Dane Mason argues he'll bring policy expertise and incremental, ultimately significant shifts to the way Yellowknife City Council – and City Hall – does business.
Mason, who missed out on election in 2015, says his ideas will help residents get things done with less hassle, cause City staff less stress, and build the city's housing capacity.
He believes his background in policy will help ensure councillors are "more successful in actually bringing about change" with him on board.
Mason stood on the IServeU platform in 2015 – which was (and technically still is) a website designed to allow residents to influence how a councillor votes.
Since then, Mason has stepped back from IServeU and says he's his own man this time around. "This is just me," he said.
There are 16 candidates standing for the eight positions on Yellowknife City Council. Election day is October 15, 2018.
This interview was recorded on September 25, 2018.
Ollie Williams: What are you offering the citizens of Yellowknife?
Dane Mason: The first reason is that, in the last council, one of the challenges that they faced was not having someone with policy expertise. That has come up over and over, trying to take ideas and turn them into actual success stories as well as trying to understand the policy framework that we're operating in, to try to be more successful in actually bringing about change. Number two, I have a number of specific ideas on my platform that I'd like to bring forward as well.
We'll save the policy side of things, we'll come back to that. Talk me through some of these ideas.
One I'd like to talk about is called first-call resolution. It's an opportunity to really make a much better relationship with citizens, with clients, as well as take a workload off the City. The idea is that, generally, when you call up – whether it's a business, or the City – you call up and you say, 'Hello, I'm looking to talk to someone about such-and-such a thing.' And they say, 'One moment, we'll transfer you through to this department.' You get transferred through to the department and they say, 'Hello, this is the such-and-such department.' You say, 'Hey, I'm looking to talk about the thing I just talked about.' And they say, 'Oh, you're looking to talk to so-and-so with this specific division.' They transfer you through. And then, oftentimes, you get someone that'll say: 'Hello, you've reached the voicemail of so-and-so and I'll be out of the office until next week.' And you hang up, and you call again, and you say the exact same thing but tell them that you need someone else.
The idea with first-call resolution is that, when you call in, you say, 'Hello, my name is such-and-such and I need to talk to so-and-so about whatever-it-may-be.' The person taking that call then does a warm transfer, where they transfer through to the next person, make sure they are available, and relay any pertinent information. At that point they connect you, introduce you, and you don't have to repeat yourself and you don't get dropped into a black hole. It does two things at once: it makes it a lot easier on the consumer or the client or the citizen, for not having to repeat yourself, and number two, the amount of time and money that goes into taking calls over and over on the exact same issue is eliminated. You're dealing with it once and for all, done, and happy on both sides.
With an idea like that – that I'm sure a lot of people can understand and they know where it's come from – instead of taking that to a councillor already on council, or turning up and presenting it at a committee meeting, what makes you decide: 'I need to be on council and make this happen'?
Number one, it's not the only issue I'd like to bring up.
Number two, trying to get that through with a policy background is something I think I could actually make happen, rather than throwing a vague idea to a bunch of people that have expertise in a lot of areas but not so much in instituting policy.
How do you feel that lack of expertise, as you see it, has manifested itself in the past few years?
I see it a number of times, even just recently. I could name times within the past month. Earlier today I saw a note on the integrity commissioner policy that came out, and how councillors behave. One of the issues that came out of that was they didn't know what they were signing on for, because they don't have access to some of the internal policies – which brings up two issues. Number one, not understanding the policy framework that you're working in is a huge issue. Number two, signing on to something when you're not able to even abide by the direction provided by administration fully without comprehending it. One of the biggest changes that needs to be made on a policy basis there is making the policies accessible, not even just to councillors but to the public, so everyone can know how we operate.
The issues around the policies are something a lot of candidates have already acknowledge, and it's part of many people's platforms that the City needs to do better and spend more time focusing on this. What do you offer that's specifically going to advance that?
I would like to see them publicly posted. I've talked to a number of people already in office about this – when a policy comes up that no-one was aware of, and it's horribly outdated or ineffective, or there's a problem that is causing some citizens some grief, you can't fix it because they don't know about it in advance. It has to constantly be reactionary. So in order to make this available, I'd have this as a standing item at council meetings where we review policies and update them as needed. It means we can be proactive and save the grief before it comes.
A governance audit has been proposed by one councillor for Budget 2019, after the election. That takes the form of a root-and-branch review of the way council runs and governs the city. Is that something the City needs to go through?
There was a presentation done by a very experienced former SAO and mayor that already came up with a number of recommendations. If we're treading over the same territory, maybe we should work with what we've got first. But not being able to see this so far, I'd support it in principle. But I'd like to see if we're not reinventing the wheel.
Away from policy frameworks and the structures around which council gets things done, what do you want to get done? What could you have an impact on?
Another major one is the abandoned lots that are just all over town – seemingly, within the last couple of years, just spontaneously lighting on fire. That is something the City could reasonably address. There are many ways to go about it and many different municipalities whose footsteps we could follow in; the one I believe is the most efficient and the lowest admin cost is to introduce a new class or sub-class of property and to tax derelict lots, tax abandoned lots. That way, you provide an incentive for anybody that's holding on to an abandoned lot as an investment waiting out for some higher, speculative price. Once you introduce a tax penalty for that, or a tax rate, you provide an incentive to sell that at current rates to a developer who will change it into something other than an eyesore or something that's going to catch fire.
How do you balance that with not scaring off investment and development downtown? If owners feel like they are having to potentially shoulder an additional burden if their building ends up being vacant, will it mean fewer people want to roll those dice in the first place?
That's one of the most important parts about tax policy: you are looking to change behaviour. It can't just be a money grab. If we're looking to talk about people that are going to make an actual investment in the community, that's the type of thing we should be encouraging – I'd like to talk about that afterwards with growth incentives. But as far as people who are looking to create a portfolio of abandoned lots that they hold on to for a future, speculative price, that is absolutely not – in my opinion – something the City should be promoting investor confidence on.
OK, let's talk growth incentives. What do you see as the opportunities for Yellowknife?
I see a number of things. I'd like to start a policy framework with the development incentives program as well as a secondary suites bylaw in order to try to promote the use of accessory dwelling units and smaller residential developments in town. Right now, the environment that we have is that just under three-quarters of the rental market is owned by southern REITS – and the money just goes back to the pockets of southern investors, or northern investors that would save that for going down and retiring elsewhere, because it's generally too expensive to retire up here.
If we were to encourage accessory dwelling units and smaller residential developments up here, from northerners, then you can accomplish two things at once. First, you take the residential density – you up your residential density, you create more money going into the pot to northerners here, so that 75 percent of the highest rate in Canada, according to the CMHC, goes into the local economy here. It goes back into the places that you eat at night, the place you go for a drink, a coffee, a snack. The other thing that you do, on top of that, is by creating more supply into the rental market, you increase your vacancy rate – which will correlate with, over time, reasonably lowering the cost of living by lowering the cost of rent. That's a huge issue up here and that's one way we can absolutely address the cost of living.
It also plays in to homeowners. By allowing something like this, even encouraging it, we're putting more money into the pockets of homeowners and, with a passive income stream, making it easier to a) retire up here and b) get by day-to-day on a much easier month-to-month cost of living.
A separate but related issue to this is short-term rentals, AirBnBs, and how they are governed. Where do you think the City's role lies in that?
I'm very hesitant to see the City jump into too much in the way of regulations for that right now. The only real conflict is if we were to promote AirBnB without increasing the supply in an already tight market – in which case, you'd be lowering your vacancy rate and increasing the cost of living for everyone, and that's unacceptable. I think the biggest role we have is to try to increase supply by something like development incentives, by getting rid of onerous permitting fees, by expediting the permitting process. You look at somewhere like Vancouver that's had quite the rental housing crunch – all four areas are still under one percent vacancy. When they got to the point of near-emergency, one of the things they ended up doing was completely clearing out their processing for accessory dwelling units. They made it a whole lot easier, they took away a lot of the requirements. They made it so that if it's something that's already approved and has design standards, you can just submit those rather than having to pay $10,000 to an architect and engineer to do up two separate plans for the exact same thing that's already available on the internet.
The consequence of that is, in Vancouver, 35 percent of homes downtown now have accessory dwelling units – which provide cheap, affordable options for families, as well as a passive income stream for people within the city.
If your desired approach is that the City does what it can on capacity and then that allows it to have a more hands-off role with AirBnB, how do you talk to bed-and-breakfast owners, who say, 'Hang on, we're regulated half to death here and AirBnB owners are pretty much getting off scot-free?'
I think that's the problem, trying to compare apples and oranges. You've got two separate kinds of regulations for hotels and BnBs, and those make sense, because hotels are a different standard, the BnB are a separate issue, and that's why they're regulated differently. AirBnB is carving out a new section of the market, it's bringing up new clientele that otherwise would just go somewhere else.
Should they pay an accommodation levy, for example?
Some cities have done so, others have not. I'd be comfortable discussing that either way. My biggest point is that, with all the regulations that are available to BnBs right now, some of those need updating anyway in the course of... it's been a little while. But secondarily, some of them just make absolutely no sense when you look at the context of an AirBnB. A couple of them, off the top of my head: you have to have a washroom next to the bedroom that's for rent on the exact same floor. Many houses aren't designed that way. AirBnB compensates for this anyway, you know in advance – if you sign up that you want to stay in a place as a renter at a cheaper price or whatever it may be, and you know you are going to have to take stairs to use the bathroom, is it the City that really needs to come in and tell me I can't do that? Vice versa, too. I'll save you the pain of it but there are a number of AirBnB regulations, if we adopted them carte blanche, that just would not make sense in the context of AirBnBs.
We don't have too long left. Where else do you feel you can make an impact on council?
One other one I'd like to do is with the homelessness issues. I'm kind-of concerned about the counts, we've had a number of different counts, from 900 to 1,500.
Right, so the point-in-time counts that took place.
And the one on the record is, what is it, 139 I believe? And you look at the methodology and we're actually counting the number of people that came out for a free snack, which isn't the greatest number to base anything off of. One of the things I'd like to do is try to create... there's a thing in the procurement and contracting world that's called a reverse trade show. That's when, instead of having a bunch of contractors and little businessmen waiting in tiny, little booths for big important industry and government to walk up to them and offer them a contract, you do it the other way around. So you'd have government and industry, and all the contractors can walk around and get information on all the services, jobs, contracts available. If we were to do something like that up here with the homeless population, to be able to have people from Housing First outreach, counselling services, income support, this kind of thing, available in a spot where people can congregate, I think that would work well. One thing I'd like to do with that would be to set it up and maybe pair it with something like Rotary's annual friendship breakfast, where you have a number of people that come out. That way, we maybe get a chance of being able to reach the people that our services are designed for, and make a difference over time.
More generally, do you feel like the City's getting it right on homelessness?
I feel they are definitely going in the right direction. And they are right, you've got to be wary of scope creep. At the same time, it's an issue that does affect Yellowknife specifically. There is a lot I'd like to comment and be more involved on, but at the same time it's something I feel they are taking seriously.
You're coming back for another stab at election. You tried in 2015, it didn't quite work out. Why do you feel like it didn't work then, and what do you think has changed?
I think one of the issues there is we were trying too much new at once, mainly with the IServeU campaign. It was a brand new idea and it kind-of overshadowed being able to talk, like this, about my platform in particular, the ideas I'd like to do, what I can offer to council. Instead, most of the news was geared around whether or not the platform was the thing to do. As far as that goes, back then I'm glad we did it. There was a conversation that needed to be had. We had it, we acted.
What's happened to IServeU?
Now? They launched it, it's gone forward, there's not too many people that are on it. I stepped down from the board earlier this year. The biggest progress right now is being made over in places like Madrid, Barcelona, Helsinki, where they've actually instituted a form of this and it's doing remarkably well. Now that it's doing so well elsewhere, I think the time is to listen, and to wait and see. So I've taken a step back from that for now, to see where it flies.
So you're hoping, this time around, people are paying less attention to the physical platform and more to the actual platform?
There is no physical platform this time. This is just me.