Don Atchison was first elected mayor of Saskatoon
on October 22, 2003.
Since 2004 property taxes have gone up nearly 23 per cent and the city’s long-term debt has exploded from $23-million to a projected $156-million by the end of this year.
The city’s operating budget has risen 53 per cent and capital spending has increased a whopping 251 per cent. And to make matters worse the city is facing its fourth straight year of deficits and the rainy day fund that city council uses to help balance the budget as required by law has run dry.
Then there’s River Landing where costs have tripled from $42-million to $135-million. Enough said.
For a growing number of people it seems Atchison
has overstayed his welcome by about six years.
What follows are 20 issues – in no particular order – that have created controversy during Atchison
’s reign.1.) Alleged racial remark
At a civic election public forum held at the First Nations University of Canada on October 19, 2006, Mayor Don Atchison was alleged to have uttered a racial remark and to have said something that offended a fellow candidate.
According to the article Mayors’ race turns ugly: Mayor, challenger have altercation
, October 21, 2006) several witnesses said Atchison came under fire from spectators who demanded a further explanation for the decision made earlier in the year by the board of police commissioners -- of which he is chair -- not to renew former police chief Russell Sabo’s contract.
Mayoral candidate Ron Kocsis said the incumbent eventually responded to the questions by telling the forum Sabo was “too aboriginal-friendly” for Saskatoon
Those were Atchison
’s exact words, Kocsis said in an interview on October 20, 2006.
“Everyone was just shocked. I think he just slipped up and spoke his mind.” But Atchison
said in a phone interview he never suggested Sabo’s departure was linked to his friendliness toward First Nations.
“I’m not getting into any he-said, she said,” the mayor responded.
Other candidates and observers said Atchison
’s response was less inflammatory and more like his previous explanations for Sabo’s departure.City Park
community association president Tom Wolf, who was seated in the front row, said regardless of Atchison
’s word choice, his comments appeared to be taken by most people in the room -- Kocsis included -- as a suggestion that Sabo was let go because he had a strong focus on the aboriginal community.
Kocsis says Atchison
later made a disparaging remark to him while they were sitting next to each other at the debate table during a closing speech by mayoral candidate Lenore Swystun
. Kocsis says Atchison
gave him an up-and-down stare and said, “A guy like you wants to be mayor?” followed by a derisive snort.
“I don’t know what he meant -- is it because I’m First Nations that he would say that?” Moderator Daryl Oshanek confirmed Kocsis interrupted the proceedings after Swystun’s speech to demand an apology from Atchison
, and Atchison
Oshanek and Wolf said they saw an exchange of words between Atchison
and Kocsis just before Kocsis demanded an apology, but they could not hear what was said.
“Strong offence was taken by Mr. Kocsis, and it was palpable. We were shifting uncomfortably,” Wolf recalled.2.) Police Chief Russell Sabo’s contract
At a press conference held March 2, 2006, the city’s board of police commissioners announced that police chief Russell Sabo’s contract would not be renewed. Mayor Don Atchison, who chairs the police commission, said Sabo had done a good job, but would not explain why the decision was made. Atchison
said the board did not disagree with the direction in which Sabo was taking the force. He also refused to reveal whether the board voted unanimously to oust the chief.
According to the StarPhoenix
said police chiefs in Canada
generally only last three to four years in their jobs. Sabo has been in Saskatoon
almost five years, “and we feel that it’s time that we in fact do the same thing (as other cities),” the mayor said. [Police chief out of a job: Board offers little explanation of decision
, March 3, 2006)]3.) Mendel Art Gallery
In October 2005 the city floated the idea of moving the Mendel to River Landing. The plan was roundly criticized. Former director Terry Graff and the gallery’s board of trustees had the courage to stand up to the city and reject the plan.
On December 7, 2005, city council put the screws to the Mendel by placing the gallery third behind the Victoria Bridge
and Persephone Theatre on the city’s list of priorities for federal centennial funding. Officials with Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) warned the city that the bridge might not be appropriate for the funding but the city put it on the list anyway. Furthermore, the city does not own Persephone and yet WD allowed the city to submit their name.
Graff resigned October 31, 2007, when the Mendel board decided not to renew his contract, which was set to expire October 2008.
Although he had the option to complete his contract, Graff chose to step down.
“I needed the board’s complete support and confidence in what they approved,” he said, referring to a recent five-year business plan for the gallery that was approved by the board.
“To not renew my contract runs contradictory to accepting the plan,” said Graff. [Graff paints positive picture of Mendel
, November 2, 2007)]
The majority of the Mendel board is appointed by city council.
On April 3, 2009, Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight announced that the nationally recognized gallery would be renamed and moved into a new building at River Landing. The long planned $24-million expansion and renovation of the Mendel would be abandoned. The public, Mendel family, donors and supporters were never consulted.
It was at a closed-door meeting on March 23, 2009, that the city’s executive committee decided to approve in principle, a new art gallery as the anchor facility at River Landing Destination Centre.
The only reason we know this is because a private citizen made a freedom of information request.
On September 23, 2009, Atchison
participated in a press conference announcing funding for the $58-million facility. The city’s contribution is approximately $17-million, plus $7-million for an underground parkade. Atchison
was quoted by CBC News as saying the city’s portion “will come out of our capital projects.”
At no point in time was the issue debated at a public meeting of city council. It was all done in secret.4.) Disregard for the city’s built heritage
On Mayor Don Atchison’s watch the city lost two major pieces of built heritage: The Gathercole building (former Saskatoon Technical Collegiate, built in 1931) and the nearby Royal Canadian Legion, Branch #63 built in 1929 by local veterans of the First World War. Both were cited by the Heritage Canada Foundation (HCF) as being among the worst losses of heritage in Canada
In January 2004 Atchison
told the StarPhoenix
he wasn’t interested in spending public money on the Gathercole site.
“For the life of me, I can’t believe we would take federal, provincial or municipal dollars on a site where the private sector has been knocking at the door.” [How federal cash will be spent focus of mayor, Goodale meeting
, January 16, 2004)]
Since then at least $70-million has been spent or committed to the site. With that much money the Gathercole and Legion buildings could have been renovated three or four times over.
Currently on the HCF’s Top 10 list of endangered buildings is St. Mary Community School in Pleasant Hill
, the city’s oldest Catholic school built in 1913. It is being demolished to create green space. Atchison
supports the plan.5.) Voted to use library taxes for interchange
At the June 27, 2005, city council meeting Mayor Don Atchison voted against instructing city administration to negotiate with FirstPro Shopping Centres that 50 percent of the overpass located at Clarence Avenue
and Circle Drive be paid by FirstPro. The developer agreed to pay only 20 percent.
According to Council OKs contentious big box development
, June 28, 2005), Mike Gilman, project manager for FirstPro Shopping Centres ‘told council before its vote that he doubted FirstPro would have a “real appetite to continue” trying to build the mall, if its terms weren’t accepted.’
At the February 27, 2006, city council meeting Atchison
voted in favour of dedicating incremental municipal and library property taxes on the FirstPro Shopping Centre property for 15 years to help finance the construction of the Clarence Avenue
and Circle Drive overpass.
Council’s decision cleared the way for FirstPro to begin building a giant Wal-Mart before the interchange is built even though city administrators and council had previously insisted that the interchange be finished prior to the opening of the first store.
In Rushing ahead with interchange cause for unease
, March 1, 2006), the newspaper’s editorial board wrote: “Atchison and others are on record saying that no shopping centre would be opened unless an interchange is in place to avoid traffic snarls and for safety reasons. Now, it appears that a big box shopping centre expected to generate traffic of 2,500 vehicles an hour during Saturday peaks could open with just a temporary traffic control light.”6.) Shafted the Saskatoon Public Library
In February 2004 Atchison said he was willing to commit $5 million toward renovation of The Bay building for an expanded downtown library, pending city council’s approval.
The funds made up one-third of $15 million in federal strategic infrastructure funds earmarked for Saskatoon
“I’m hoping we can do that,” Atchison
said in an interview. “I understand (the library’s) concerns and needs for a new facility. The last thing we need is for The Bay to come down, the (Bay) parkade to come down and the King George Hotel
to come down.”
The then library board chair, Ian Wilson, said a newly constructed downtown library would be a $30-million project. Renovation of an existing building is substantially cheaper, depending on The Bay building’s condition, at $15 million to $20 million. [Mayor proposes cash for library in Bay building
, February 26, 2004)]
Five weeks later Atchison
reneged on the arrangement.
On April 5, 2004, city council decided to approve an application to Infrastructure Canada
that asked for all of the federal money to be spent on the A.L. Cole site (now River Landing Phase II).
In Library may face choice on new branch
, April 7, 2004) Atchison said the Saskatoon Public Library may have to choose between building a Riversdale branch and a new central library.
The 20th Street West
Branch was an unexpected addition to the city’s south riverfront development plan that was unveiled April 5, 2004. The library board had earlier asked the city to consider support for a new central library.
“I don’t know if they can afford both,” Atchison
said in an interview. “I don’t know if we can find the money for them. They’re going to have to make a decision.
After five years of stalling the cost of building a new main library has now increased to $50-million. [City passes tax hike
, April 8, 2009)]7.) Supported devastating condo conversions
From September 2006 to July 2008 the city experienced an incredible string of 23 consecutive months of double-digit house price increases. Average house prices doubled and vacancy rates plummeted.
It wasn’t until June 2007, nine months into the crisis, that Atchison
admitted there was a problem and that political action was necessary.
It took Atchison
seventeen months — when house price increases were above 50 per cent — to finally acknowledge, in January 2008, that the issue had become the city’s top priority.
From 2006 to 2008 the city approved the conversion of 2,027 apartments to condominiums.
On June 27, 2009, the StarPhoenix
reported that “most agree” the conversions “cut the supply of rental apartments, helped drive rents higher and ushered in a wrenching period of uncertainty for many existing tenants.”Atchison
is on record as supporting condo conversions.8.) Abuse of process
At city council’s September 19, 2005, meeting Mayor Don Atchison told councillors there would no debate on the proposed River Landing Destination Complex. They could speak only once and were limited to five minutes. The arrogant heavy-handed tactics meant there was no chance for rebuttal. Mayor Atchison also arbitrarily reserved the right to speak last, which Councillor Tiffany Paulsen described as an “abuse of process”.9.) Reduced public members on police board
At the December 1, 2003, city council meeting Mayor Don Atchison voted in favour of reducing the number of public members on the board of police commissioners from four to two. This was part of Atchison
’s plan to seize the chair of the police board.
During the 2003 civic election Atchison
said, “We need a police commission with the Mayor as the Chair to make the commission accountable to Council directly.”
However, the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners does not report to city council. The police board is an independent board that is not supervised by city council. The supervisor of the board is the Saskatchewan Police Commission, and ultimately the Minister of Justice – not city council. The purpose of an independent board is to act as a buffer or insulator between the police and city council. Atchison
failed to understand this important concept.
At the time of the 2003 civic election the chair of the police board was Leanne Bellegarde Daniels, a citizen. It didn’t take long for new mayor Don Atchison to challenge her position.
In the November 5, 2003, StarPhoenix
made it clear that “come Jan. 1, I certainly intend on being the chair.”
On November 6, 2003, Bellegarde Daniels resigned her position as chair of the police commission.
On November 20, 2003, the board named Mayor Don Atchison as chair.10.) Failure to read Neil Stonechild report
On October 26, 2004, Justice David Wright released a scathing report into the November 1990 freezing death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild in the city’s north industrial area implicating the Saskatoon Police Service.
Ten days later, on November 5, 2004, the StarPhoenix
reported that Mayor Don Atchison hadn’t “thoroughly read the report because of a full schedule.”
“I’m not trying to duck out, just tell you the straight goods -- that I haven’t read the whole report yet,” Atchison
said, before catching a flight to Toronto
, where he was to attend meetings later that day. [Mayor yet to endorse Wright report: Atchison has not read all of Stonechild report
, November 5, 2004)]11.) Lack of openness and transparency
During Atchison’s first term as mayor the city’s executive committee, which is composed of all members of council with the mayor sitting as chair, conducted at least 22 special closed-door meetings. This is in addition to the committee’s regularly scheduled in-camera meetings. The public does not have access to the agenda or minutes for these meetings.12.) Rob Dee and Associates regional retail study
On December 16, 2002, City Council authorized a Regional Retail Study in the 2003 Capital Budget (project 2035).
In February 2003, the city contracted the services of Rob Dee and Associates (Ontario
), in association with Fast Consulting (Saskatoon
), to undertake a Retail/Service Space Needs and Distribution Study for Saskatoon
On February 9, 2004, City Council received the Retail/Service Space Needs and Distribution Study as information.
At the meeting Mike Gilman, First Pro Shopping Centres, advised council that their application for development has been put on hold for over a year waiting for the Retail Study to be completed, and expressed concerns with some of the aspects of the study.
Against administration’s recommendation city council resolved to reject “that the introduction of new, major retail locations into the Saskatoon market occur in a phased approach over time, as warranted demand for retail space grows city-wide.” The vote was 10-1. Mayor Don Atchison was one of the ten that voted to toss the $120,000 taxpayer funded report.
“We need to send a message to the private sector that Saskatoon
is going to become the most business-friendly city by 2006,” said Atchison
, referring to a resolution passed by a previous council. [City council opts for flexible plan to develop retail
, February 11, 2004)]13.) Dress code for visitors to the mayor’s office
On November 4, 2003, Atchison
arrogantly introduced a dress code for visitors to his office. Public reaction was swift and harsh. On November 5, 2003, the dress code was rescinded.14.) Scaring persons with disabilities
During the 2009 civic election Atchison
resorted to scaring persons with disabilities and using them to get re-elected.
In the article City eyes recycling plan: mayor
, October 13, 2009) Atchison
said a city-run blue-box curbside recycling program would mean a tax increase of a minimum $144 per year and result in SARCAN Recycling workers ending up “out on the street.”
SARCAN has grown to support recycling efforts in 62 communities through 71 depots. Its last annual report shows 2008 was the forth consecutive year that container returns have grown by more than seven per cent. With more than $35 million in deposit returns going to the public last year, it’s unlikely that residents will abandon SARCAN because of a blue box program.
In the article, Atchison
said the city is studying a “unique” subsidy program involving Saskatoon Curbside Recycling, a private for profit firm, which will likely require some sort of subsidization. This means taxpayers will still pay.
The Saskatoon Curbside Recycling website says the cost of their service is $15 per household per month, plus GST. This works out to $189 per year, which is less than the $144 a month Atchison
is trying to alarm people with.15.) Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast
With the election of Don Atchison as mayor came the return of the elitist Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. The annual event was held February 14, 2004, at the Centennial Auditorium (now TCU Place
managed to offend a lot of people.
In Breakfast evangelism narrow-minded
, February 18, 2004), civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein said Atchison
told the crowd of about 800: “If you don’t believe in God or if you don’t believe in a Supreme Being, I honestly don’t know how you can go anywhere in life.”
Klein took exception to what he was hearing.
“It’s one thing to hold Christian views… and quite another to use one’s office to propagate the faith. This is something one expects from fundamentalist regimes, not in liberal democracies such as Canada
,” he said.
“In his campaign to become mayor, Atchison
made it clear there was no place in Saskatoon
for those who didn’t respect law and order. Given his officially held view (it was the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, not Atchison
’s), one wonders how welcome are those who don’t hold his beliefs.”
In Many leaders have no wives, Mayor Atch
, February 18, 2004) columnist Joanne Paulson lambasted Atchison for making this comment: “This is called the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, but it’s not just for the mayor. It should be called a ‘Leader’s Breakfast,’ because it is for all the leaders in the community and their wives or significant others.” [Prayers support mayor: Saskatoon faith community resumes annual breakfast
, January 31, 2004)]
To which Paulson shot back, “I can think of several leaders in this community who do not have wives. Shall I list them for you, Mayor Atchison?”
“The mayor wasn’t using some bizarre updated use of the term, when he suggested that the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast was for city leaders and their wives or significant others. And I’m afraid he can’t wriggle out of this by suggesting “significant others” refers to “everybody else including husbands, partners, and spouses of every description.” He meant male leaders and their wives or girlfriends, or he would have said “wives, husbands, or significant others,” Paulson wrote.
“I would also like to know what his definition of leader is.”16.) Sweetheart deal for Remai Ventures
The city’s appraised value of the 2.43-acre spa hotel site on the former Gathercole site was $2.9 million. The city sold it to Remai Ventures Inc. for only $1.6 million.
On December 12, 2005, Atchison voted in favour of a deal in which Remai Ventures Inc. received a total of $3.1 million in tax incentives from the city over the course of the spa hotel’s construction and its first four years of operation.Atchison
had previously said there would be no tax breaks or subsidies on the hotel site and that the city must receive every dollar of the land’s value.17.) Bending the rules for Lake Placid Developments
On June 23, 2008, Atchison
voted in favour of unfairly bending the rules to allow Lake Placid
to build River Landing’s hotel four storeys higher than zoning guidelines permit.
The maximum building height for a hotel at the corner of Second Avenue South and Spadina Crescent
was eight storeys. Council passed an amendment to the site’s special zoning allowing the hotel to rise to 12 storeys.
Councillor Charlie Clark said two developers told him they might have submitted proposals had they known the city would be flexible with the zoning rules.
“I have some real questions about the fairness of the process. I question, when this is what the competition was based on, going back and changing the rules now.”Atchison
didn’t seem to care about the integrity of the process.
The amendments are “minor,” he said. [River Landing hotel can add four storeys
, June 24, 2008)]
On June 22, 2009, city council granted Lake Placid
an extension to June 30, 2010, to complete all excavation required for the development of Parcel “Y”, River Landing Phase I, provided that payment in full for Parcel “Y” was received no later than 5:00 p.m., Monday, August 17, 2009. The original deadline to complete the excavation was June 30, 2009.Lake Placid
subsequently missed the August 17, 2009, deadline.
At a special city council meeting held August 19, 2009, Atchison voted in favour of giving the developer another extension to 5 p.m., October 30, 2009, to pay the balance of the Purchase Price for each of Parcel Y and the Lane Adjacent to Parcel Y to 5:00 p.m., October 30, 2009, provided that all interest accrued under both Agreements, totalling $214,197.19, is paid on August 31, 2009.Atchison
voted against amendments to change the deadline from October 30, 2009, to September 15, 2009, or September 30, 2009.
“This is absolute certainty now,” Atchison
said of the Oct. 30 deadline. “You heard me at the end there tell Mr. Lobsinger if he doesn’t come up with the $214,197.14, the deal is finished, or if he doesn’t come up with the money for the land, it’s terminated as well.
“There’s no more chances.” [Lake Placid gets time
, August 20, 2009)]
As of October 25, 2009, there has been no word on whether Lake Placid
has made the required payment.18.) Amusement Tax fiasco
On March 21, 2005, Atchison
voted in favour of tax breaks for Famous Players who planned to build a 12-screen theatre complex on Block 146. The decision created an unlevel playing field for other theatres.
In the article Downtown theatre one step closer: City council approves tax breaks for Famous Players
, March 22, 2005), it was reported that the tax breaks included an annual grant refunding the amusement tax to Famous Players. Famous Players would also collect a 100 per cent property tax break on the theatre in its first year, dropping to 80 per cent in the second, 60 per cent in the third, 40 per cent in the fourth and 20 per cent in the fifth. Famous Players had asked for a 100 per cent abatement for seven years.
The city did not commit to extending the same incentive to the existing downtown theatres run by Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players.
The city’s business incentives are designed to target housing to downtown, all forms of business to core neighbourhoods and industry in general, not movie theatres.
On June 25, 2007, city council finally voted in favour of abolishing the amusement tax but Atchison
refused to support the move noting council had defeated a motion to kill the tax when it passed the city budget.
“I don’t know how you can pass things that were defeated. . . . To pass this today, you’re sending a very bad message.”
Instead of killing the tax now, the city should have waited until later in the year when it knows if it’s running a surplus or deficit, Atchison
said. [Council axes tax
, June 26, 2007)]19.) Special deal for Persephone Theatre
In a deal approved by city council on December 7, 2005, Persephone Theatre will receive a five-year tax incentive under which the non-profit theatre will pay no taxes in its first year of operation in the new building, with discounts of 80, 60, 40 and 20 per cent in each of the following four years. The theatre will be exempt from property taxes during construction.
In Curtain call for theatre
, December 8, 2005), it was reported that “Persephone will buy a parcel of land at the corner of Second Avenue and Saunders Place for $30 per square foot, or about $888,600.
Mayor Don Atchison said that’s the appraised value of the land, not a reduced price.”
did not mention, however, was that the land was originally valued at $32.50 per square foot.
On December 5, 2005, the city advised Persephone that it had obtained a fresh appraisal that differentiated between the values of the north half and the south half of the River Landing cultural block. The north half was valued at $30 and the south half, being closer to the river, was valued at $36. Accordingly, the city reduced Persephone’s cost to $30 per square foot, and that was the price reflected in Persephone’s purchase agreement.20.) Contempt for city council
In Transit shuttles need tweaking
, September 14, 2005) civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein wrote: “Another issue in which (Councillor) Birkmaier was correct but which received little attention last week was over a letter Mayor Don Atchison was charged with writing to the CRTC advising that council has no objection to an application by the CBC for a local FM licence. The CBC wants to improve the reception for its programming in the city.
Although council agreed to the letter on Aug. 15 – with a deadline of Aug. 31 – Atchison received a letter from Vic Dubois, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Broadcasters, a couple of days later asking the city not send a letter.
Without seeking the advice of councillors, Atchison
decided he would ignore the wish of council. As Birkmaier pointed out, by doing so he subverted the wishes of council. It may seem a small thing, but councillors and citizens should have the confidence that when they pass a motion, it is acted upon. Failing that, the mayor should have personally contacted his colleagues and made sure a majority supported his change of heart.”
It should be noted that the letter from Vic Dubois to Mayor Don Atchison was dated August 19, 2005. It was received by the mayor’s office on August 22, but not by the city clerk until August 31. It appears the mayor’s office held onto the letter for nine days.