Niels Konge stands in Cabin Radio's reception in September 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Niels Konge puts planning and development at the core of his campaign for a third term on Yellowknife’s city council.
In his election interview, the construction boss told Cabin Radio he wants to stay on council while improvements to the City’s planning and lands department are completed.
He also bills himself as “the voice of reason” on council, representing blue-collar views.
Dismissing suggestions he can be too combative, Konge assailed outgoing mayor Mark Heyck, describing Heyck as a man lacking Konge’s own “moral compass.”
Konge broadly supported the process followed by the City in handling workplace harassment allegations, and said solving the AirBnB dilemma should either involve partly deregulating bed-and-breakfasts or ensuring AirBnB operators comply with current bed-and-breakfast regulations.
There are 16 candidates standing for the eight positions on Yellowknife City Council. Election day is October 15, 2018.
Ollie Williams: Why should the people of Yellowknife give you a third term?
Niels Konge: You know, I think that I come across as a voice of reason on council. I look at things that come to council and go, ‘Does this make sense? Is this going to be good for the people?’ I certainly ask lots of questions. I think I’m engaged, I think I do my homework. And really, why I want to do it again is because, when I ran six years ago, it was about planning, and lands, and making improvements there. We’ve had a departmental review, they’ve come up with a slew of recommendations and we’re at the stage right now of implementing those, and I would like to see that finished.
So you feel like you’ve got unfinished business at this point?
You see yourself as the voice of reason. Why do you believe, so often, you are the ‘voice of reason’ and other councillors are not?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I hear that a lot from people – they tell me that. And I think that I come with a different perspective than most councillors. There are business owners on council but I have more employees than most. In terms of work, my work is very much blue-collar and that is a little bit of a different perspective, you know? You don’t go and build things the hardest way you can, you try to build things the easiest way you can, that’s the most sound.
A common-sense approach, I guess, is how you’re trying to portray the way you look at things. Do you get frustrated by the machinations of council?
Absolutely. Six years ago, when I ran, I told everybody I’m going in there, I’m going to fix this, and I’m done. That obviously didn’t happen. Here we are going into a third term and we’re almost there, but we’re not done. The length of time that some of this stuff can take certainly was an eye-opener and a point of frustration for myself, sometimes. But that is democracy and it certainly has been interesting.
It has been interesting with you on city council. I think back to yourself and the outgoing mayor spending quite a lot of time making newspaper headlines a year or two ago. Is there such a thing as being too combative?
No. I mean, we might have only made headlines a couple of years ago but that relationship has been strained since day one, pretty much.
Council is about relationships, isn’t it? It’s about fostering them, not straining them.
To a certain extent. You’re not going to foster relationships that morally, you don’t believe in.
Why didn’t you morally believe in a relationship with the mayor?
In terms of our moral compass, I believe we are on different planets.
What do you mean?
My sense of right and wrong is very strong, I am very opinionated about that. I don’t believe the mayor has that same compass as what I do. We had an opportunity almost six years ago where an MLA was bringing forward a private members’ bill to try to give municipal officers the ability to deal with the Liquor Act, and the MLA at the time had asked for letters of support. The mayor outright refused that because we hadn’t discussed it at council. When I went and talked with him about that, he said, ‘We haven’t discussed this.’ I said, ‘We’ve almost discussed nothing else. We discuss the state of our downtown continuously and here we have somebody who’s willing to give us a tool to help us with this, and you’re refusing support.’ I couldn’t comprehend that.
Speaking of a moral compass, do you feel the City’s moral compass is in the right place now after the official inquiry into municipal enforcement?
That’s a little bit of a trickier one. I’m of the opinion that some of our policies definitely need updating. The thing about updating policies is you can update them today and they are a go-forward document, not a go-backwards document…
The City just has updated a couple of its policies, hasn’t it?
We certainly, as council, have got our eyes opened to what our policies were. I must commend our current SAO, Sheila Bassi-Kellett. She has been really good at bringing this stuff forward to council. We didn’t even have a camera policy at all. There are some gaps there that, as a council, are pretty hard to figure what those gaps are, and we really do need a strong SAO. So far, I’m quite pleased with our current SAO’s performance in that regard and, you know, HR issues are always tricky. They aren’t something that I believe should be done in the public.
I wanted to ask about transparency as well. Some people say, ‘We got three paragraphs out of that,’ in terms of what the public got to see. Do you feel that’s appropriate?
In regards to an HR issue, yes, I do.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett comes from a background of being quite a senior human resources executive with the GNWT. You have a polar opposite background as a private enterprise owner. What do you think that brings to your seat at council compared to some of the others?
In terms of HR, if you compare the City of Yellowknife and Konge Construction, one would be considered very sophisticated and the other is almost in the stone ages. But we do have to operate under the same type of rules. We can’t just go out and tell everybody our employees’ social insurance numbers or their performance. We can’t broadcast that to the world. That’s number one, morally not right. Number two, there are rules against that. They might be completely different but I do think there is some common ground there as well.
Would your company have treated that whole municipal enforcement thing very differently?
Well, I mean… we’re in completely different businesses. We have senior staff at Konge Construction, they are part-owners of the company, and we have expectations of all of our staff to treat each other, and our customers, and the people that are on our jobsites with respect. Because we’re not as sophisticated as the City of Yellowknife, it’s probably a lot easier for us to deal with some things like that.
Let’s look at development and the economy in Yellowknife. You obviously bring a construction outlook and a business development outlook to council. What do you want to see that council achieve over the next three, maybe four years?
Another eye-opener, being on council the first time, was just how difficult it is for the City of Yellowknife to get a hold of land. The GNWT really has us over a deep hole. They control everything about the land, and we don’t have enough, really, I don’t feel, to fully realize our opportunities, often. It is quite detrimental to the city as a whole, in terms of losing out on development opportunities. The GNWT, with Devolution, has gotten some more control over land, and I’m hopeful that with some lobbying from the City, perhaps we can have a better relationship and have a little bit more land in our inventory, and perhaps take advantage of some of these opportunities.
That’s one area where the outgoing mayor says he has made some difference – the relationships with other levels of government. Do you feel as though relations with the territorial government to get those kinds of deals in place have improved?
Do we have more land?
Do you have more opportunity to have that conversation?
Not that I see. If we do, the current mayor is certainly working in a silo.
So what needs to change? How do you get that conversation going? How do you get that process in motion?
I think we need to have a strong mayor who is communicating with council, as a group, and we come up with a strategy to go forward and have conversations with, whether it be ministers or deputy ministers at the GNWT, and also have our administrators having those conversations – trying to show the GNWT that its policies and means of dealing with land are really detrimental to the City of Yellowknife, which in turn is detrimental to the territory. The GNWT gets transfer payments based on population and we have no growth. That’s not a good thing.
You want to see a strong mayor in office. You’ve got four candidates – I’m sure you’d work with any of them – who do you hope it is?
I get asked that a lot. This morning, I was out cleaning up signs. I saw Rebecca’s first, I cleaned up Rebecca’s. I was told there were some more, I went and cleaned up Adrian’s. At this point, I’m probably… I’m expecting to get elected again, and I think I really need to pay more attention than most on what these two are offering.
I’m sure you have been paying that attention. What do you think?
Well, I think the citizens of Yellowknife are very, very fortunate to have two very strong contenders for mayor.
It’s unlike you not to have a firm opinion on an issue.
Looking ahead to three years in the future, maybe four – what’s your opinion on that, by the way? We’re going to have a plebiscite, should councillors serve three-year terms or four?
You know, the arguments that I’ve heard about going to four, that people are talking about – give people one more year to know what’s going on, and that sort of thing – we might as well go to five. And if we go to five, why not six? We might as well just get a lifetime appointment, for crying out loud. Either people are going to do the work to get up to speed as quickly as they can, and do the work that they need to do in the time that they have, or they’re not going to. For me, personally, I think three years is a long-enough term. People are either happy with you or they’re not happy, and they can either keep you or get rid of you.
We’ll imagine it’s three years, then. In three years’ time… a lot of people are talking about their vision for the downtown as part of this campaign, and homelessness is tied into that. You will know more than most in this election about the 10-year plan to end homelessness, because council has been central to that for years. Do you believe that the City is on the right track with that?
I’ll start by saying that the homelessness portfolio is certainly not one of my strongest or most passionate things that’s going on at council. I very much look toward Linda Bussey, who has that passion for that, and I think she has reciprocated and looked toward me when we talk about land and development. On the right track? At least we have a plan. And I’m a firm believer: get a plan and, as you’re working through the plan, you can see what works and doesn’t, you can adjust and change. I’m happy we have a plan. In year one, some of the things we’ve been doing have certainly had visible improvements in terms of the health and safety of the homeless population in the downtown. Let’s keep going. I don’t think that council… we’re responsible for the entire city, not just the downtown, and we’re such a small city that I don’t think we can just look at the downtown. If you go out by Walmart and stuff like that, we’re seeing a lot more panhandling out there and that sort of thing. Is this a downtown issue, or is it a Yellowknife issue? And is this a Yellowknife issue, or is it a territorial issue? I think those lines are very blurred, and I think we need to have, you know, plans that aren’t just focused on one area or one city.
Linda Bussey has stickhandled a lot of that but is standing down in this election. Would you urge Yellowknifers to ensure they elect somebody who is going to replace Linda with that portfolio?
I wouldn’t want to be on a council where everybody was like me. That would be pretty horrible. Elections are really important, at all levels but especially at municipal level. We have the ability to make changes that affect everybody a lot faster than the territorial or federal governments. People need to pay attention and see what is being brought to the table, and make informed decisions. For me, the last six years, being on council, one of the greatest things is the friendships I have made. Rebecca Alty has become a very good family friend, and I’m very grateful for that. Linda Bussey has also become a good friend. She might not be in politics any more but I’m going to draw on her experience when these things come up, and ask her opinion.
I want to quickly ask, before we have to let you go, about AirBnB. It’s clearly an issue that has a lot of people divided in terms of where the City’s priorities should lie, and to what extent the City should be involved in regulating that. What do you think?
First and foremost, any business in the City is supposed to have a business licence. That should be enforced across the board. In terms of the licensing requirements, the current bed-and-breakfasts have certain rules and regulations they are following. Some of those rules are not City rules, some are territorial rules, so in terms of some of this regulation for AirBnBs, they should actually be following territorial legislation. Now whether the territory is going to go out and actively enforce that or not, I don’t know, but I do think that all business, of all types, they need to be on a level playing field. That’s what I’m looking for: either we deregulate current bed-and-breakfasts a little bit, or we say, you know what, AirBnBs need to follow the same legislation. Level the playing board.