By COLLIN GALLANT on January 4, 2023.
Mayor Linnsie Clark says a focus on procedural change at city hall will give way to policy making during 2023.
In a year-end interview, she told the News that council has reset how it operates and the stage is set for progress on community planning and economic development in the year ahead. As well, she expects council to bring forward a full discussion of utility rates and a defence of the publicly owned utility.
Reflecting on her first year in office, having been elected on a platform of accountability and transparency, she’s proudest of culture change that she and others elected with her have brought to city hall.
“We’re a new council that, I think, has come together well and has started to work through our processes,” she told the News on Dec. 30.
“We’ve had some changes and we’re looking forward to working with (recently hired) city manager Ann Mitchell in the New Year.
“Things move more slowly than any of us would like, but we are making progress.”
The new top administrator arrives in February one year after retiring CAO Bob Nicolay left the job – a 12-month period that also saw two new committees created – and ahead of a major update to the city’s procedural bylaw, promised by Clark.
The inner workings of local governance may not stoke the public’s imagination, but Clark said it’s crucial.
Current bylaws are “grossly out of date,” she said. “Ultimately… (the goal is for) people will be able to follow what’s happening in a council meeting, for a person to look at a council package and knowing what’s going on, and having more meetings in public.
“Transparency increases people’s abilities to hold us accountable.”
In 2022, the city opened the Towne Square festival space across from city hall, reopened two community recreation centres that became a key issue in the 2021 election, and passed a new two-year budget.
But there are few new major projects planned in the 2023 and 2024 budget cycle, work on major industrial strategies – developing carbon capture and hydrogen hubs – has gone on behind the scenes, and there has been little in the way of major bylaws or a replacement vision for Invest Medicine Hat, the city’s economic development office.
Clark counted among major accomplishments as the city winning one of few spots to participate in a pilot project by the Strong Towns urban planning advocacy group that begins in 2023, which she called “a real win, and that will take place over the next three years.”
“A lot of work was initiated in 2022: an environmental framework, a (utility) rate review, an electric utility overall review, and of course the expansion of the Fair Entry program.”
Restaffing and redirecting the Invest office is a high priority, she said.
“Hydrogen and CCUS will form a component of our economic development strategy, which is an area that we really have to push forward on,” she said.
“We need to come at it from all fronts.”
The city’s power generation interests racked up major profits in 2022, thanks largely to sales to the Alberta grid, but that was coupled with calls from citizens for the publicly owned utility to shield internal customers from higher prices.
As it ended up, $83 million in power dividends will be used for capital and investment reserves.
Both Clark and utility chair, Coun. Alison Van Dyke, have said a top-priority alongside the rate review is evaluating how citizens and councillors view the utility: is it a source of income for city hall, or there to provide the lowest price to its customers?
“At its core, it will inform our decisions about rate-setting and how we transfer value from our electric company to citizens of this city,” said Clark.
“We have to clearly articulate what the value is to the community.”
Clark also said time may be needed to ride through general economic uncertainty and inflation that set in during the past year.
“We can’t predict what will happen in 2023, but I think everyone is hoping for inflation to come under control, and some of the supply chain issues get worked out,” she said.
“For our businesses, I hope it’s a little easier for them to find the workers they need. And for workers, the good paying jobs that they need.
“It’s something we all hope for.”