On May 9, 2018, Adrian Bell announced his intention to run for election as mayor of Yellowknife. On this page we reproduce a transcript of our interview with him.
As of May 2018, the two candidates in the race were Bell and Rebecca Alty.
Ollie Williams: Why did you make the decision to announce you’re running?
Adrian Bell: Timing-wise mostly because Councillor Alty made the decision a week ago to be honest, so we can thank her for that. I’ve been passionate about municipal issues for as long as I can remember and I find the work incredibly fulfilling. I lie in bed at night thinking about this stuff, primarily in a very positive way, and I’m very excited about our potential. I would like to do it full-time.
Give us an overview of your platform.
Generally, there are three categories I think are priorities. Strengthening and diversifying our economy – we have some problems looming with the closure of the diamond mines and the time is now to prepare for that and make some moves toward resilience in our economy. Number two is the cost of living, we really haven’t done enough and there are some opportunities coming up. And establishing a culture of accountability and transparency at City Hall. You can’t go after these other two objectives unless the machinery of City Hall is working properly. It’s got to be accountable to residents and operations has to be accountable to councillors.
What do you mean by accountability?
We’ve had some problems that just seem to keep popping up. It’s been difficult to make headway against some of these longstanding issues. To give you an example, we’ve never really had a system in place to allow residents to appeal decisions of City staff like municipal enforcement or building inspections. In a lot of situations, City staff have a lot of control over people’s lives and over the business community. You need to be aware people may not be thrilled with those decisions, you’ve got to have a robust appeals mechanism to ensure that the folks making decisions know they will be held accountable if they make a decision that is incorrect.
There’s a big resource implication, isn’t there? Do you not run the risk of residents appealing all the live long day?
You’d have to have a way to separate frivolous complaints from legitimate complaints. We’re not talking about establishing an office, it’s more about a process. A lot of our processes and policies are very old and council’s job is to develop and evaluate the plans, policies, and programs of City Hall. It’s not something we’ve done enough of. We were unaware of a lot of it, we had to dig through information to get to it.
What problems will this solve?
There are some areas where there are missing mechanisms, but another key area is establishing the roles and responsibilities of the mayor, council, and the senior administrator. There is some confusion about our roles and responsibilities. Residents expect we can resolve issues permanently when they bring them to our attention, that we can take a look under the hood and fix it. I absolutely think that’s our job. But there’s a lack of consensus on that. Not everybody agrees, even on council. This problem has been going on for many, many years, and we’ve got councillors quite happy to receive information from administration and provide feedback. That’s not enough, in my opinion. We need to be involved at the entry point to take a look at whether policies are solid or not, then go back to them.
There’s a line to be drawn to make sure council is not over-reaching, at the same time.
We need to stay out of the weeds, there is no doubt about that. But you’ve got to be able to come back to the evaluation stage. If we determine something’s wrong, we’ve got to go back to the development. We haven’t seen enough of that, certainly in the last six years, but I believe in the last 20 years.
You’ve had six years working with Mark Heyck. What have you seen that you like and want to continue doing?
It’s not my place to comment on council colleagues; we all have strengths, weaknesses, and different approaches. Really, it’s a question of styles. The position of mayor is going to be changing, there’s no question about that. It could have changed in the past. We’re in the position now where we’ve got some urgency with respect to our future. We need a mayor who is prepared to drive an agenda.
In some other cities, mayors approach it differently. One key consideration is councillors are only part-timers. We are looking at some changes to how the mayor acts, we are looking at giving the mayor a voice in every discussion and that would instantly change things.
There are various mayors in Canada, both current and recently departed, who are known for having political agendas and coming out swinging. Is that the kind of mayor the city needs?
That’s what residents expect. That’s what they assume they’re voting for, that’s what they want and need.
A mayor that’ll tell them ‘here’s what you should think’?
Absolutely. A huge part of that is consulting the public. Our positions have to be informed by the public and once they have given us a mandate, we need to be able to drive an agenda.
Are there dangers to that?
Toronto is an example of an extraordinarily political mayor being in office for a number of years, and a large number of residents did not like that.
Toronto is set up on a completely different system. In Toronto, the mayor has a role appointing senior managers, it’s completely different.
And you’re not looking to change that?
That’s not being proposed. Can that be on the table?
You’re in charge more than I am.
Let’s do it.
No. We certainly should not emulate cities like Toronto. For the most part, our model is a good one. But if the mayor is the only full-timer, we need the mayor to be an active mayor more than passive – and when I say passive, I mean by virtue of the position itself. We’ve seen a lot of that in the last 20 years.
I struggle to imagine a single candidate for mayor who would not run on a reduced cost of living. What separates you out and advances your platform beyond saying this should be a cheaper place to live?
A lot of it is timing. We don’t have that many levers with which we can impact the cost of living but, as it happens, we do right now. One big one is we’ve got the power distribution franchise coming up. We need to take a very close look at what Hay River’s doing and see if there are savings to be achieved.
We sign a franchise for the distribution of power. We can take a look at other models for doing the same thing. It’s important to find out if there are cheaper ways to provide any of our services, and power is a big one.
We have an example right in front of us in Hay River, we can take a close look at what they’ve done. It needs to be examined.
We’ve also just gone through an operational review of the land fund. Well, it was really the planning and development department but I fought to get the land fund included in that, I felt it was very important because I feel the City has played a role in raising land prices over time unnecessarily by sticking to an outdated or inappropriate land pricing model.
Long story short, there are cheaper ways to bring land to market and when you sell land at a very high price, and you’re the only one selling land, you’ve got to be very careful. Over time you can increase prices without intending to. There are many other models we could pursue.
Would that have the impact of quite a significant market adjustment?
Anything would have to be phased in. No, I wouldn’t think so. Really it would be about prices going forward.
What about tax?
On tax, the last two councils achieved an average tax increase of 1.25 percent and the previous two councils, the average was 3.75 percent. So I feel that we’ve done a very good job.
Having said that, City Hall seems to find a way to keep growing without commensurate growth in population and we’ve got to stop doing that. It’s a long time since we’ve taken a look at whether we can do more with less, particularly with positions as they expire.
City employees will have just heard the dreaded phrase ‘more with less’. How will you maintain your relationship with staff if you’re advocating that?
I’m talking about reducing growth going forward, I’m not talking about shrinking. Senior managers are not incentivized to phase out positions or see if we can move toward more streamlined models, so that’s something council needs to work on itself and residents need to voice their opinion on that. We should not just be adding positions without taking a look at whether there are vacancies we could reprofile.
Why do you even want this job, anyway?
Having been a councillor I’ve seen how important the role is. There’s a lot that can be done. Change can be effected and that’s very appealing. We are a great city but I don’t think we’re achieving our potential.
Talk to me about the downtown of Yellowknife. Not a whole lot has necessarily happened. The 50/50 lot is still an issue. Why hasn’t that moved on, what’s going on?
There are a lot of players in that whole equation who haven’t been brought to the table yet. We ned a mayor who can sit down with the REITS that own the mall and potential investors. We’ve had some senior people try to effect change but they’ve tried to do a lot of the lifting by themselves and I think the key missing ingredient is attracting investment from the private sector, which I feel I could be very effective at.
So the brand would be you?
With council, of course, but yes, absolutely. That is a matter of sales, persuasion, and selling a vision.
What is the vision? What would the 50/50 lot look like?
It’s important to be flexible. The most important thing to me is attracting activity-generating establishments to the downtown. Population growth is incredibly important, then businesses follow population. It’ll likely start with a lot of independent businesses as they are more likely to take risks. The Fat Fox will take risks and impact a downtown before other types of businesses even take a look at investing.
Must be a shame to you that the risk did not pay off for the Fat Fox?
I won’t speak to the details of somebody else’s business but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the Fat Fox.
Will we still be talking about the 50/50 lot at the end of your first term as mayor?
My guess is we will have figured it out. These things take years. That maybe should have been better articulated to the public. There are two ways you can go: City as developer or City turns it over to the development community. I see a lot of appeal in that latter model but we have a couple of needs, one being a visitor centre. We’ve got some consultants looking into those types of options.
I want to ask about Giant Mine. The remediation is going to be a huge economic project. Is there a role for the mayor to play in making sure Yellowknifers get to exploit the advantages of that project? To what extent are you going to involve yourself in issues like that where the federal and territorial governments are involved but they affect your residents?
Up to my eyeballs. I intend to jump in with both feet.
That may make federal and territorial officials nervous.
It’s got to be done and we’ve got to work in collaboration with our neighbours. Whether it’s that or funding from the GNWT – we need a mayor who can take a strong position, who will do the research, develop sensible, strategic positions, then lobby and hold other levels of government to account.
We’ve had situations in the past where the City has ended up in court over things like electoral boundaries. Is that what we’re talking about?
That’s only about once every eight years. We’re also talking about underfunding identified by MACA and we need to work with other communities who have the same problem. Very little has been done to resolve that. I understand there is a need to subsidize communities outside Yellowknife but to what extent? Is it fair? Is it transparent? Are there ways that money is flowing inequitably to other areas?
On the subject of social issues in Yellowknife, do you feel council has done the right thing? A lot of work has gone on, are we getting it right?
We’ve done some things very right. I don’t want to take credit for the 10-year plan to end homelessness, that was a lot of work by Councillor Bussey and Mayor Heyck. In many situations our job is to shine a light on what other agencies aren’t doing, and in this case it was the GNWT, the work they are doing on housing – it’s not strategic enough and we were acting as watchdog on that file. As councillors we tend to divide up the work and focus on certain areas, and that has certainly been Councillor Bussey’s wheelhouse.
Will we achieve that 10-year plan to end homelessness?
I think it was an ambitious target and we need to do everything we can. Absolutely, that needs to be achieved – and the onus is on the GNWT to achieve it.
There is an independent inquiry going on into complaints dating back to 2014 around allegations against the current manager of municipal enforcement. Do you feel like this is being gone about in the right way, and the right outcomes will come from this?
I’m pretty happy with the way the process has come along. I wasn’t initially but I can’t get into the details. I’m comfortable with the direction of the official inquiry and speaking to those details would be tantamount to cutting a cheque to some of the people involved.
I would start to question whether or not we should even be in the policing business. A lot of communities have a very different model and when we did an operational review of MED, the consultants said it was hard to find a comparator community because nobody is doing this: taking on bylaw functions with parking enforcement and animal control, then adding motor vehicle and criminal code enforcement. That is usually left to the RCMP or to a municipal police force.
Leaving it to the RCMP is something I think should be looked at. Can a small City Hall like ours properly train, in an ongoing manner, a group of people expected to do this work? It may be an unrealistic approach for us to take this on.
Have you spoken to the RCMP about this?
In an official capacity, absolutely not. I can’t speak to whether or not the RCMP would be willing partners. They do this in other cities, so I have to assume yes. We have spoken in the past about entering into smaller contracts.
Do you feel like the atmosphere at City Hall now is good? That these problems in the past have gone away?
Some of them have gone away, some have probably yet to be identified. We’ve got a great new SAO, as you know. I think morale has definitely improved but it’s only been a year. Given time, I think we can get things working very well.
Before you go, reiterate your elevator pitch to the citizens of Yellowknife.
I’m very passionate about these issues. This is the stuff that keeps me up at night, I enjoy the work and feel I have been very productive as a city councillor. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us and are not achieving our potential.