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A Tale Of Two Municipal Elections in New Brunswick

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With some time having passed since the municipal elections, there is some space from the euphoria (or disappointment depending on the candidate) of election time to assess what the results mean.

In Saint John, there was a resounding vote for change, with a council of largely new faces and Mel Norton winning against incumbent Ivan Court by a landslide (17,309 to 3,494 votes). Saint John is a city beset by significant challenges -- including a costly pension plan, the need for social housing, cuts to mass transit that hurt the poor and the costs of maintaining city infrastructure.

Ivan Court is someone with a long and commendable record of public service, but these challenges proved difficult; challenges which the new mayor, Norton, and his council will have to face, though the new municipal government does provide a pool of talent -- including Dr. Shelley Rinehart who has taught business at UNBSJ -- which is reason for optimism.

By comparison, Fredericton's municipal election would seem a vote for the status quo. Long-time mayor Brad Woodside was re-elected for an eighth term by a large margin, and most incumbent councillors who re-offered were either re-elected or got in by acclamation.

Woodside can be said to have earned a reputation for unbeatability akin to Mississauga's mayor Hazel McCallion who, at 91, has been mayor since 1978 -- "Hurricane Brad" could be a rightful label alongside "Hurricane Hazel."

Woodside's re-election as mayor was a well-earned one. His tenure has seen the growth of a strong information-technology sector in the city, and the establishment of festivals such as Harvest Jazz, and Blues and Fred Rock that have brought new life to the city's streets and fostered a strong creative community. Furthermore, Woodside has been a strong advocate for protecting provincial government jobs, an important employment sector in the city.

However, there were very strong undercurrents of change in the Fredericton municipal election, even if not as loud or resounding as in Saint John.

Sociology professor Matthew Hayes -- a novice at elected politics and a political unknown -- won almost 40 per cent of the vote against a popular and capable incumbent. His campaign was focused on ideas such as curbing urban sprawl, and promoting sustainable growth that prioritizes walkable downtown-like neighbourhoods over car-dependent developments such as strip-malls and box-stores. Hayes's vote total shows a significant resonance of these ideas among a large section of the city's electorate.

Concerns about sprawl are by no means unique to Fredericton - it is a debate that has occurred across many Canadian cities and communities and rightly should start occurring more in Fredericton. Sprawl-like developments raise environmental concerns in fostering greater car use, infrastructure costs in maintaining roads and services to more far-flung developments, and generic developments (ie. box-stores) that can erode the unique character of cities such as Fredericton.

In Fredericton, strip-mall/boxstore dominated commercial/retail areas such as Prospect Street and Hanwell Road are not the most amenable to walkability. A newer development, Bishops Drive, can be seen as a missed opportunity - it consists of IT-sector employer Q1 Labs, and retail and residential outlets in close proximity. However, the box-store/strip-mall nature of these developments precludes what could have been a truly walkable downtown-like community that could be a hub of entrepreneurship and creativity.

As well, box store developments on the UNB Woodlot - in what was supposed to be a protected wetland area - were controversial with a significant section of Fredericton's electorate. However, the previous council voted unanimously for more widespread development there.

In these respects, it is worth noting the election of several progressive councillors - Leah Levac who defeated incumbent Stephen Kelly in Ward 10, Kate Rogers in Ward 11, and Greg Ericsson in Ward 8. Their election speaks, in part, to a significant section of the electorate concerned about sustainable urban development. In a Conservation Council questionnaire, both Kate Rogers and Greg Ericsson strongly expressed support for a moratorium on UNB Woodlot development, as well as favouring recycling services being extended to apartments and multi-unit dwellings.

With the construction of several large projects around the city - a convention centre and two sports-plexes - there is a real "what next?" moment.

Saint John, Moncton, and Bouctouche have comprehensive plans to promote centralized development and walkable neighbourhoods. There could be a real opportunity for a "Plan Fredericton" involving widespread public consultation with a city-wide discussion of further promoting downtown, and promoting new (or new-ish) developments that are pedestrian friendly along a downtown-like model.

The city's Brookside Mall, which is in close proximity to large residential developments, could hold the opportunity for a re-development into a true community centre - similar policies have occurred in Oakville Ontario's Bronte Village for example, where a strip-mall district is being converted to a mixed-use downtown-like area.

There are real opportunities for Fredericton moving forward that could cement a positive legacy for Brad Woodside. On the surface, the call for change in Fredericton was not as resounding as in Saint John - and Fredericton does not have many of the challenges Saint John faces - but it was there as a significant section of the electorate asserted themselves in the mayoral and council elections.

There is real potential for a new vision moving forward, one that promotes community and collaboration. It is an opportunity that must not be missed.