Mark Rendell

Council Briefs – Dec. 8: City declares right to healthy environment

After much debate and several rewrites, City Council passed a declaration of environmental rights on Monday that Coun. Dan Wong called “the gold standard for declarations for healthy environment that are being passed across the country.”

The declaration outlines a number of rights Yellowknifers should enjoy, such as the right to breathe clean air and access nature, and also directs the City to use triple-bottom-line accounting (measuring social, economic, and environmental impact) when assessing projects.

Although the declaration has little binding power – being neither policy nor legislation – it does set out some loosely defined parameters for City action.

For example, “where threats of serious or irreversible damage to human health or the environment exist, the City of Yellowknife shall take cost effective measures to prevent the degradation of the environment and protect the health of its citizens.”

Coun. Niels Konge criticized the inclusion of this passage, saying “irreversible damage to the environment” might be interpreted so as to prevent blasting rock during construction.

“We have to do things in order just to survive here. I feel that the wording in this could be used to prevent future development,” he said.

In general, councillors didn’t see Konge’s point as particularly worrisome, largely, it seemed, because they understood the document as mostly symbolic.

“If you look at the strategic plan that we adopted, we pretty much addressed all these things,” said Coun. Bob Brooks about the list of “objectives, targets, timelines and actions” the declaration says the City must adopt by next year. He didn’t “see the harm” in the declaration, he said, but suggested it didn’t do much more than centralize existing policies.

This much was echoed by the City’s Senior Administrative Officer Dennis Kefalas, who said an ongoing analysis comparing Calgary’s environmental policies to Yellowknife’s suggested Yellowknife is already covering most of what the declaration demands.

Nonetheless, as Wong, who presented the declaration, argued, the declaration would align Yellowknife with David Suzuki’s Blue Dot Tour. And if nothing else, puts Yellowknife in line with dozens of other cities pushing to get the right to a healthy environment included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms where it will actually have legal teeth – the ultimate goal of the Blue Dot Tour.

YK to host the Canada Winter Games? You may get to decide

To host or not to host? Yellowknifers may get to answer that multi-million dollar question about the Canada Winter Games in a referendum next October if several councillors get their way.

The idea was presented by Wong during Monday’s Municipal Services Committee Meeting, though wasn’t brought forward as an official item to vote on.

“From what I hear, we have a very divided city on a very important and potentially very expensive question,” said Wong. “I don’t think anything could be better or more exciting than the idea of putting the future of the games directly into the hands of Yellowknifers.”

Last Council meeting, councillors voted to establish a task force to investigate the still vague costs associated with the games. Alty along with Coun. Linda Bussey and Coun. Brooks recommended Council wait to get a clearer sense of costs from the task force before deciding whether a referendum is even worthwhile.

“The working group may find the games aren’t even feasible so why go out with a referendum?” asked Coun. Rebecca Alty.

Wong and Coun. Adrian Bell, the two vocal supporters of the plebiscite, suggested it would be best to hold it in conjunction with municipal elections next October.

“If it is an election issue, you’ll hopefully have 15-20 people out there talking about this at doorsteps, and there will be all kinds of dissemination of information, and hopefully administration can work on disseminating factual information,” said Bell.

There was considerable criticism about the idea – mostly from the perspective that a referendum next year would be premature.

“We need to do some groundwork before we can even figure out what the question to be asked in a referendum will be,” said Alty. “I think we need to work with the (Government of the Northwest Territories) and I don’t think we’re going to get an answer (from them) very quickly,” she added. “If the GNWT steps up to take on the athlete’s village then that would completely change the referendum question.”

If a referendum did go ahead, it would cost a minimum of $7,000 to $10,000, whether or not it happened in line with the municipal election.

City agrees to air its own dirty laundry

After wrapping up the Municipal Services departmental review last month, City council decided to look inward with an operational review of council procedures, policies and code of conduct.

The terms of reference are yet to be drafted, but the review will likely look at the rules around election spending, extending the length of councillor’s terms to four years and expanding the scope of the mayor’s powers, perhaps giving them the right to vote, instead of only breaking ties.

“It’s incumbent on any organization, if you want to make improvements then there’s no better place to look than at the top,” said Coun. Cory Vanthuyne, before donning the mayor’s mantle so Mayor Mark Heyck could speak to the issue.

It’s important “to take a look in the mirror and see how well equipped we are as the decision-making governing body,” said Heyck, adding that Council’s current code of conduct is out of date and there are numerous municipal government “best practices” that haven’t made their way to Yellowknife yet.

There was some grumbling from councillors who wanted to focus on other departmental reviews, but Heyck argued now was the right time for this; next year the territorial government will be reviewing the Cities Towns and Villages Act and the review would be a good time for Yellowknife to ruminate on demands it will be making of the GNWT.

And the review will be inexpensive, said Heyck. “Resources can be moved around to support this without any additional line items in our 2015 budget, so there’s no further financial impact.”