Report suggests state of intergovernmental relations poses risk to City of Edmonton

Click to play video: 'Will nature of Edmonton-Alberta relationship cause problems?'
Will nature of Edmonton-Alberta relationship cause problems?
The Alberta premier and Edmonton mayor will meet for the first time next month, but there are signs Edmonton's relationship with the province could be problematic, and experts worry it might be too late to remedy before the provincial budget. Morgan Black explains – Feb 14, 2023

Members of Edmonton city council who sit on the audit committee were told at a meeting Monday night that the current state of intergovernmental affairs is one of the biggest challenges facing the city as a whole.

In an annual corporate risk profile report, city administrators identified a number of risks to the city and its ability to deliver services and achieve strategic goals that council should attempt to mitigate. The only “high” risk identified was the rising costs of materials and service delivery associated with inflation.

While listed as a “medium” risk, intergovernmental affairs was the second-highest risk identified. The term intergovernmental affairs refers to the city’s relationship with different levels of government.

At Monday’s meeting, one administrator mentioned “polarization that we are seeing when we bring budgets forward,” noting that “it seems to be worse than it was pre-pandemic.”

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Another administrator added that “we’ve got a strong Team Edmonton approach but … the political sands are shifting.”

Click to play video: 'Mayor Sohi reflects on budget, LRT delays and his role in a Smith-led Alberta'
Mayor Sohi reflects on budget, LRT delays and his role in a Smith-led Alberta

The report noted that a deterioration in intergovernmental relations could result in reduced provincial grants and tax transfers and suggested employing more “collaborative consultation” approaches when it comes to maintaining relationships with other levels of government. It also suggested increasing lobbying efforts through organizations like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“I wasn’t really that surprised to see inflation being a high risk, but I was a little bit surprised by the intergovernmental being that high of a risk,” Coun. Karen Principe said at the meeting. “Because that’s something I feel we actually have some more control of.”

READ MORE: Task force launched to address Edmonton’s social issues, addictions, homelessness

The report was presented to the committee with just over two weeks until the provincial government announces its latest provincial budget, the first to be delivered since Danielle Smith became premier. With the government projecting a surplus, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has made public where he believes money should be invested in Alberta’s capital, including an emphasis on more affordable housing and supportive housing units.

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After the provincial budget was announced last year, Sohi indicated the spending document amounted to a “slap in the face” for Edmonton, noting that the city had four requests but “received next to nothing in return.”

“I have worked hard to ensure that this government understands that we are here as their partners,” the mayor said in February 2022.

READ MORE: Mayor Amarjeet Sohi calls Alberta budget’s lack of Edmonton funding a ‘slap in the face’

Coun. Andrew Knack told Global News that the city needs help from the province to address issues revolving around housing, homelessness, addiction and mental health, noting that mostly those issues fall under provincial jurisdiction.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise,” he said of intergovernmental relations being presented as a risk to the city. “Because a lot of what we do is interconnected.

“If we don’t have a collaborative relationship, it is hard to tackle these complex issues in a meaningful way. We frankly can’t do it without them.”

Coun. Erin Rutherford said that Sohi has tried “tirelessly” to have a face-to-face meeting with Premier Smith but without success so far.

“It’s not through lack of effort that the relationship is tenuous,” she said, adding that she believes some MLAs who sit in the provincial government’s caucus — or who are running to gain a seat in the UCP caucus — have spread unhelpful messages on social media that make it more difficult to work collaboratively.

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“It’s really hard for me to imagine working with people who are intentionally causing harm.”

Knack suggested that if Smith put herself in the city’s shoes, she could perhaps better understand the frustration being felt by some members of city council.

“I hear often Premier Smith will talk about her desire to have a true partnership with the federal government,” he said.

“There were concerns around the just transition (plan), how they didn’t feel like a true partner in being engaged in that. Similarly, we’re going through sort of the same thing.”

When asked for a statement regarding Smith having yet to meet with Sohi, a spokesperson for the provincial government noted such a meeting will take place in March. Smith met with Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek in December.

The minister of municipal affairs, Rebecca Schulz, has met with both Sohi and Gondek on multiple occasions and speaks to them regularly,” the spokesperson noted in an email.

Alex Puddifant, a spokesperson for Schulz, issued a statement to Global News saying that “relationships between Alberta municipalities and the provincial government are essential to the overall functioning and prosperity of our province.”

“Through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the Alberta government supports municipalities in providing well-managed, collaborative and accountable local government to Albertans,” he said.

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“The Alberta government always welcomes opportunities to learn about the issues, struggles and successes of municipalities across Alberta, including our capital city of Edmonton.”

Chaldeans Mensah, an associate professor with MacEwan University’s political science department, said he believes that “Edmonton appears to be on the outside looking in.”

“Calgary is being courted strongly by the UCP government,” he added, noting that the intergovernmental relationship is also presented with a challenge given that Kaycee Madu is currently the only MLA in the UCP government’s caucus from a riding in Edmonton.

In a statement, Madu told Global News he has been “relentless in advocating for Edmonton since being elected in 2019.”

The MLA, who also serves as Alberta’s deputy premier, added that he and Sohi and several city councillors “have excellent reflections.”

“It is important that council and province must work together on matters that are of concern to the majority of Edmontonians — matters such as public disorder and safety, economic opportunities, mental health, homeless and addictions in full continuum of care etc.,” Madu said.

Tensions between the city and province have been apparent in recent years. Last year, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro invoked a section of the Police Act to require Sohi to come up with a public safety plan to address violence in downtown Edmonton and on public transit in the city.

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READ MORE: Edmonton releases public safety plan requested by Shandro; pushes province for support

While Sohi delivered on the request, he and several city councillors also responded that areas of action that help address social disorder are within the province’s jurisdiction.

“Ever since I was elected, I’ve been raising these issues with the provincial government and have been asking them to step up to help to deal with them. So far, they have neglected these asks,” the mayor said on May 26.

Click to play video: 'Shandro, Sohi have ‘productive’ meeting about crime and safety in downtown Edmonton'
Shandro, Sohi have ‘productive’ meeting about crime and safety in downtown Edmonton

Rutherford said that while it is important for city councillors to be aware of the risks linked to less-than-optimal intergovernmental relations, she does not “want to take full ownership of that broken relationship, and I’m not willing to.”

She said city councillors have already attempted various ways of working more collaboratively but she simply does not “know the path forward.”

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“Collaboration and compromise requires all people to come to the table,” Rutherford said.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in government. We need to be working with everyone,” Knack said. “I don’t think we’re at the place we need to be yet.”

Principe acknowledged that it feels as though the city’s relationship with the province is possibly “a little strained right now.”

“I’m glad it was brought to our attention,” she said of the risk report. “Different beliefs (and) different ideologies can sometimes conflict … but that’s our role: to work through those conflicts and to work together.”

READ MORE: Alberta budget set for Feb. 28, with focus on funding for health, school growth

Last month, Finance Minister Travis Toews said the budget he delivers on Feb. 28 will focus on investing in health care and school enrolment growth.

It’s expected to be the final budget before voters go to the polls for a scheduled May 29 general election.

–with files from Global News’ Morgan Black, Emily Mertz and Karen Bartko and The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett

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