Mayor Don Iveson recently sat down with Global News for a one-on-one interview as he prepares to leave municipal politics.
Iveson has chosen not to seek re-election in 2021. He was 28 years old when he was first elected as a city councillor in 2007, knocking off incumbent Mike Nickel.
He said a lot has changed since his early days at city hall, including becoming a father of two, something he said changed his perspective and made him more patient.
“Fourteen years later, many lessons learned — many, many humblings — but also a lot of joy and gratitude getting to see the city come into its own in that period of time.”
The following is an abbreviated version of the conversation Iveson recently had with Global News.
GLOBAL EDMONTON: What’s the biggest thing you hoped to accomplish at city hall, and do you feel you were successful?
DON IVESON: When I think about… (when) I knocked on doors in 2007 and said, “Here’s what I want to do. We’ve got to grow up more and out less. We’ve got to give people more transportation options and we’ve got to deliver housing affordability.” And so those have been priorities for me for 14 years, and the city plan speaks to every single one of those.
What’s important is that (the) city is going to be more cost-effective — more financially efficient into the future — and also be travelling in the right direction in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental footprint, and hopefully is also more inclusive and equitable and just and fun.
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GE: What was the biggest challenge or hurdle you faced at city hall?
DI: I think the economic headwinds, probably overall, have been the greatest challenge.
There was a real sense of abundance in 2007 when I was first elected to council — it was boom times. In 2013, when I was first elected as mayor, it was boom times — and it isn’t that right now. But we knew those good times were not going to last forever.
We were trying to create long-term sustainability and competitiveness for the city with key investments in infrastructure to attract and retain talent and investment, alliances with our neighbours, progress with our intergovernmental partners.
I still think Edmonton is in a much more confident and poised position going forward. It’s been fun to watch that confidence grow. People used to apologize for coming from here and people don’t anymore, that’s good.
GE: You committed to ending homelessness. What gaps are you leaving there?
DI: I’m close to it for reasons of the heart. But I (am) also thoroughly persuaded that public policy-wise, it’s a no brainer that we should be accommodating people differently than we do. That we will save a lot of money as a society, and particularly health care and justice costs that are easily avoidable.
I’m really proud of the work that our agency partners have done to house 13,000 people since our commitment to end homelessness.
And for me, I do have a sense of unfinished business about it. And that’s why I’m joining the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Board, and I’m going to be active on this file and continue to be an advocate (for) them, because I believe that in a country as prosperous as this one, with the commitments we say we have to inclusion and to reconciliation, to leave this unfinished is unconscionable and unjust.
GE: What do you think or hope people will remember you for?
DI: More density, more vibrancy in the neighbourhoods — those 15-minute, walkable districts that we talked about. Shifting the city’s development course from outward growth and car dependency to more options for households to live in different ways.
And hopefully the feel of the place, that (it) will be not just affordable, but fun and compelling and inviting and safe to live in.
GE: Did the relationship — or lack of relationship — with the UCP impact your decision not to run again?
DI: I would say it was a factor, but it wasn’t the determining factor. And I say that because it’s not just Edmonton, and it’s not just this office. At various points, all municipalities in the province felt fairly outraged at some of the decisions that were being made and the way they were being treated.
You can agree to disagree and there are respectful ways to do that — and then there are disrespectful ways to do that. And the way the city charter was torn up, for example, was a specific breach with Edmonton and Calgary.
Up until now, frankly, it’s been bullying — and I’m not going to apologize for calling that out.
GE: Are you worried about Alberta losing so many experienced mayors this election?
DI: Across the province, there are a lot of municipal leaders who are hanging them up. So there will be a loss of institutional memory in this sector.
It’s not a total reset, and there are great people carrying on, so I’m not too concerned about it. I see less of a risk and more of an opportunity for the provincial government to reset, in a more respectful way, its relationships with leaders in the municipal sector, just by virtue of there being some fresh personalities around the table.
GE: You’ve already put out some endorsements. Will you be endorsing anyone for mayor?
DI: At this point, I’m not planning to weigh in on that.
What appealed to me about the candidates who I’ve provided endorsements for is their independence of thought (and) their track record as leaders on issues that I think are important to the city and that I personally think are important.
I think it’s just as important to have a great and thoughtful high-level-of-debate council as it is, to pick the right mayor.
GE: What’s the next big challenge facing the incoming council?
DI: The biggest challenge facing the next council is the same challenge this council’s been working with, which is COVID recovery, which includes many of those issues: restarting our business districts, supporting our business community — which is hurting — and being mindful of the disproportionate impacts on vulnerable people.
How do you deal with that without losing sight of the big picture in the long term and the kind of city that we’re trying to build, the kind of region we’re trying to partner with, the kind of community we want to be?
GE: What advice would you give to whoever takes the mayor’s seat next?
DI: Some of the most important advice is building alliances, obviously with council… but also, very importantly, with other mayors regionally, provincially (and) with the midsize cities’ mayors and nationally, obviously with the big city mayors.
Those networks and coalitions are particularly important when you’re trying to make the case for change from from the lowest rung on the jurisdictional ladder.
GE: What’s next for you?
DI: I’m going to take a couple of months off. That’s all I know for sure. It’s been an extraordinary ride for four terms here at city hall, and I’ve gotten some small breaks here and there, but I really do need to decompress. And I think after that, I’ll have a clearer sense of what I’m going to do next.
GE: So is this the last time we’ll see you as a politician?
DI: The pandemic was great for this: I got to spend more time with my kids in the last while like many of us did. And so, you know, at this stage in their lives, I’m really looking forward to being a little more present for them. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m not pursuing anything… political at this point. But I wouldn’t rule it out for the long term.
Watch below: Some of Global News’ coverage of Edmonton city hall while Don Iveson was mayor.