Mayor Don Atchison’s 20 Not-So-Greatest Hits
Don Atchison was first elected mayor of
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
What follows are 20 issues – in no particular order – that have created controversy during
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 (StarPhoenix, 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
“Everyone was just shocked. I think he just slipped up and spoke his mind.” But
“I’m not getting into any he-said, she said,” the mayor responded.
Other candidates and observers said
“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
Oshanek and Wolf said they saw an exchange of words between
“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.
According to the StarPhoenix,
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
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 (StarPhoenix, 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,
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
In January 2004
“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 (StarPhoenix, 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
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
According to Council OKs contentious big box development (StarPhoenix, 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
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 (StarPhoenix, 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
“I’m hoping we can do that,”
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 (StarPhoenix, February 26, 2004)]
Five weeks later
On April 5, 2004, city council decided to approve an application to Infrastructure
In Library may face choice on new branch (StarPhoenix, April 7, 2004) Atchison said the Saskatoon Public Library may have to choose between building a Riversdale branch and a new central library.
“I don’t know if they can afford both,”
After five years of stalling the cost of building a new main library has now increased to $50-million. [City passes tax hike (StarPhoenix, 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
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.”
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
During the 2003 civic election
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.
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,
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,”
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 (
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
13.) Dress code for visitors to the mayor’s office
On November 4, 2003,
14.) Scaring persons with disabilities
During the 2009 civic election
In the article City eyes recycling plan: mayor (StarPhoenix, October 13, 2009)
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,
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
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
In Breakfast evangelism narrow-minded (StarPhoenix, February 18, 2004), civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein said
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
“In his campaign to become mayor,
In Many leaders have no wives, Mayor Atch (StarPhoenix, 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:
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.
17.) Bending the rules for Lake Placid Developments
On June 23, 2008,
The maximum building height for a hotel at the corner of Second Avenue South and
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.”
The amendments are “minor,” he said. [River Landing hotel can add four storeys (StarPhoenix, June 24, 2008)]
On June 22, 2009, city council granted
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.
“This is absolute certainty now,”
“There’s no more chances.” [
As of October 25, 2009, there has been no word on whether
18.) Amusement Tax fiasco
On March 21, 2005,
In the article Downtown theatre one step closer: City council approves tax breaks for Famous Players (StarPhoenix, 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
“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,
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 (StarPhoenix, 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.”
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 (StarPhoenix, 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,
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.