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The first 100 days

// Matt Hirji
// Matt Hirji

It was late in the evening on October 22, 2013 when Don Iveson rose to the podium inside a small ballroom at the modern-chic Matrix Hotel in downtown Edmonton. Moments before, his two main opponents running for mayor, Kerry Diotte and Karen Leibovici, had given their concession speeches. Now it was time for Iveson to give his acceptance speech. He had just officially become Edmonton’s mayor-elect.

“I am humbled and I am thrilled to be your next mayor,” Iveson said, to the cheers of hundreds of people in attendance and those watching on television. “It’s time to stop underestimating Edmonton, and it starts here tonight. … Let’s work together to build the city that we always wanted. Let’s build it!”

With those words he raised his first mayoral fist, smiled his first mayoral smile, and then made a beeline straight to bed.

“I was exhausted,” Iveson says. “Running for mayor is one of the most gruelling things that I’ve ever done.

“There were two hours between when I was the candidate and when I essentially had to start acting like the mayor. Those were the two hours of sleep that I got on election night.”

For Edmonton blogger Mack Male—who worked on Iveson’s campaign—the acceptance speech lived up to his expectations. It was, in his opinion, a manifestation of Iveson’s vision for Edmonton, that he has worked diligently to set into motion during his first 100 days in office. But it was the final three words of Iveson’s speech that had the most impact on the collective consciousness of the City of Champions.

“A lot of people in Edmonton have used the term ‘Let’s build it’ since then,” Male says, who witnessed Iveson’s victory speech in person. “With that phrase he sort of laid out that we’re not going to stop the progress that we’ve made over the past nine years under Mayor Mandel, but we’re going to be smarter about it, we’re going to do it a little better than we’ve done in the past.”

Time flies

On February 6, 2013, Iveson will have officially spent 100 days in Edmonton’s mayoral office. For many politicians—particularly for American presidents—this period represents the apogee of a political career. Granted, because of the inherent differences between Canadian municipal politics and American federal politics, the first 100 days for Iveson has held less importance than for, say, Franklin Roosevelt. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in gauging the political climate in Edmonton over the next several years, it’s important to take stock of how Iveson has fared in his first 100 days at the helm of city hall.

Seven days until officially mayor

Election night.  The climactic moment when hope is at an all-time high, critics at an all-time low. But Iveson wanted to build on the momentum.

One hundred and 20 minutes of sleep later, he woke up and made his way to 1 Churchill Square—city hall. He was still seven days away from being officially sworn in as mayor, but it was time to get to work. Things needed to be built.

Since Iveson had previously spent two terms as a city councillor, today was just like any other—except for two things. The first difference was that instead of taking the west staircase to the offices of the councillors, he took the east staircase up to the office of the mayor.

The second difference became apparent when he made it to the top of those stairs.

“The first half of the day was a whirlwind of media,” Iveson says. “One of the really positive things was that Edmonton media outlets of all stripes wanted to talk to me about the day after the election. But there was considerable interest from the national media as well, which is really positive for Edmonton to be able to put an unexpected story out there about Edmonton, and change perceptions about the city.”

After a few hours the media left to edit and file their stories and the mayor was left, for the first time, to reflect on the campaign and begin to devise a plan for the road ahead.

“And that’s the first and only time that the desk will ever be un-cluttered with papers and stuff to read,” Iveson says. “I had this great sense of possibility, but also this realization that I would have a lot to learn, and there would be a lot coming at me over the next few days. The city manager came to me that afternoon, brought me a bunch of good news, a little bit of bad news, and we’re off.”

Day 1: Off on the right foot

“I will diligently, faithfully and to the best of my ability, execute according to law, the office of chief elected official—mayor—of the City of Edmonton,” a beaming Iveson declared on October 29, 2013. With that oath Iveson officially became the 35th mayor of Edmonton.

There were, however, two notable words he omitted from the festivities: Capital Region. Instead, those two words were synthesized into a single one: Edmonton. According to Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons, Iveson used the city’s proper name as a way to galvanize civic pride. It was classic city building.

“By saying that we live in Edmonton and this is the Edmonton region, that really set a tone for going forward,” Simons says. “It was always capital this, capital that. The phrase is meaningless and it erases Edmonton from the face of the province.

“I think it’s really important if we’re going to market ourselves nationally and internationally. We can’t market ourselves as the capital region; we need to be Edmonton.”

Day 31: The perfect storm

Snowfall in late October is not unusual in a self-described winter city. What was unusual about this winter was that the snow kept falling and piling up. By November 29, nearly 45 centimetres of snow had accumulated in Edmonton—half the city’s average annual snowfall—in one month.

Whether it was because of his next-to-perfect campaign, or because of his youth, both Male and Simons agree that Iveson was cursed with a kind of wunderkind syndrome the moment that he was elected to the mayor’s office.

A galvanized electorate expected perfection. Nothing could possibly go wrong under Iveson’s leadership. And all that snow building up on the city’s roads wasn’t perfect.

“I’m a self-diagnosed recovering perfectionist. [But] the problem with perfection in anything is that it seldom exists in our lives and in our civilization,” Iveson says, reflecting on the troubles he faced in light of the criticism he received from many Edmontonians as the snow continued to build, making the task of clearing that snow from the roads increasingly complex and challenging for city workers.

“For some people, it just seems like unless there’s a city worker catching every snowflake before it hits the ground, they’re not going to be happy. … Those people were really up in my grill that week,” he adds.

To expect perfection from a new mayor, or any politician for that matter, is unreasonable. Iveson never gave into unrealistic expectations. He blogged and tweeted, made radio and television appearances, imploring Edmontonians to be patient. Not every snowflake is going to be cleared from the roads by sunrise.

Now that the snow has settled, Iveson’s response to the snow surplus is considered by many to be his first major success in office.  He showed a calm pragmatism under stress.

“The first crisis in quotation marks was in reaction to people’s reaction to the snow,” Simons says. “And I think that he dealt with that as well as a person could deal with it by being honest about it and communicating with the citizens. He managed public outrage, and that’s not an unimportant thing.”

Day 77: Building a foundation

Iveson hasn’t completed any legacy projects in his first 100 days as mayor. The LRT hasn’t magically made its way to the city’s west end. Nor has anybody witnessed the sudden rise of infills on the land previously occupied by the City Centre Airport. There’s been very little progress to find affordable housing for Edmontonians living in poverty.

What Iveson has accomplished, however, is to yield his charisma to reshape the tone inside city hall. And while this may seem a little more intangible, it’s no small feat for a young leader.

“Culture change is a very subtle thing, but I think it’s happening,” Iveson says. “I’ve worked very hard to establish collegiality with the city staff. We’ve got 10 000 people that come into work to serve the citizens of Edmonton. And I really value their work, and I want them to feel empowered to bring us innovative ideas, tough decisions, and for council to be an honest broker there.”

He has a magnetic personality and isn’t afraid to admit that he’s used his charisma to build the foundation for success as Edmonton’s mayor.

Male explains that Iveson’s charisma goes much further than merely positioning the city for future success. It’s that charisma that’s allowed him to consolidate power in city council.

“The mayor is just one vote out of 13. If council isn’t able to work together, you’re not going to get anything done,” Male says. “Having a council working well together is a positive thing. It’s not super apparent or super visible, but it’s an important foundation piece for the next four years in order to be successful. Not to say that things can’t go off the rails, but he’s started off on the right foot.”

Day 82: Edmonton vs the province of Alberta

Edmonton has a very peculiar regional governance structure, with funding for many of its capital projects coming from regional municipalities like St Albert and Sherwood Park, not to mention the province of Alberta.

Now more than ever, with projects like the expansion of the LRT and other infrastructure improvements on the horizon, Simons explains that Iveson will need to be able to use his charisma to effectively politick with the regional mayors and the provincial government to see these projects through.

“It’s very cumbersome,” Simons says, with a hint of optimism that Iveson is the right person for the job. “Mandel, bless his buttons, diplomacy wasn’t always his longest suit. It’s probably good for the sake of those relationships to have somebody new, but [Iveson] started off sending a very strong signal about the role of Edmonton and Edmonton’s autonomy in the region. For all of his times in office, that’s going to be a persistent issue.”

It’s clear that manoeuvring through the complex jungle of regional politics has already presented itself as a challenge. While there haven’t been any public outbursts between Iveson and the other leaders of governments crammed into the capital region, discord has reared its head.

When Edmonton Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO James Cumming pushed for amalgamation in the region, Iveson was suddenly caught off guard, and alluded to his frustration trying to find a balance between the interests of Edmonton and maintaining strong relations with the surrounding municipalities.

“There have been a couple of times when there was a problem to solve, say a miscommunication with another government, that felt really complicated” Iveson says. “If I have to solve it all on my own it’s pretty daunting, but if I can tap into the smart people who lead this city, we’ve been able to come up with strategies, solve the problems and move ahead.

“I feel like we can take on anything.”

Day 100: Taking on everything, together

Iveson’s first term in office will end on October 21, 2017. That’s a lot of time to mould Edmonton into the great city that he described in his victory speech. For Male, the most pressing challenge for Iveson over the next few years will be trying to find a way to expand the LRT.

“It’s really important for the city; it’s really important for Don.  He’s been pushing for it for a long time. He wants to move that forward and he needs to figure out a way to do it,” Male says. “I think he would be very disappointed if in a few years from now his term is wrapping up and we’re no further along with how the LRT is going to roll out.”

Simons sees many more hurdles standing in front of the newly minted mayor. Iveson needs to figure out a way to manage the expectations of voters without substantively raising taxes. He has to keep the downtown arena on budget and on time. He has to find a way to keep the streets clear of snow. And, not least of all, he has to figure out a way to keep our city safe from flooding.

“Drainage is not sexy, and it’s something that Iveson has spent a lot of time thinking about,” Simons says. “But he knows as well as anyone, that we need a major investment in our sewage and drainage system. Everybody can get excited about choo-choo trains, nobody even wants to think about the sewage system.”

Now, everything falls on the desk of the mayor. Despite the ups and downs of the first 100 days in office, the always optimistic Iveson remains just that: optimistic that he can build Edmonton into the city that he’s always dreamt it to be. But not without the help of the rest of us.

“Yes. I feel challenged by expectations, sometimes. The general rule of thumb is under-promise and over-deliver. And the good news is that Edmontonians are really excited for the future for the first time in a long time,” Iveson says. “I turn back around and say Edmontonians need to sustain that optimism themselves. And they need to do it by contributing to community, and by being entrepreneurial, by being community minded, by being good citizens. That’s what makes it happen. I’m not the city builder. There are 840 000 city builders out there. I’m a coordinator, I’m a champion, I can lead, but I only hope that Edmontonians feel energized and go out and actually do the work, too. If we all stay energized, we can meet those expectations.”

 

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