It's been 112 days since Cheryll Watson announced that she would be running for the mayor's seat and started her "listening campaign". A campaign to hear from Edmontonians, and build her platform from conversations with real people.
The idea is laudable, and it definitely could yield good policy and a great candidate.
For a non incumbent, this is a steep mountain to climb. #YEG is a city of over 1 million people. Candidates need to be able to build name recognition, a team, and fundraise as much as they can for as long as they can. Hence launching early.— Cheryll Watson (@CheryllYEG) January 28, 2021
However, three and a half months of listening has culminated in the release of a first plank that has the tenacity and scrappy spirit of wispy clouds on a meadow breeze. The best she could muster after a quarter of a year has been her plan to establish a Chief Accountability Officer.
The problem, she alleges is twofold:
- Council spends too much time asking questions that have already been asked, building things that have already been built, or making motions that undermine the city's agreed-upon goals.
- Council lacks a strong advocate in the seat of the mayor who can collaborate with the provincial government effectively meaning plans stall out.
Her solution to all of this? Adding another layer of bureaucracy outside of City Administration, to provide information that we already receive.
Among a plan most riddled with problems, perhaps the most damning is how little it actually looks like a plan.
Half of Watson's identified problem is establishing a collaborative relationship with the province, but the policy presented does nothing to increase or foster that collaboration. Voters are simply meant to trust that Watson is the right person to do it.
Trust, based on what? Remember voters were meant to trust that an inspiring platform to push the city forward and was still to come following listening and consulting with Edmontonians.
There's also an intense irony in substantially increasing waste in a policy designed to reduce waste.
Watson proposes that the Chief Accountability Officer would sit outside administration and outline how proposed motions align with existing City objectives and goals, and research how other jurisdictions have accomplished their goals.
We already do that.
Look no further than a report to Executive Committee this Monday on the Growth Investment Strategy.
The report, like every one produced by City Administration concludes with a simple table outlining the metrics that will be used to evaluate how the content of the report aligns with overall city goals and objectives.
Beyond that, the Executive Summary at the start of the report details at length how the proposed strategy directly aligns with the newly-passed City Plan.
In a city as risk-averse as Edmonton there's not a new proposal that doesn't include a component of researching how other jurisdictions have done similar things.
Criticisms of the policy itself aside, that this was chosen as the standard bearer to launch Watson's platform signals to me a campaign struggling to find a reason to exist. Even as a self-identifying political wonk, I struggle to find the effort to care about the issues she's highlighting.
Certainly, I was upset when bad-faith councillors attempted this term to reset tens of millions of dollars of work and decades of planning to upend Valley Line West at the 11th hour. But this policy doesn't address that very real fear other than promising that Watson is such a strong leader that "a collaborative, aligned council" will coalesce behind her.
Edmonton is in the throes of a once-in-a-century global pandemic; our city has virtually no representation in a provincial government that is slashing and burning city supports; we're on the cusp of redesigning for a city of 2 million; and we're about to start construction on the largest — and most expensive — public transit project the city has ever undertaken.
In light of the challenges we're facing, what does Watson choose to target as her launch plank? Establishment of an esoteric office that will deal with the minutiae of council inquiries and processes. Who does this target? Who does this inspire? Where did this come from?
In short, Watson's first platform plank, the one that will — and has — set expectations for her upcoming campaign is very revealing: so far her repertoire of exciting and impactful policy is precisely as empty as many have accused it of being.
As a newcomer candidate, Watson has said at length that she aims to build name recognition and show Edmontonians that she deserves their vote in October.
So far, I only recognize her as someone with an uninspiring campaign that lacks focus.
I reached out to Cheryll's campaign team for comment, I've included the full reply below:
Thanks for the opportunity to comment. You picked up an issue of version control between our media release and the policy statement we published on our website. We’re going to correct this today. Thank you.
A couple of points I will share in advance of this. The policy is meant to address a few current issues:
- Maintaining historical and institutional knowledge on our City Council that is currently at risk should some of our veteran Councilors move on at the end of this term
- The motion assessment and plan alignment work needs to be done up front vs. when the report is completed as it is today
You often talk on Speaking Municipally about:
a) Our city leaders being inconsistent in executing against current strategies and plans
b) Unnecessary pilot projects being created when there are clear demonstrations of program implementation in other cities
We are also assessing our media list to make sure it’s fully representative and that you are included on release distributions going forward. Attaching the related release here.
Yours in collaboration.
I appreciate Watson's willingness to engage with admittedly harsh criticism and she earns credit for owning up to a communication lapse. The press release is more thorough and defines the problem space better.
I'm less convinced that clarifying the problems, which I certainly agree are valid problems, does anything to address the criticism the policy does not seem to effectively mitigate those problems.
Watson certainly appears ready, willing and able to listen and engage. I hope we see more inspiring results of that engagement through the remainder of her campaign.