BARRHEAD- Town of Barrhead mayor Dave McKenzie said the 2021 municipal election campaign should be an interesting one.
Not only because of the potential debate of ideas and platforms but because of how the pandemic limited public engagement opportunities.
Although the province has lifted the vast majority of its COVID-19 public health restrictions on July 1, the lingering impact of the pandemic will likely play a significant role in how candidates interact with the public.
McKenzie, who is in his first term as mayor, is the second person to announce their intention to run for mayor. Liam Sorenson announced his candidacy two weeks ago.
McKenzie first came to Barrhead in 1992 as a senior RCMP constable. He quickly became embedded in the community becoming involved in the Barrhead Indoor Sport and Cultural Association (which morphed into the Barrhead Combative Arts) as part of the judo club and the Barrhead and District Drug Coalition, now known as Barrhead CARES.
After retiring from the RCMP in 2004, McKenzie served two consecutive terms as a Town of Barrhead councillor. Taking a one-term break, he returned to municipal politics in 2017, running for the mayor's chair, defeating challenger Mark Vriend.
"It is hard to know how to campaign. In the previous campaigns, I have done a lot of door-knocking, but depending on whose door you knock on, because of the pandemic, some people might not be comfortable with that," he said, adding he hopes there will be a chance for candidates to express themselves during a public, in-person pre-election forum.
Regardless, McKenzie says it is important for residents to reach out to candidates to tell them their concerns.
Highlights of the current term
One of the highlights of a challenging first term for this council, McKenzie said, was to continue the work their predecessors began on improving their relationship with the County of Barrhead.
"When I was campaigning the last time, the comment or question I received the most was, 'what are you going to do to improve the relationship between the town and county councils?"
He said although the town and county have always had a good relationship, the relationship had been turbulent on certain issues, namely recreation funding.
McKenzie noted the relationship started to improve when the municipalities signed a 10-year recreation funding agreement after going through a binding arbitration process mandated by the province.
While recreation funding is often a sticking point between municipalities McKenzie said that they were able to put that behind them, both councils were able to start the work improving the relationship.
In addition to having a strong working relationship in areas that the municipalities partner on, such as fire services, the airport and the landfill, McKenzie finds councils share similar philosophies in other areas.
"We are very intuned with each other in regards to development, marketing, and tourism. And although we are both working separately on these items, we are also working towards common goals. The reeve and I have lots of discussions about what is going on," he said.
The other question residents asked McKenzie was what was he going to do about crime.
He said the creation of the Barrhead and Area Regional Crime Coalition (BARCC) went a long way in combating the issue.
BARCC is a partnership between Woodlands County, the Town of Barrhead and the County of Barrhead, as well as the Barrhead RCMP and Rural Crime Watch.
"It has done a lot in addressing crime in the town," McKenzie said. "You are not going to stop it all, but we have put a dent in it ... and the community is much more aware of what is going on.
In December 2019, in response to the rise of rural crime in the province, the UCP tweaked the funding model to require communities under 5,000 people to chip in towards the cost of policing, totalling more than $286 million over five years.
One concern the municipality has, McKenzie said, that they don't know if the province expects to shoulder more of the costs.
"There are different formulas that have been put forward, but nothing concrete,” he said.
He also said he is also concerned that the costs of policing may go up dramatically if the United Conservative Party (UCP) replaces the RCMP with a provincial police force. In May 2020, Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel (FDP) recommended that the province create an Alberta police service to replace the RCMP.
The UCP created the FDP in the fall of 2019. Its purpose was to identify ways that Alberta could increase its autonomy within Canada.
Since the FDP announcement, several rural municipalities (including the Barrhead municipalities) have written Premier Jason Kenney and Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu stating their ongoing wish to have the RCMP as their police service.
He said council has asked to see the final report the province is compiling (it was to have been completed in April) on the viability of creating a provincial police force to replace the RCMP.
Another challenge the town will have to face in the coming years is the reduction in its Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding.
Starting in 2022, the province will cut the MSI funding pot by 25 per cent over two years as it phases out the program and replaces it with a new type of infrastructure funding.
"Where it creates an issue for council is priority setting," McKenzie said. "There was a time when we could do a street project every year; now with continued cutbacks, it is more like every three years."
He also added new, temporary funding sources also present themselves, and municipalities must be ready to take advantage of them, noting that is how the municipality was able to fund the recently completed Main Street revitalization project.
Looking to the future
McKenzie said the community has a lot to look forward to in the coming years. He is particularly excited about the addition of a new all-wheel park.
He said the park, which was just made public in recent weeks, has been in the works for several years, being discussed at various committees for several years.
"With the kids talking about how they would like to see something, we decided it was time to make it a priority," McKenzie said.
However, he said before going public, council decided to wait until they had something tangible to present.
McKenzie also believes the town can use its recent rebranding initiative as a launchpad to create new economic development and tourism opportunities.
"Council has good relationships with the [Chamber of Commerce] and the Main Street Merchants' Association and there is a lot of opportunities for our business community by maintaining good communication," he said.
McKenzie used the example of the Good Sam rally that happened in Rich Valley about two years ago.
"They contacted me months in advance," he said." I was able to talk to our business community and let them know that there would be an influx of hundreds of RVers to the area. Because they knew about it, they were able to take advantage of the situation, set up an information table, invite them to the community and their businesses."
McKenzie also noted that a potential developer has expressed serious interest in the municipality's 14-acre lands — commonly referred to as the Schneider Lands, on the west side of town, just north of the apartment buildings along 53rd Street and south of the Shepherd’s Care facility. In October 2020, another developer purchased a three-acre parcel of the lands. The sale just recently was finalized.
He added that the old Champions Feed property has also been sold, so things are looking up.
"We very rarely celebrate our accomplishments and our victories. We need to do more of that. Barrhead is an amazing community and we need to celebrate and showcase what the community has to offer," McKenzie said.