Iqaluit mayor trying to deliver after “talking smack” a year ago

“Polarizing” Kenny Bell reflects on his rookie year

Reflecting on his first year in office, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell called the experience “amazing.” For Bell, it’s a much different feeling than when he was a councillor from 2012 to 2015. “I didn’t enjoy it,” he said, “but now, this time, I’m taking the time to enjoy the moments that I’m in, the interviews, the meetings, the council meetings.” (Photo by Dustin Patar)

By Dustin Patar

A day after Kenny Bell was elected mayor of Iqaluit a little more than a year ago, he knew he needed to focus on the future to put his money where his mouth was.

“I talked a lot of game, I talked a lot of smack. Now I have to prove it, and I plan on doing that,” he said in an interview in October 2019.

Bell’s previous term as a city councillor began in 2012 and was tainted by his reputation for being outspoken during council meetings, earning him the ire of some, a feeling fuelled by his tumultuous departure from council in 2015.

“I think people are going to come around once they realize that I’m not the same guy that was at council,” he said last year.

Now, when asked whether he has accomplished that, Bell responded, “absolutely.”

“I’m a polarizing individual,” he said in a recent interview, looking back on his first year in office. “But I do believe that if you talk to any of the citizens just randomly, their outlook on what’s happening at the city compared to a year ago, would be drastically different than what they would have thought.”

Historic issues, future growth

Even before he was elected to the city’s top job, Bell’s focus was on infrastructure and at the top of that list was the city’s ability to provide water.

“We can’t really do anything without fixing our water crisis right now,” he said during an interview as he took office a year ago.

Since then, water has remained a priority and the city has continued to remedy existing issues while also planning for the future.

Between water conservation initiatives and repairs to the water distribution network, Iqaluit has seen a 22 per cent decrease in water demand between April and September of this year, compared to the same period last year.

Due to the work by the last council, pumping from the Apex River was able to begin during the spring melt this year and when combined with the city’s other initiatives, helped avert a third year of water-related emergency declarations.

Despite these fixes, the city will need to come up with long-term solutions to account for future growth. By 2040, it’s estimated that the amount of water storage needed will be more than double what is stored in Lake Geraldine today.

In September, the city was presented with three options for future storage options and it’s expected that a long-term water supply pre-feasibility study will be completed by early next year.

Much like the issue of water, many of the city’s other accomplishments of the past year were fixes to existing problems that will allow the city to grow in the future.

Among those accomplishments are major upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, the start of roadwork that will one day lead to the future waste transfer station that is part of a larger waste management project, the launch of a transportation master plan, multiple beach cleanups and later this year, the new city hall will open.

In addition to infrastructure projects, Bell noted that council has also been cleaning up and updating old policies and bylaws, including a new traffic bylaw, an upcoming land administration bylaw, the removal of an opening prayer in favour of a moment of silence during council meetings and recent work on developing regulations for the building of cabins on city property.

“We’ve done a lot of work in this first year and we put in a lot of hours,” said Bell, who not only gave credit to council members but also to city staff, including chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma.

“We are making things move,” he said.

A human touch

One of the reasons Bell ran for office last year was because he disagreed with the way the previous council went about doing some things.

“They did work well and they did a lot of things but they were more like a machine,” said Bell, recalling that, for him, a sense of community and human touch was missing.

A year ago Bell had talked about his desire to host public events that would allow residents to ask questions of himself and fellow councillors in an effort to restore that sense of community, but after he hosted just one such event, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Not only did this stop those events, but it also changed the way Bell could interact with council.

“With the COVID restrictions that came in, we weren’t allowed to meet with each other for a long time,” Bell said.

“That really did put a damper on it.”

The effects of the pandemic also delayed the opening of the new city hall and the hiring of new city staff.

Despite the setbacks, Bell says the city has still been able to bring back some approaches with a human touch.

For him, one way this is apparent is with the creation of the cemetery advisory committee.

The committee, which began by looking at ways to fix the beleaguered cemetery, was recently given an additional task.

Because the pandemic hampered travel, Bell wasn’t able to use all of his mayor’s travel budget, so instead, some of those funds were used to cover the funeral costs of Adamie Inookee, a long-time Iqaluit resident and respected elder.

Following that, council unanimously advanced the idea and tasked the committee with coming up with ways, in partnership with other organizations and governments, to cover funeral costs for Iqaluit’s residents who need it.

“This is something that council firmly believes is a good move for the city, it’s not going to cost us that much and it’s going to save a lot of heartache,” Bell said.

“I couldn’t be more proud.”

“It never stops”

It hasn’t just been the city that’s moved forward and grown over the past year. Bell says that he has too.

Although Bell worked at the Government of Nunavut as a public servant for 15 years, the transition to being a politician was a learning experience.

“It’s a different world,” he said.

Even his previous experience with the city didn’t fully prepare him for the new role, though Bell also noted that spending four years away from council likely didn’t help.

“There’s a lot of things that you just don’t see as a councillor,” he said.

“I try as much as possible to keep council informed of things that are going on that may pop up or that are emergencies … but there are so many things going on, it never stops.”

From meetings and letter writing to events and unexpected problems that may arise, Bell has learned that the job takes 100 per cent commitment, something that’s altered his perspective on his predecessor, Madeleine Redfern.

“I didn’t give as much credit as I could have to Madeleine and I do feel sorry for that,” said Bell.

“It’s easier to judge than actually do.”

While Bell feels as though his council is doing better, he said there continues to be room for more progress.

“We are doing better, the last council did better, the council before that did better and the council after us is going to do better,” said Bell.

“We’re putting them [the next council] in a position that they won’t have to do as much as us, just as the last council did.”

Before that time comes, Bell and the other members of Iqaluit’s city council have three more years left in their terms and a lot they hope to accomplish.

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