“How Do We Kick the City into High Gear?”

Ward sipiwiyiniwak Councillor Sarah Hamilton knows a budget crunch is coming, so it's time to think creatively and accept that not everyone will walk away happy
Urban-Affairs_Caricature_Sarah-Hamilton

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Before being elected as a city councillor in 2017, then re-elected as the representative of  Ward sipiwiyiniwak in 2021, Sarah Hamilton got her Master of Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s worked for arts organizations like Latitude 53.

So, when she’s asked the million-dollar question — how the heck can the City continue to build, when post-COVID budgets are going to be so, so tight — she uses an analogy from the art world.

“I always think the best art is produced out of limitations, even though not every artist will agree with me on that,” she says. “If you have a room full of supplies or different mediums, it’s harder to figure out what you’re going to do. But, if you’re given really specific parameters — that you can only work in pencil, for example, that you can only work in a certain type of format, that you can only address a certain kind of idea  — it really focuses your mind and spurs your creativity. All of which to say, the limitations of our budgets right now, we can see them as threats to some of our city-building projects. But, the opportunity is to figure out, with the limited resources that we have, how we can continue to build this fantastic city, we can make sure we have a robust economy, and balance that out against the priorities of operating a city.”

Or, think about City Council as being a group of indie filmmakers, who have to make sure they get the most out of every shot, because they don’t have the $100 million special effects budget that Michael Bay would.

“Our opportunity is, with the limited resources that we have, how do we kick the city into high gear?”

Hamilton’s ward includes tony neighbourhoods like Parkview, Laurier Heights and the area surrounding the Edmonton Valley Zoo. But the ward pushes south to the city’s boundary and then out to the western boundary, south of Whitemud Drive. So it also includes a lot of new communities that have been built near Anthony Henday Drive.

And, like her 11 fellow councillors and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, Hamilton is working towards creating a four-year budget plan. She knows that, with limited funds, not everyone is going to walk away from the process happy.

“Not everyone is going to go into the budget process and get their big win, and that includes me,” she says.

But what are Hamilton’s priorities? She says her ward has already got a lot out of recent budgets, from the under-construction West Valley LRT line, recreation facilities and funding for Friends of the Valley Zoo. So, she says she’s being pretty pragmatic going in. She says that the City needs to offer its citizens “stability” when it comes to services. To her, the s-word means that the City hits an expected level of service when it comes to the things we all get mad about: snow removal, road maintenance and grass cutting at parks. It’s none of the stuff candidates campaign on, but it’s the thing residents care about the most.

She says that, for too long, the City has told residents that their expectations were too high when streets didn’t get plowed or that the local soccer field was overgrown.

“Councils have been telling people that their expectations are too high,” she says. “We’ve been gaslighting people.”

She says council and administration should come up with clear answers on what it would take to provide the levels of service that the public expects, then be frank and see what it costs. What can be achieved? What’s a bridge too far? And then the bar is set.

“Instead of telling people expectations are too high, we’ll have Edmonton in a good position, but the tension there will always be conflicting priorities.”

If Hamilton does have one stretch goal for her ward, it’s to see a new, large urban park built in the west end near the Henday.

“We don’t have the sort of district park similar to Laurier that people can access,” she says. “I think we need to figure out how we’re going to give that kind of access to people in West Edmonton, around the Anthony Henday area or thereabouts. There are 80,000 to 90,000 people in West Edmonton who are not within a 15-minute commute of being able to access a big park. That’’s a really big gap and I’m not quite sure yet how we’re going to address it. It might be something we have to work towards in the next budget.”

But, in her mind, the best way to get things done is for councillors to build relationships with other levels of government, no matter the political stripe, with municipal and regional organizations, and with economic development authorities. She says no one wants to see Edmonton fail.

“If wishes were fishes, if money grew on trees, think of the amazing things you could do,” she says, “the recreation facilities you could build, the urban transformation that you can fund. But we don’t have that.”

And she says this is the test for councillors, to know that they can put politics aside and simply be able to speak about what benefits Edmonton.

“There are a lot of wishes. But governance is about relationships, both good and bad. If you can’t do it, and not everyone is good at building relationships, then your wish lists become really hard to check off.”

The LRT

When more delays to the Valley Line Southeast LRT were announced in August, thanks to cracking in concrete piers supporting the track, there was a lot of talk about the lack of communication between the private builder, TransEd, and the city. There was talk about the lack of oversight.

Meanwhile, in the west end, the construction of the Valley Line West LRT has begun in earnest. If you still think 87th Avenue is a passable road, think again. The barricades are up and the trenches have been dug.

Hamilton says it’s important that the councillors of the wards that the west LRT line goes through need to be on top of what’s going on. Her, Andrew Knack (Nakota Isga) and Anne Stevenson (O-day’min, including downtown), will be meeting regularly with administration to get regular updates on the progress of the west LRT, which is not being built by TransEd.

“I’m not going to pretend that I am out there digging lines for the LRT,” Hamilton says. “But, transparency in terms of what’s happening with the construction process, quick responses, those are the kinds of things that help generate goodwill within the communities where major infrastructure is going in.

“If you see someone on the project team every couple of minutes, you build rapport. If you hear things, and we do hear things, we know who to speak to.”