In the months and weeks prior to an election the public usually sees governments suddenly becoming generous with new spending programs, or tax breaks or the elimination of user fees. It is all a ploy to prove to citizens that their elected government representatives are just too good to simply ignore at the polls.
But this is seen far more in federal and provincial politics. Not so much at the municipal level, especially in a council at large system such as Red Deer’s where the connection to any one member of City council is far less than it would be if there was a ward system.
On Sept. 20, Red Deer City council did an about face on its decision last June to raise recreation fees 3% beginning Aug. 1. It was an unpopular decision across the City that was gaining momentum with residents over the summer and into the fall when it just so happened to be election time.
This messy issue was increasingly identified by citizens to new council candidates on Saturday mornings at the Market at Red Deer. This is interesting as we have not heard if elected council members not yet on the campaign trail had heard the same concerns. We do know that City administration knew about the complaints, and was in the process of preparing a report to council.
Typically in politics when an unpopular initiative has gathered steam the public will find a way to punish those who they deem responsible – especially if it comes time to cast votes. If the City had a ward system, and if there was a sizable portion of any district that had a significant number of angry recreation facility users, then citizens could take their concerns directly to the elected representative. If that representative voted in favour of the fee hike then he or she would have to face the music at election time.
So who in this case were the possible targets for the public to vent their anger over council’s decision to raise recreation fees?
The members of City council who supported the recreation fee raise last June were Mayor Morris Flewwelling and Councillors Lynne Mulder, Cindy Jefferies, Tara Veer and the retiring Lorna Watkinson-Zimmer.
Meanwhile, Councillors Buck Buchanan, Gail Parks, Frank Wong and the retiring Larry Pimm, were against the fee hikes.
Council’s reversal may help the prospects of Buchanan, Parks and Wong who are all less than certain bets to get re-elected. As for Flewwelling, Mulder, Jefferies and Veer it is doubtful there will be any lingering impact to their fortunes come election day.
However, what the Sept. 20 policy reversal does underscore is that the community in the face of an ineffective elected at large system should consider finding a better way to make individual City council members more accountable for the decisions they make.
It is obvious council made the wrong decision last June. And yes, council has now righted a wrong. But in the absence of the more efficient and accountable ward system it was a messy way to get to the right place.