St. Albert council has approved its Smart City Master Plan after lengthy debates on several amendments.
The plan’s approval at the Oct. 3 meeting paves the way for capital project charters for two-dozen items indicated in the plan to come to council over the next couple of years during budget deliberations.
The plan describes a smart city as “an urban area that solves its core issues through innovation and collaboration, and that applies new technologies and data for the benefit of all.”
Key outcomes include: residents having a safer, more connected and liveable community; businesses supported in testing new ideas and achieving greater commercial success, and the city itself being able to generate efficiencies and innovate.
It includes 22 specific recommended strategies, ranked in order of priority.
The top priority, for example, is accelerating the development of a municipal fibre-optic broadband network faster than one gigabit per second to connect current and future facilities. This could cost $8.5 million to build, but would be offset by saving the $600,000 the city pays annually for private Internet service at one tenth the speed.
“Arguably, the most fundamental requirement for a Smart City is fast broadband connectivity,” the plan states.
Coun. Cathy Heron, who sat on the committee that created the plan and also brought forward the motion to approve the plan, emphasized that simply approving the plan does not mean approving spending money on the strategies included therein.
“Everything will be coming back to council prior to any implementation and any money being spent,” she said.
But that did not convince all of her council colleagues the document was a good step for the city. Her motion passed 4-3, with councillors Sheena Hughes, Cam MacKay and Bob Russell opposed.
Their concerns, articulated at length while council debated several motions to amend the document, had to do with the potential cost associated with several of the recommendations and the potential risk to the city’s coffers for pushing ahead with what they described as unproven strategies and technologies.
MacKay said the main factor in his opposition to the document is the reference to the city potentially acting as an Internet service provider for residents. He described it as a “poison pill” in the plan, arguing the city should not be competing with the private sector.
“That one concept is so damaging, so high risk, that I won’t support this document for that reason,” he said.
Hughes agreed, saying while you shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” she wants the plan to have more emphasis on the “boring common-sense stuff.”
“Government should not be exciting,” she said. “It should be roads, lights, water,” with any excitement coming from things like recreation services.
Coun. Wes Brodhead disagreed with many of the concerns, emphasizing again that approving the plan does not mean council will approve spending money on all – or any – of the recommendations when budget time rolls around.
“I think everybody can take a deep breath here,” he said.
The final version of the plan includes one major amendment to what the draft plan proposed.
Mayor Nolan Crouse brought forward a motion to remove all reference to forming a council committee to oversee the master plan, which passed 4-3 with Heron, Russell and Coun. Tim Osborne opposed.
He argued having a councillor on a committee tends to give an “unfair advantage” to recommendations from that committee when it comes to making decisions at the council table, and noted several other city master plans don’t have their own committees to oversee them.
“I believe we’re setting a precedent having a council committee on a specific subset of stuff,” he said.
Brodhead agreed that votes can appear biased when a councillor sits on the committee making the recommendation.
Russell suggested having come this far with the process it was incumbent on council to see it through with a committee. Heron argued that by not seeing the process through with a committee council was “not really honouring the entire master plan.”
MacKay brought forward three motions to amend the document, all of which were defeated by a 4-3 vote with only Hughes and Russell supporting him.
The first was change the weighting used to establish priorities in the plan by doubling the consideration given to financial benefit and corporate efficiency, suggesting what residents care most about is the bottom line.
“The motivation for someone sitting at home is very simple,” he said. “They want a lower bill and they want better service.”
Other councillors suggested not tinkering with the rating scale, and accepting the committee’s original recommendation.
MacKay’s second motion was to remove mention of the city acting as an Internet service provider (ISP) for residents, which he described as a needlessly risky business venture when the private sector – Telus and Shaw – already provides that service effectively.
Other councillors rejected this amendment, noting it’s purely speculative and just because it’s in the plan, doesn’t mean it will ever be approved.
“In no way shape or form has this council given any direction to form its own ISP,” Osborne said.
MacKay’s third motion was to remove all references to the city being “leading edge,” and several associated terms, suggesting it would mean the city would pay too much for unproven technologies.
Other councillors objected, noting such a change would require a significant rewrite to the entire document and would completely change its intent.
“I never thought we’d be debating motions to strive not to be innovative in our efforts,” Osborne said. “Taking all these terms out just takes it away from being an aspirational plan, and for us being the best we can be.”
He added such a change would mean a complete rewrite of the document.
“Quite frankly, perhaps the document needs a rewrite to take away the high-risk elements,” Hughes replied in support of MacKay’s motion.
“This thing needs a real rewrite,” Russell said. “I don’t like experimenting for unproven things.”