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Mixed messages coming from city hall

If there’s one thing to take away from the election and the weeks leading up to it, it’s that city council has a communication problem on its hands.

If there’s one thing to take away from the election and the weeks leading up to it, it’s that city council has a communication problem on its hands.

Mayor Nolan Crouse experienced a problem with “community communication” during the divisive 70 Arlington Dr. debates. He, like several other candidates in the election, pointed to the issue as the most recent breakdown in how the city conducts public consultation. But the problem could run deeper, he suggests.

“It’s anything and everything where we’re communicating back to the public,” he told the Gazette’s editorial board Monday.

While he laid a finger on the problem, Crouse — fresh into his second term as mayor after receiving a healthy vote of confidence on Oct. 18 — failed to articulate causes let alone a specific remedy. He likes the idea of loosely formalized roundtables, but isn’t sold on restoring the municipal planning commission.

The communication problem extends to St. Albert’s reputation as an overtaxed ‘Snobsville,’ a label the mayor tries to counter by pointing out mill rates (not to be confused with tax bills) are higher in Grande Prairie. But he also understands the bum rap.

“You’re deserved of it to some degree, but you’re a product of high-quality people, you’re a product of high-quality education, you’re a product of high income.”

The reputation for Snobsville was reinforced in the worst way by that infamous letter to the editor by Chris and Karleena Perry, which was a rally to save St. Albert from low-income residents and their drugs and crime.

While Crouse flatly rejects such an elitist view: “You don’t want to build a community based on that vision,” he also suggests the city needs to protect St. Albert’s “mystique” that separates it from other communities, presumably the quality of life, low-density development and amenities that have attracted a highly educated, higher-earning populace.

“The question you also have to ask is why do you want to accept a lower standard? Why do some people want us to look like Edmonton? What’s wrong with being different?”

‘Looking like Edmonton’ was an accusation lobbed at council during the downtown area redevelopment plan (DARP) hearings due to the nature of density proposed — up to 25 storeys. After personally initiating the process and approving the bylaw, Crouse now has misgivings about such densities, though isn’t sure about the alternative.

“You have this need to increase your tax base and one of the ways is to densify where you can,” he said. But if not in the downtown, where? “You probably don’t make it work anywhere else. It’s hard to say.”

Just a month after approving the 70 Arlington Dr. development, Crouse also is starting to wonder where affordable housing should rank as a council goal, if at all. That’s partly influenced by election feedback, partly by current underwhelming demand for space at local seniors’ lodges.

“I’m not getting this feeling right now that affordable housing, and some people have written it as well, that it’s not as bad as people think it is. I’m starting to wonder if that’s the case.”

It’s not quite a rejection of past goals, but it is another example of a ‘position in progress’ — and the type of post-election musing that is guaranteed to infuriate the anti-Arlington Drive crowd. It would be simple to chalk up the new course to a mayor reacting to criticisms council took during an election that claimed some incumbents. Or it could be a case of a mayor who is not willing to risk offending anyone with distinct positions.

It’s not the clearest way to communicate, and in the long run will not navigate around controversy.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette.