a say on the plans that will affect where and how we grow. The only opportunity we have is the Food & Agriculture Strategy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I pay taxes like everyone else. It costs money to provide services to an ever-expanding list of neighbourhoods, and that means there is upward pressure on my taxes. Police stations, libraries, and parks do not build themselves. There are no magic fairies that remove snow in the winter or fix potholes in the summer. Taxes pay for those civic services.

I have an interest in ensuring Edmonton’s food security because food is central to my everyday life. I have an interest in what happens in the northeast because I have an interest in living in a sustainable city. I have “skin in the game” because I pay taxes like everyone else. And above all, I as a citizen of Edmonton, have a right to be involved in decisions that affect me.

Tony Caterina on the issues in 2009

It’s not surprising that City Councillors are often in the news, offering comment, explanations, and other thoughts on the latest decisions and issues. Some are generally in the news for positive reasons, others, not so much. Ward 3 councillor Tony Caterina is one of the members of council who seems to be mentioned for negative reasons more than positive ones (thanks to Dave for the photo). I mean, he’s even got his own hashtag on Twitter to track all of the bizarre things he says and does! I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at Caterina’s quotes throughout 2009. Ideally I could just point you to his voting record online, but we’re not there yet, so quotes will have to do!

A note on the data: I decided to make it simple and to only look at quotes from the Edmonton Journal. I searched the Canadian Newsstand database (anyone with an Edmonton Public Library card can access it for free) for “tony caterina” in the Edmonton Journal for any date in 2009. A total of 71 articles were found, up to December 3rd. For each one, I looked for direct quotes. I also added some quotes from articles written after December 3rd.

First off, here’s a Wordle of all the quotes:

And here, by subject, is a selection of Tony Caterina quotes on the issues in 2009. You can download all of the quotes I found here in PDF.

On the City Centre Airport:

"We’re talking about closing aviation down, and businesses, and putting people on the unemployment line. Really, that doesn’t make sense."

"In regards to economic development, it’s critical … here we are contemplating getting rid of something that’s already here. That just doesn’t make sense to me."

"If we’re not going to talk about the possibility of improved aviation service, what are the possibilities? From our perspective on council, we will want to push for that to be part of the debate."

On the Edmonton Indy:

"It’s not a cost, it’s an investment into promoting Edmonton as a world-class city. We made a decision as council to support this event because it is world-renowned … Given the exposure we have had, it’s money well spent."

"The publicity, you can’t even put a price tag on it. The Indy is being seen by countries around the world."

On EXPO 2017:

"The prudent thing would be to get a…firm commitment from the province and the federal governments (that) if this bid is successful, they are prepared to support the $2.3 billion."

On Budget 2010:

"We have gone all year asking administration to work on this budget, three per cent (plus) two per cent for (neighbourhood) renewal. They have certainly done that. It’s a very fair budget to everyone. If we don’t accept this recommendation on this after a full year’s work, then going forward from this, any time we ask them to do something, where’s the credibility?"

On Jasper Avenue:

"The pedway system is there. Certainly, we’re not going to get rid of that, but there probably needs to be better planning for the buildings that are going up. The main floor has to be commercial, more so. They should be concentrating on getting merchants back on the street so people have a reason to be outside, and not just in the pedway system. To bring people back on the street, you need something for people to attract them -clothiers and shoe shops."

On the York Hotel:

"They make everybody else look bad. The majority in the…industry are good operators, but you have the few who, they can’t comply or won’t comply."

On cats:

"I don’t know what it is about me, I’ve always denied that I like cats but I’m always the first one they come to."

"When it’s a cat involved, there are more people saying ‘just keep Fluffy, I’m not paying 250 bucks for it. It seems dogs have more value."

On infrastructure:

"We’ve been so far behind in infrastructure repairs. The more we can get done, the better. There are a little sharper pencils putting the prices out. This will help go a long way to making sure we come in with a very very reasonable tax rate for next year."

On the U-Pass:

"There’s enough residual benefits, from (lower) carbon dioxide emissions and fewer vehicles…We subsidize (student) tuition, we subsidize transit, we subsidize all kinds of things, but they’re an important group."

On the new ward system:

"Even with the system that we have now, you’re running against each other. There’s always a chance that one incumbent, as happened in the last election, or both, could be defeated. I don’t think that’s an issue for consideration."

On bike trails:

"There’s a limited amount of money and we have to look after higher priorities. Edmonton already has a lot of paths for a winter city — about 1,000 kilometres of bike trails and roads — so I think we’ve done a good job."

On the Citizen Panel:

"How many members, how many panels, do we need? We might as well just ask the public where to put the money. That’s a big part of the councillor’s responsibility. It sounds good to have public involvement, but at the end of the day that’s what council is here for."

On the idling bylaw:

"All it’s going to do is pit neighbour against neighbour. I would have to agree with my constituents that have phoned in to say this sounds like the silliest thing we have done here in a number of years. I think this is a little excessive. People in general are good. They understand the environment and will do what they can in order to mitigate their contribution to … pollution."

On bloggers (thanks Dave for saving it):

"A number of bloggers — who knows where they come from — are treated as gospel."

As you can see, not all of the quotes are negative. As an aside, I think Scott McKeen wrote more about Caterina than anyone else this year. He must love him 😉 In quite a few articles, Caterina is mentioned as the only councillor to vote for or against something. He likes to be different, I guess! I couldn’t find a quote, but earlier this year Caterina said he worked longer hours and spent fewer nights at home when he worked in the private sector. That’s no surprise though, as Caterina apparently likes to get out of his duties as a city councillor.

Some other related reading you might be interested in:

Anyone else looking forward to more fun with #toncat next year? Election day is October 18, 2010.