Archive for March, 2009

Saint City News column: Could new civic building be back on front burner?


St. Albert taxpayers will be madder than the proverbial wet hen if they wake up some fine spring morning to discover plans for a new civic building costing $25 million or more are back on the radar.

But that, I predict, is exactly what is going to happen, and soon.

Admittedly, the evidence for this is entirely circumstantial – but what the heck, if that’s good enough for a real courtroom, why not the court of public opinion?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, consider the recent report of the Mayor’s Task Force on St. Albert’s Downtown Revitalization, released on March 16. It doesn’t say a word, not a single word, about a new civic building.

But consider what it does say!

Speaking of St. Albert Place – the justly famous landmark, one of the first major works by renowned Alberta architect Douglas Cardinal – and the role it plays in keeping our flagging downtown viable, the Task Force comments: “Citizens love the architectural style of St. Albert Place. The general sentiment seems to be that it should be used to house even more arts and cultural groups and to relocate most of the civic employees to another location.”

This reminds me of the curious incident of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime. As Sherlock Holmes remarked: “That was the curious incident!” This dog may not have barked, but an unasked question nevertheless jumps off the page: Where are those scores of civic employees going to go? Not, presumably, to ATCO trailers on the parking lot behind Servus Place!

Nothing more of this is mentioned by the Task Force. But if you ask me, where they’re likely to go is into a new civic building in the parking lot across St. Anne Street. Indeed, it’s only in this context that the Task Force’s major recommendation, the seemingly crazy plan to close St. Anne to traffic, makes a perverse kind of sense. It explains the push to advance an idea that has flopped in something like 200 other communities.

Of course, with Grandin Mall parking slated to give way soon to condos, if you use the only remaining parking lot downtown as the site of a new building, you’re also going to need some new parking stalls. So add $5 or $10 million for the hidden parkade the Task Force recommends the city build and own.

The last time this scheme was on City Hall’s front burner was just before the 2008 civic election. When taxpayers howled and it became a convenient target for opposition-minded city council candidates, it was quickly shelved as too expensive in the wake of Servus Place and the West Regional Road. The issue fizzled.

Now, circumstantial evidence suggests it’s about to make a scary reappearance. Don’t worry, we’ll be told, thanks to the recession, construction costs are down a little. The idea of a public-private partnership – under which we taxpayers get to pay for the building, but not to own it – may even rear its head again.

Despite such assurances and the Task Force’s reported “general sentiment,” I suspect municipal taxpayers will be less than entranced with the idea of St. Albert Place filled with arts and cultural groups while an expensive new building rises across an unused mall.

This will be especially so if taxpayers start thinking about how they’ll pay for such an extravagance in wintertime while heating their homes without a natural gas rebate.

But if I’m right about this, someone at City Hall is betting voters will have forgotten all about it by the time the next municipal election rolls around in October 2010. Remember where you heard it first!

Correction

It was right before my eyes, but I missed it. Alert reader Bob Hartley points out that there is in fact an explicit reference to a plan for a new civic building in the Task Force report. On page 43, the report states: “Consider building a new civic building on the corner of St. Thomas Street and St. Anne Street to house civic employees with an underground parkade.” Clearly, the game’s afoot!

Galloway on being criticized by Kenney: ‘Like being told to sit up straight by the hunchback of Notre Dame’

As Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is learning to his sorrow, you simply cannot muzzle George Galloway, the law-abiding anti-war British MP who holds views that the Harperite neocons would like to outlaw in Canada.

Of course, the pathetic bid to muzzle Galloway by Kenney and other members of the claque of Bushist dead-enders who are still clinging to power in Ottawa has turned Canada into an international laughingstock. It is to be hoped that this will be a temporary phenomenon.

What is also becoming obvious, however, is that Mr. Galloway – who once reduced a U.S. Senate hearing to a bowl of quivering Jell-O – intends to make a laughingstock of Mr. Kenney as well, and quite deservedly so. One expects it will be somewhat more difficult for Mr. Kenney’s reputation to recover.

In the Guardian, yesterday, Mr. Galloway turned his rhetorical artillery on the pipsqueak Canadian: “Kenney is quite a card. A quick trawl establishes he’s a gay-baiter, gung-ho armchair warrior, with an odd habit of exceeding his immigration brief. Three years ago he attacked the pro-western Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Siniora, for being ungrateful to Canada for its support of Israeli bombardment of his country. Most curiously of all, in 2006 he addressed a rally of the so-called People’s Mujahideen of Iran, a Waco-style cult, banned in the European Union as a terrorist organisation. On one level being banned by such a man is like being told to sit up straight by the hunchback of Notre Dame or being lectured on due diligence by Conrad Black. On another, for a Scotsman to be excluded from Canada is like being turned away from the family home.”

Galloway will not be muzzled. He cannot be muzzled. In a few days, he will address Canadians – perhaps via the Internet, maybe by standing in upstate New York and making himself heard over the roar of Niagara Falls. However he does it, tens of thousands of more Canadians will hear his message than if Mr. Kenney had ground his teeth and kept his own counsel. Of course, to do that would have required wisdom.

Click here to read Mr. Galloway’s column in the Guardian.

Banning George Galloway: not just dumb, but offensive and dangerous

British MP George Galloway, photographed in 2007. Below, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

I met Jason Kenney in 1993 and he struck me then as a callow youth with not much to recommend him beyond good pipes and polished if shallow delivery.

His subsequent political successes notwithstanding, nothing much has happened since then to change my instinctive assessment. He may be almost 40 now and Canada’s immigration minister, but as his latest risible decision illustrates, he is still a shallow and foolish young man.

Yesterday, in his capacity as our federal immigration minister, Mr. Kenney decided that he would misuse Canada’s anti-terrorism laws to deny entry to Canada to George Galloway, the fiery anti-war British Member of Parliament whose oratorical skills leave Mr. Kenney’s in the dust. His excuse was that Mr. Galloway had supported a terrorist organization – the democratically elected government of the Palestinian Territories – by taking food and water to civilians in that troubled land.

Well, this is a free country – or, at least, it was until Stephen Harper’s (neo)Conservatives jumped on George Bush’s coattails – so Mr. Kenney has a right to disagree with Mr. Galloway’s views on Israel, Palestine and Western relations with the Middle East. But to ban Mr. Galloway from Canada on “security grounds” because he holds views on the Middle East that are different from those of some of the Conservative Party’s supporters should outrage all Canadians.

There is no way on God’s green earth that Mr. Galloway poses a threat to Canada or Canadians beyond the possibility that his stirring rhetoric may give some of us heart palpitations. Mr. Kenney may be callow, but he is manifestly not stupid, so he presumably knows that this is so. There can be no reason for this offensive decision but to suppress the free expression of a legitimate opinion with which he and his former-Reform-Party cronies disagree.

In its editorial today, the Toronto Star dismissed Mr. Kenney’s action as “silly,” “plumb foolish” and inclined to make Canadians look like “country bumpkins.” All true, of course, but to me this characterization understates the seriousness of the case.

Mr. Kenney’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent of banning foreign speakers with whom the government of the day disagrees. Mr. Kenney should remember that some day another government may use the precedent he has set to ban a speaker with whom he agrees – say George Bush, who was so disgustingly welcomed to Calgary last week. Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Galloway does not face war crimes prosecution when he steps outside his native land.

Mr. Kenney’s arbitrary ruling is insulting to Canadians who would like to hear a broad range of opinions on the troubling situation in Israel and Palestine. If anything, the greatest threat to Canada comes from Mr. Kenney’s and his boss’s crude efforts to interfere with a much-needed public conversation about Canada’s foreign policy.

Of course, the ban is unlikely to have the effect intended. Other than making Canada a laughingstock among nations that still value free speech, including the one next door which has welcomed Mr. Galloway, it is unlikely to do much more than further marginalize our influence in the Islamic world and turn more Canadians against the policies Mr. Kenney wishes to defend.

This is the age of the Internet, after all, and Canadians can see and hear for themselves what Mr. Galloway has to say, and how he says it. I would recommend they do so. They can visit Mr. Galloway’s Web site here.

If Mr. Kenney is prepared to prevent the law-abiding Mr. Galloway from visiting Canada, one wonders whom the Harperites will ban next. Journalist Robert Fisk? Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter? Like Mr. Galloway, neither is a cheerleader for Israel, apparently the only view on the Middle East that is permitted under Canada’s minority Conservative government.

Backbench Conservative MPs like St. Albert’s Brent Rathgeber should be on the phone to Mr. Kenney today to urge him to reverse this foolish and embarrassing decision as quickly as possible. As a fig leaf, they can blame it on nameless “officials.”

In case Mr. Rathgeber missed it, voters in St. Albert are grownups capable of making informed decisions after hearing a range of opinions. If Mr. Rathgeber has so little respect for us that he thinks otherwise, we should elect someone else to represent us at the first opportunity.

Task Force’s vision of downtown is not the right vision for St. Albert

If you wondered about my Feb. 27 column in the Saint City News , which said the Mayor’s Task Force on St. Albert’s Downtown Revitalization was considering the terrible idea of closing off St. Anne Street to vehicle traffic, wonder no more.

The Task Force report is now available on the City of St. Albert Web site and its publication confirms that closing St. Anne is the principal recommendation of the Task Force. Click here to read the Task Force report yourself.

However, citizens who are concerned about the future of their downtown – not to mention their ability to get through it at rush hour and to pay for the changes – will have more to lose sleep over when they read the report’s often good-hearted but wrong-headed conclusions.

A quick read of the report reveals that its authors would like, among other things, to see the following things happen:

  • Close St. Anne Street to all vehicle traffic and create a pedestrian mall.
  • Restrict traffic on Perron Street by widening the sidewalks and narrowing the roadway to a single lane in each direction.
  • Construct a downtown parkade to replace parking spaces now available in the central lot across from City Hall, for which they have other ideas, and the Grandin Mall.
  • Move most civic employees who now work in St. Albert Place to “another location.”

Let’s look at each of these ideas:

As discussed at length on Feb. 27, closing St. Anne is a terrible idea, potentially catastrophic for downtown. Notwithstanding this painfully obvious conclusion, this is clearly the main recommendation of the Task Force, repeated at length in half a dozen separate places.

It’s hard to disagree with the Task Force’s stated goal “to create a walkable, pedestrian friendly downtown. “ Alas, bitter experience in something like 200 communities across North America shows that the “solution” proposed will have the opposite effect.

The “action strategy” recommended by the report: “Close St. Anne Street between Perron Street and St. Tomas.” The Task Force’s comment on this idea: “The city would need to identify the implications on business traffic and other variables if this closure were to occur.”

Actually, we could save money on this research, because the results are pretty clear everywhere that street malls have been tried: lack of parking and access drives away business, viable businesses quit the area, the area becomes dangerous and marginalized. The result: a dead downtown. Eventually, after 20 years or so, the city puts the whole thing back the way it was – too late to attract anyone back to the area.

As for restricting traffic on Perron Street, this will have two effects: First, it will make parking even harder and further marginalize downtown business, amplifying the destructive effect of a total closure of St. Anne. Second, it will make commuting even more frustrating for residents of Mission and Lacombe Park who work in the west end of Edmonton. They’ll have no option but to drive out of their way, either via Ray Gibbon Drive to the west or St. Albert Trail to the east. They will not be happy.

These bad ideas, in turn, lead to the need to build a downtown parkade. In this economy, no one but the city is likely to build such a structure. The Task Force recognizes this, recommending: “Build a city-owned parkade that is both convenient to the downtown core yet out of sight.” (Beats me. Maybe they want to go underground.)

Never mind that a multi-story parkade will not be as safe as street parking – adding to the safety problems inherent in a street mall. There’s also the small matter of the price tag! Even a modest multi-storey parkade will cost $4 million or more, probably quite a lot more.

Finally, the report lauds the use of St. Albert Place as a cultural hub, concluding that “the general sentiment seems to be that it should be used to house even more arts and cultural groups and to relocate most of the civic employees to another location.” (Emphasis added.)

Another location? And that would be where? Reading between the lines of this idea – which is mentioned only once in the report and in no more detail than the single line quoted above – we can see a new civic building, with its price tag of $20 million or more, taking shape.

The ideas in the Task Force report are by no means all bad. Attracting a specialty grocery store to the downtown, hosting festivals, encouraging more people to locate their homes there, developing now-empty lots and cleaning up the river all have merit. But without the public or private sector funds to make these thoughts reality, they are really little more than pipedreams.

Others, while not necessarily bad, are certain to be controversial. The report calls for restaurants and pubs that serve alcohol to contribute to “a vibrant night life” in the area. Many residents will be deeply concerned about the potential for noise and violence alcohol sales inevitably bring.

A few ideas seem faintly surreal: “Modern touch points such as Internet booths, areas for physical play and contemplation, etc.”? (One shudders to think.) Or the five references to “twinkle lights”?

Twinkle lights won’t bring a dreary street mall to life or pay for a new municipal building. City Council needs to look long and hard at this report.

New finance rules for civic elections – an idea whose time has not quite come


If Bill 203 is a trial balloon, some Alberta municipal politicians should be very worried. That includes city councillors right here in St Albert.

Of course, some others – not necessarily friends of Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government, and not necessarily in office just now – may be secretly delighted.

Let me explain: Bill 203 – formally, the Local Authorities Election (Finance and Contribution Disclosure) Amendment Act, 2009 – is a private member’s bill, and as such unlikely to become law.

Still, it pays to keep an eye on private member’s bills – especially when they come from the government side of the Legislature – because they are often run up the flagpole to see who salutes. Enough support, and they may become government bills in the future. Moreover, in a place like Alberta, MLAs may just take a notion to pass them!

So the March 5 introduction of a bill to tightly regulate campaign contributions to civic election candidates caused a buzz. It was seen in some quarters as a shot across the bow of labour, because it would limit the amount unions could donate to candidates.

But the ox it really gores belongs not to unions or corporations, but to well-off politicians who pay for their own campaigns.

If passed, Athabasca MLA Jeff Johnson’s bill would introduce to Alberta consistent, province-wide election donation rules, superseding a hodge-podge of municipal bylaws. Among other things, it would limit individuals, corporations and unions to contributions of $5,000 to each candidate, and would define unions so as to restrict donations by their locals.

It would also force candidates who had surplus funds after an election to give them to the municipality to hold, or donate them to charity. No more treating surpluses as slush funds for, say, a run at higher office.

But its most significant change would be to limit the funds well-off candidates could use for their own campaigns. Not only would the contribution limit be $5,000, but “any money paid by a candidate out of the candidate’s own funds for the purpose of the candidate’s campaign is a campaign contribution for the purposes of this Part.”

In other words, no candidate could contribute more than $5,000 to their own campaign! Needless to say, this would remove a huge advantage enjoyed by well-heeled candidates.

Consider St. Albert’s civic election in October 2008. If Bill 203 had been the law, four candidates would have been in violation of this provision. According to contribution summaries filed under St. Albert’s bylaw, two councillors financed their campaigns entirely from their own pockets: Carol Watamaniuk, at $10,667.43, and Len Bracko, at $8,522.90.

Councillor Gareth Jones raised $5,514.80 in contributions, but he contributed another $13,964.85 from his own pocket. Unsuccessful mayoral candidate Richard Plain received contributions of $6,147 but spent $21,853.57 of his own money.

On the other hand, five candidates financed their campaigns entirely from contributions: Mayor Nolan Crouse, Wes Broadhead, Stanley Haroun, Bob Russell and Yours Truly, David Climenhaga. Of those, three posted surpluses, all under $200.

Well, I’ve got to tell you, Mr. Johnson’s idea suits me! That itself makes it unlikely Bill 203 will become law. At least, it’s hard to believe that heavy donors – to provincial Tory coffers, not just municipal campaigns – aren’t burning up the phone lines to Mr. Stelmach’s office about this right now.

Moreover, Bill 203 would set a dangerously good example of how to reform Alberta’s Swiss-cheese provincial election finance laws – to the enormous disadvantage of the governing party.

So Mr. Johnson will likely be told to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap, and his bill will die on the order paper. Still, it may just strike a chord with voters. If so, anything could happen!

Social Media Musings: Perfesser Dave’s on-line performance

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ eighth annual Labour School was held this year in Jasper and I had the privilege of co-instructing a course on the use of “social media” – that is, how to use blogs, Facebook, Youtube and the like.

Among other things, students were taught by my co-instructor, Laura Jeffreys of the Greater Edmonton Alliance and Keep Edmonton Original, how to upload video to Youtube.com.

I have included a link to one of their efforts, the better to confirm my teaching credentials and establish beyond dispute my claim to be a real perfesser. Click here to view the video.

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It would also appear that St. Albert Diary has finally collected enough readers to persuade traditional media that its author is worthy of bloviating on the blog phenomenon.

Accordingly, Calgary’s ffwd (that’s hip talk for “fast forward) Weekly, quoted your blogger at slightly ungrammatical length on just where the mainstream media went astray and how this encouraged readers to seek news and opinions on-line.

“I tend to feel that newspaper management drove their core readership onto the Internet rather than people were abandoning newspapers for the Internet willingly,” I am quoted (quite accurately) as saying.

Click here to read the full ffwd Weekly report.

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Alas, as is too often said of the Internet, you just can’t trust the print media to get it right every time. Here is a letter penned earlier this evening to Angela Brunschot, News and City Life Editor of Edmonton’s See Magazine:

Dear Ms. Brunschot:

I returned home from an out-of-town assignment this evening and read for the first time your account of our discussion about what grade Premier Ed Stelmach should receive for his performance over the past year. (Grading the Premier, March 5, 2009.)

While I know this will cement my reputation in certain circles as an easy grader, and notwithstanding the many Ds offered by the majority of the Premier’s examiners, I stand by my generous B for Mr. Stelmach’s report card.

However, I must take issue with one aspect of your report. While I am certain that Dr. André Corriveau is both non-political and a very fine person, I am also sure he was as astonished as I was to find me commentating upon his appointment.

I’m afraid my positive reference was to the appointment of Dr. Stephen Duckett of Australia as Chief Executive Officer of Alberta Health Services.

Naturally, I wish both Dr. Corriveau and Dr. Duckett well in their new positions.

David J. Climenhaga

Click here to read the full See Magazine article.