Where Do the Dollars Go: Karen Principe

From the northern ward of tastawiyiniwak, she believes "in order to be effective, you need to be continually looking for inefficiencies.”

They got your vote, or at least, some of your votes. But, who are the people we’ve elected to city council? What do they care about? And what do they think are the biggest issues the city faces? We begin our series of city councillor profiles with Karen Principe.

Before the 2021 municipal election, the wisdom was that beating an incumbent in a city-council race was about as difficult as it was to beat a Conservative in a rural Alberta riding. But, Karen Principe was one of four candidates who defeated sitting city councillors in the previous autumn’s election.

Principe, a former dental hygienist and long-time volunteer — from local school events, community clubs to the Edmonton Food Banks and Christmas Bureau — ran a successful campaign based on a lot of face-to-face interaction with residents of the tastawiyiniwak ward. She beat incumbent John Dziadyk by a little less than 1,500 votes in the north central ward, which stretches from 127th Avenue all the way to the city boundary.

“I was very involved in the community,” she says. “I felt very connected to the community through volunteering. I just wanted to represent my community, I feel very connected to it. From the door-knocking that I did, I had the opportunity to personally listen to people’s concerns and get a true idea of what my community needs. I just felt that I was the one who could best represent my community.”

She says that sticking flyers in a mailbox doesn’t have nearly the same impact as looking someone in the eye. And, she feels that, during the campaign, she projected a strong image of who she was and what she stood for. Of course, there is name recognition, as she is married to Gene Principe, the pun-loving host of the Oilers television broadcasts on Sportsnet.

“I personally met a lot of people, and I think when that happens you get a true sense of the person,” Principe says. “So, they could sense my true intentions. Words are just words, but, when you get to meet someone, you can build a rapport. And I was very honest in where I stood on issues. I wasn’t wishy-washy. Even if people didn’t agree with me, they knew that I was willing to take a stand and I think they respected that.”

And what did people tell her that they were concerned about? Principe says she heard a lot of concerns about how the City is spending taxpayers’ dollars.

“I think the issue, from what I heard at the doors and my own personal beliefs, is that we were concerned about the City maybe not being accountable with our tax dollars. Now that I am in the City, and I’ve been able to go through budget deliberations, it was very informative for me. I know the administration has been working to find ways to identify inefficiencies and deal with them. But, having said that, I know it’s a continuing process that, in order to be effective, you need to be continually looking for inefficiencies.”

When I ask about what specific areas in the city budget should be targeted, Principe admits she is still on the learning curve. She’s been having meetings with City staff to better understand their processes, so she’s not — at this moment — willing to go out on a limb and say that this department or that department should have red Xs put on them.

When it comes to specific issues that impact the tastawiyiniwak ward, Principe speaks about two trends she sees working in opposition; densification of the neighbourhoods along with service cuts. To her, it’s a simple equation — a neighbourhood that’s got more density will also need more services for those added residents. If service is cut as the neighbourhood grows, “you are just going to create an unhealthy community,” she warns.

She also feels that densification process is very selective, with some neighbourhoods continuing on as they’ve always been, while others densify.

“One of my biggest concerns, and one of the reasons I ran, is that our area is getting a lot of densification. The city is seeing a lot more densification, and my concern is that they’re trying to densify certain areas of the city, and other areas of the city are maybe going to have larger lots and nicer homes. And I am just concerned that the vision is to have certain areas densified and other areas not densified. That’s what I see.

“But it’s not just the densification, it’s the loss of service, like transit. So, we have lost a lot of transit service, but, when they [ETS] created the on-demand service, I thought it was a fantastic, creative way to supplement the losses. But, unfortunately, in my ward, we have absolutely zero on-demand. But, I am speaking with various departments on how to change that.”

The new city council recently approved two major recreation-centre projects; Lewis Farms and Coronation. A total of more than $430 million is earmarked for the two projects. Principe supported the motions. But, does she worry that budgets will be tightened even further once all levels of governments assess the impact of COVID? Is there a point where “austerity” becomes the keyword for all levels of government, whether they like it or not?

“We need to be realistic,” says Principe. “We don’t really know what’s ahead. But we know if things get out of hand again, we need to react. But, at City Council, we did approve a lot of capital projects. In one way, it’s spending money. In another way, it’s creating jobs. It’s a way to try and boost the economy, to get it going again. But we need to be mindful that it costs money, and that some time things will need to change to save money. I’m not a fan of increasing taxes… We need to be really aware that we can’t always rely on increasing taxes when we need money. We need to look within, and that’s a constant thing, in order to be more efficient.”