Yellowknife 2018 mayoral election interview: Rebecca Alty
Rebecca Alty says she bring a process-driven approach that revolutionizes planning and accountability at City Hall if elected mayor of Yellowknife.
Alty is standing against another experienced councillor in Adrian Bell, and two newcomers in Bob Stewart and Jerald Sibbeston, at the time of writing. Nominations close on September 17, with the election on October 15.
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Alty portrayed herself as the candidate best able to find solutions that work for both councillors and residents as Yellowknife enters an era of “challenges and opportunities.”
Alty said she would be a mayor who listens, then takes every opportunity to develop partnerships in order to achieve the city’s goals.
She also called for a “mindset shift” at City Hall, empowering staff to do more to help residents who have queries or concerns.
Below, read the full transcript of Rebecca Alty’s interview with Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams.
Ollie Williams: Why do you want the job?
Rebecca Alty: I’m passionate about Yellowknife and I think I have the skills and experience to lead Yellowknife through the challenges and opportunities coming up in this term.
How is that balance looking to you? Are there more opportunities or challenges?
There are definitely a few more challenges but definitely some opportunities too. We look at the GNWT’s consultant recently recommending a polytechnic university in Yellowknife, that could be an opportunity; the Giant Mine remediation project’s beginning, that’s another opportunity for employment. The challenges would be the diamond mines slowly closing down, and an issue to continue to work on would be the substance abuse and homelessness issue. I think there are opportunities and challenges there.
Let’s take the example of the polytechnic university, which was recommended in a report into the governance and operations of Aurora College. The territorial government has not yet committed to following through on that. As a mayor of Yellowknife there are going to be so many facets to navigating that, in terms of the relationship with the territorial government, the planning and development of this city, the capital that would be required even at a municipal level to assist with some of that, and relations with other communities. How do you navigate all of that?
The important thing when we’re dealing with these big issues is to develop that stakeholder engagement plan – identifying who at City Hall should be chatting with who at the GNWT at the bureaucrat level and then at the political level. There are still a lot of unanswered questions that the GNWT will have to be working through, such as whether they accept the report and want to move forward with the recommendation. And then what does that look like in Yellowknife? How many more students is that? That would get into the community planning aspect, discussing where it goes, and then figuring out what programs and how many students will be in Fort Smith, and Inuvik, and the rest of the campuses around the NWT. With my background at Diavik in doing the stakeholder engagement, and doing the plans to take projects through, I do have that experience to draw on.
Style and approach
Diamond mines are process-driven, following things step-by-step to a conclusion. Is that the kind of mayor you’re putting yourself forward to be? Someone who will have a plan and follow it?
Yeah. That’s who I am, through and through. I like to develop plans and, with that, it’s really defining what the problem is we’re trying to solve and what does success look like, and what are the solutions that can lead us there. Then creating that implementation plan and tracking it. When you run into a barrier, you can then discuss how to overcome it. If it’s that there are many competing priorities and we don’t have enough staff to deal with it, coming to council and saying we don’t have enough resources – which is a higher priority? If they’re all a high priority, is there a consultant or outside expertise that can come in and lead it? That’s how I live, through and through, planning and following that.
What are the first plans on the table going to be under Mayor Alty?
First off would be the strategic plan with city council and working that into administration’s work plan. Over the past six years on council we’ve done numerous reviews – people’s frustration is sometimes that plans just collect dust on a shelf, and that’s because they may be missing an implementation plan or we’re not tracking it. Really it’s getting that whole sense of the plans we want to make sure get implemented, and then start tracking on those. The other big, guiding plan would be Budget 2019, which council starts at the beginning of November and by mid-December we have to have that approved. Between Budget 2019 and setting council’s strategic plan and priorities, those would be two of the focus areas.
Those things are important groundwork to ensuring the city runs effectively but they’re also things that are very easy to get lost, not the most exciting objects in a room at any one time. Council’s attention can often wander to other, bigger-ticket items that people are talking about. Why has some of this planning been lost in the past and what would you do to make sure it isn’t this time?
We haven’t always developed implementation plans or been tracking it, a result of staff turnover and stuff. With the mayor being a full-time position for the next four years, there is no turnover to make sure we follow through on that. Then structuring our meetings to make sure we are focusing on dealing with issues that relate to our strategic plan. When councillors come forward with other issues, really discussing when it could fit into the work plan and whether it would be best brought forward at the next municipal services committee, or whether it needs more work on the councillor’s behalf to shape it.
We’re talking about your methodology and how you would get things done. Adrian Bell says what differentiates him from you, as two people who have served on city council, is he feels he has been more active in getting things done, bringing proposals forward, making change happen. What do you think differentiates you from him when a lot of people see two similar candidates?
One of the roles as mayor is to listen to council, administration, and residents. The one thing I’ve really brought forward as a councillor is, when motions are on the floor, I listen to my colleagues, the public… and sometimes there is not support for the motion as it’s worded, but I can see we need an amendment, a bit of a change, to get that support of residents and councillors. That’s really what I’ve brought to the table on this council, finding that consensus. That’s the role of the mayor and the skill that I’ll bring to it.
The implication being maybe more so than Adrian, you’d be a better peacemaker almost, finding compromise.
Yeah, finding that collaboration, how we can move forward instead of sometimes there’s not support for this motion so if we kill it, then it’s done, but there are elements that the public likes or that council likes. Let’s not throw it all out, let’s make some amendments, make some adjustments, then we’ll be able to reach our end goal.
Can you point to an example where that has happened in the past? Where you’ve been able to have that impact?
For a long time there was discussion about putting a crosswalk in at Chateau Nova, understanding that we want to make a safe passage for pedestrians across that highway. The solution councillors were bringing forward was, ‘Let’s take the highway over from the GNWT.’ I wasn’t comfortable with that solution: that meant the maintenance and the capital required was now going to fall on the City of Yellowknife versus the GNWT. So I stopped and asked myself, why can’t they put a crosswalk in? They say they can’t, but is it legislation? I pulled up the public highways act and nope, sure enough, there’s that section that says ‘traffic devices in a municipality on a highway.’ When it was being discussed at the meeting, I said I wasn’t supportive of taking the highway over, but looking at this section and working with the GNWT to get hem to put it in. Council supported that, administration approached the GNWT, and now we have a crosswalk there.
Let’s take a look at your platform. Part one, strengthening the economy. Everybody turns up in an election and says they have ideas for this. How are you going to get that done?
The one thing that needs to be updated in this council is our economic development strategy – approaching it with a mayor’s economic advisory council made up of GNWT reps, federal reps, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, different members of the business community, identifying different economic sectors in Yellowknife and identifying actions to strengthen and make economic development in their areas more feasible. Really focusing on our different sectors: tourism, the university, mining, retail. Each business is different. Listening to the business owners, seeing what the current obstacles are, and how the city can help overcome them.
Are there any obstacles you’ve identified already?
One of the general ones is business licensing. We only have one employee for that and when they go off, it’s delayed. Creating some redundancy there to have that turned around quicker. Development permits with the building community, that’s working on process streamlining, going out and following through on the plan.
Tourism is increasingly a big deal for Yellowknife but one problem is capacity. We seem to operate at capacity for certain times of the year, when we can’t comfortably fit more tourists into the town. How would you address some of those problems?
In talking to a hotel owner recently, he said he has quite a bit of capacity still. With Chateau Nova’s expansion and the Explorer’s expansion, he sees that there will be enough rooms. I think if the hotels are looking to develop and they don’t have land, it’s with the City to see where the best place… and our community plan coming up would be a good opportunity if there is that demand.
Looking at Old Town and the proposal to change the rules slightly on how proposals can come to council about hotel, motel and BnB development there, what is your opinion on how protected Old Town should be from that development?
As it was, hotels and motels were conditionally permitted so it would have to come to council for approval on one side of the street but not the other. Now it’s a case of, either side of the street, if someone wants to develop a motel, it has to come to council for approval.
Do you feel that’s the appropriate way to manage that?
Adrian Bell, for example, disagrees, and says some areas of the town are in such need of preservation they should just be written out of it. Why do you see that differently?
Right now, it may be that it’s not suitable for development, and so the council of the day would take that into consideration and they would deny the application. If it’s 10 years from now and it’s a different time, different council… it’s case-by-case, council is then going to weigh whether it’s appropriate or not for the time. I think conditionally permitted use was appropriate.
How should AirBnB operators be treated? How would you see AirBnB operators being treated, say, compared to BnB owners?
We should find a way to make it fair. It’s interesting: looking at the territorial legislation about tourism accommodations, AirBnBs would fall under that. That’s outside the City’s mandate. If the GNWT wants to start enforcing that then, all of a sudden, we’re potentially going to have a bunch of AirBnBs shut down. It’s working with the GNWT to understand if AirBnBs are going to have to fall under those regulations or not, and work through the process then. If they aren’t, it’s just a case of go to City Hall and get a business licence. There are opportunities, but there are still some questions about the laws AirBnBs have to follow. The way the territorial legislation is currently written, it looks like they do have to follow it.
Housing and homelessness
Bringing conversations to the territorial government is a big part of the mayor’s job in Yellowknife. What conversations do we need to have?
Housing, substance abuse, and energy, as well as the economy. Housing, in particular. The federal government just released its 10-year housing strategy and it actually includes funding, which is really nice, but it’s all about partnering – how the City, the territorial government, and even private developers can work together to access this funding, will be a key thing to focus on in this next term.
Looking more specifically at housing and homelessness, housing is a key component of the 10-year-plan to end homelessness in Yellowknife. We’re a year into that. Are you satisfied that the plan is the right approach and will bring results?
It’s a good leading document, and then working with the territorial, federal, and Indigenous governments, with the federal government’s housing strategy, to try to find how we take the projects identified in the 10-year plan to end homelessness and put them forward to the federal government for funding. The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Centre, the 10-year plan to end homelessness was supportive of, and the City was able to lease land to the organization so they were up and running this summer. And the safe ride program. So there is some stuff that we’ve started – Housing First for adults, youth, and families – and now it’ll just be a case of how can we work with governments to continue that.
Do you have any ideas for ways you can work that we’re not doing right now?
It’s really by applying for the funding and trying to tap into all those different resources. In our past budget we approved a position at the City to seek funding from the federal government, other orders of government, not-for-profits, foundations and stuff. Applying for funding takes a lot of work, then there are all the reports and accountabilities after, but you can have a big pay-off.
City Hall culture
In the course of maintaining all these relationships, pitching for funding, being an ambassador for Yellowknife… to what extent does the mayor need to be a big personality?
The key is to be able to listen. My style is to listen. If the federal government says ‘this is the priority,’ then finding how we can make our priorities align with their priorities for the benefit of residents. I don’t think you have to be a larger-than-life personality, I think you have to be personable and approachable, and be able to listen and really work through concerns and how we can get to those solutions.
So if there are, say, 300 mayors all trying to bend the ear of the federal government on one issue and make sure their city gets what they need, how will you make sure Yellowknife stands out?
I think it’s working with our partners, so it’s not coming to the table as just the City of Yellowknife – it’s working with the NWT Association of Communities, through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities; it’s going to the federal government with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the Tłı̨chǫ Government. If we just try to go as one, we’re just one in a sea of many. If we come with our partners then I think we’ll have greater success.
We’ve talked a lot about partnerships and there is clearly a role for them to play. How do those partnerships work? Let’s take community wellness, which is a plank of your platform, as an example. What do you see that partnership looking like, say, two or three years hence?
A few examples that worked in the past would be with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Centre being able to lease the land. The City worked with them. For the day shelter, it was the City providing $50,000 per year and now it has become the sobering centre, and the GNWT is funding that. It’s looking at those opportunities where the City can help in little ways.
In supporting your platform, you are choosing a lot of examples that the City has already done successfully. Is it a fair statement to say what you’re pitching to the people of Yellowknife is, ‘Look, the City is on track, I’m going to deliver you more of what we’re doing’?
In some regards, for the substance abuse and issues downtown, it’s working with the GNWT and the federal government to advance those issues. The other thing is, the City’s role is about municipal services, so it’s about waste, and roads, and water, and sewers, and recreational facilities. The other part of my platform is focused on ensuring that we’re delivering those to the best of our ability, and setting service level standards for our services, and making sure that we’re hitting that. The recent example of swimming lessons, I hear, has been a pain point for a couple of years because there’s a long waiting list. Swimming lessons is a service that the City is, that’s our mandate…
So how do you fix that?
That would be finding what the problem is. If it’s a case of not enough space at the pool, or there isn’t staff…
The City said it was a staffing shortage.
So do you hire more staff? I know the City has come to council recently and said, ‘Here’s our list. In a perfect world, we would have this person, this person, and this person.’ Would you greenlight that? Should we have a City Hall that fills these positions?
No. So I think that’s creating service standards. One of the positions suggested was a full-time climbing wall attendant, there from 9am to 5pm. On top of that they were suggesting part-time staff to do 5pm-9pm as well as the weekends, 9am-9pm. If we hired the full-time staff, it means it’s not going to be cost-neutral and tax dollars are going to have to pay for it. If we focus on just doing the part-time staff then it’s going to be cost-neutral, with admissions and expenses. Is it our community priority to have it staffed seven days a week, 9am to 9pm? If so, we’ll have to pay through taxes. Or is our community standard that it’s OK weeknights 5pm-9pm and weekends, 9am-9pm, because it’ll be cost-neutral? I would say it’s that latter, from what I hear from folks.
So if we zoom out a bit, your impression from the residents you speak to is that they want a mayor that’s going to keep costs the way they are now, and find a compromise?
For sure, yeah. When I’m talking to residents it’s ‘don’t raise taxes.’ So finding those efficiencies and making sure that, when we’re looking at everything coming forward at the budget, is this in the mandate of the City, does it have to be done this year? Those are some of the things I always look for in the budget.
Looking at that budgeting process in the longer term, there are some big capital initiatives coming up, like the pool for example. What aspirations should this city have? A couple of years ago we had a bid to host the Canada Games that came and went, there didn’t seem to be the leadership appetite for that. Where do you see this city’s role in Canada, and how big it should be dreaming, with some of the things it’s building?
What I think we’re missing is that 10-year, long-term financial plan. Then we’ll be able to set up our capital spend by year and also take into consideration the population. Do we have a population big enough to support these grandiose ideas that, yeah, we might be able to afford the capital but we’re not going to be able to maintain it through the years. We need to focus on creating that long-term financial plan, so we can be proactive and not reactive.
Why do you think the City doesn’t have one?
I think there has been a focus on the budget and with the new director of corporate services, there is more of a focus on those big-picture policies and stuff like that.
I want to talk about the atmosphere at City Hall right now. Let’s take an example in municipal enforcement. The manager of municipal enforcement’s name has barely been out of the local media for nine months now; the staff of municipal enforcement only last week, 10 of them, released a letter to the local newspaper supporting their manager; there has been all kinds of speculation; and an official inquiry on top of that, the findings are published, the public gets to see three paragraphs of that. Where do you apportion blame for how that has spiralled and how that has been a real topic of conversation within the city, and how one city department has come under such scrutiny? Is that the fault of council, staff, the media, municipal enforcement? Why do we have this situation where one department is weathering this storm?
It is one that came to light in January. The process has taken a bit to conclude, so it naturally comes up in the media more often. When it comes to workplace culture at City Hall, I think it is doing well. Our current senior administrative officer, Sheila, has been doing an employee survey and then created a task force to really work on some actions to improve in that area. I think the day-to-day City Hall has continued to be operating, services continue, roads, sewers, and garbage pickup, and stuff like that. I think that it will…
Do you feel as though that inquiry was handled about as well as it could have been by the City?
As a confidential HR… I know that residents would like to see more information but, with legislation, that’s as much information as we can provide. I do feel comfortable as a councillor that process was followed for the inquiry, legislation was followed, so now it’s just, yeah, concluding.
I want to talk about the relationship between the mayor and councillors as well. We had a situation a couple of weeks ago where Adrian Bell resigns as deputy mayor because he’s sick of the chair being passed to him by the mayor, he says he’s losing his vote and his voice. That will no longer be an issue, the mayor now votes, but it points to frictions on council – there have been in the past, I’m sure there will be in the future. What is your approach to managing council in your role as mayor?
It’s working with individual councillors to understand where they’re coming from, what their concerns and aspirations are, what goals they want to achieve, and really helping them sort out the process to do that. When you understand where people are coming from, then you’re not assigning any ulterior motives or anything like that. It’s relationship-building among councillors and administration that I think is key.
You’ve had the opportunity to serve under Mark Heyck for the past six years. What, in terms of the way he has run that job, do you want to preserve?
He has engaged with the community quite a bit at events and stuff like that. I think there is an opportunity there. I’d approach it slightly differently, kind-of sharing it among councillors and the mayor, those opportunities to go speak on behalf of the City, so I can also focus on making sure we’re advancing the key priorities. Also on social media, good engagement – especially during power outages – people really appreciated that.
To be frank, those sound like the icing on the cake a little bit. Of the substance of how he did that job, what would you change? What do you think Yellowknife needs from a mayor now that it hasn’t had in the past, particularly as the role changes, and the mayor now has a vote and a voice?
I think it’s going to be an interesting change, now, with a voting mayor, especially in how we run meetings. You’re the chair but you’re also voting so doing that delicate balance. The way I envision it is the councillors speak first, I would then speak last and do those concluding statements and call the vote. It will be different. Whitehorse has a chair and voting mayor, so it’s done in other jurisdictions. It’ll be a change in the way meetings and processes are currently being handled.
Adrian Bell puts forth a vision of a mayor of Yellowknife that turns up to meetings with an agenda, puts forward an agenda they actively want to follow. Do you agree with that?
For meeting-shaping, I think agendas should be shaped by council’s priorities. If council sets out that these are our priorities, we should be focused on our priorities and those should be what we are discussing at meetings, as well as taking into account what is legislatively required to be done and decisions council has to make. I see it more as collaborative, working with council, setting initial priorities and then advancing them through our term.
As we finish off here and we look at a vision for Yellowknife after one term with you as mayor, what kind of track will the city be on?
What I hope we’re looking at is when people come to City Hall, the customer service and problem-solving has been improved; so if you have an issue, the answer may be ‘no’, but it’s ‘no and here’s how we can get to yes.’ Working with residents to address any barriers that exist currently.
That sounds like you’re hoping for an attitude shift, almost, in the way the City works.
It’s more of a mindset shift, it’s problem-solving and giving employees that tool to really work with residents to address that stuff. That services are delivered well is the key to the City.
Four years down the line, how will people be able to look back and say, ‘We’re really glad we voted for Rebecca Alty’?
I was just thinking about how people said they’d vote for me if I could make sure we’d never have that wet summer again.
If that’s in your power, feel free to say…
That’s some big powers.
Territorial issue, isn’t it?
Federal, I think.
So come on…
I was just reading this book called Happy Cities. It’s developing that community, that pride. We have incredible residents with incredible experiences, and we go off to national and international events and are recognized. That opportunity to really be proud and know our neighbours and all the great stuff? I think that’s something I hope we can develop, that community pride, that community happiness.