Dogged by controversy, not one council member seeks re-election in Chestermere

An extremely rare electoral event is unfolding in Chestermere where not a single incumbent is seeking re-election, becoming the only Alberta village, town or city in this month's election where the entire council is leaving.

It's the only town or city council in Alberta where members are leaving en masse

An official photo shows the Chestermere city council shortly after the 2013 election. Back row, left to right, Christopher Steeves, Stu Hutchison, Jennifer Massig and Patrick Watson. Front row, left to right, Heather Davies, Mayor Patricia Matthews and Gail Smith. (City of Chestermere )

Their four-year term has mercifully come to an end and all seven members of the city council have had enough of municipal politics in Chestermere, Alta.

It's the only town or city council in the province where all members are leaving en masse.

The councillors who chose to comment say it was neither a protest nor a planned revolt — and it had nothing to do with the uproar over tax and utility rates. 

"We faced key messaging that came forward from our residents that we needed to improve our communication," said Patricia Matthews, who will officially end three consecutive terms as mayor when the new council is sworn in later this month.

Matthews said communication with residents has improved and she will leave office with no regrets, despite the turmoil council faced.

None of the incumbents in Chestermere are seeking re-election on Oct. 16. They're leaving public office for a variety of reasons, they say, not because of the uproar over taxes and utilities. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

During their term, councillors had to fend off thousands of angry residents who collected 5,400 signatures and demanded the province step in to investigate allegations of mismanagement. 

The fury erupted after the city-owned utility, Chestermere Utilities Inc., jacked up rates for water and sewer services by $30 per month, increasing the average bill to $160 per month.

The utility company's new CEO realized property owners weren't being charged enough for its services and the money had to be recouped through higher rates.

'Do not be misled' 

"Please do not be misled by those people who choose to use social media to vent," said Gail Smith, one of the councillors who is not seeking re-election.

"Yes, we have those who feel taxes and water rates are too high, but I believe the silent majority of the people realize that we are not that bad," she said in an email to CBC News.

Smith said she's not running again because she wants to spend more time with her family.

Heather Davis, who served five terms as a councillor, said the demands at city hall had become a huge commitment. In an email, she said she also wants to spend more time with her family.

Frank Lavallee, president of the Chestermere Chamber of Commerce, is urging the new city council to look at cutting tax and utility rates. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

Stuart Hutchison, who served eight terms, simply said in a statement on the city's website that he was retiring.

Christopher Steeves, who has served three terms, said he can no longer juggle council duties and a full-time job that requires travel.

Patrick Watson, who served one term, said in an email that he wants to focus on his business.

Jennifer Massig, who was also first elected in 2013, said in an email to CBC News she cannot "give the job the substantial amount of time and energy that it deserves."

Time for a change

Business leaders said they're surprised all of council decided to pack it in, but they also said it's time for a change.

"I think people are excited about having something brand new because change is always good," said Frank Lavallee, the president of the Chestermere Chamber of Commerce.

He thinks the new council's top priority should be to cut taxes and utility rates.

Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, says that given the amount of voter outrage in Chestermere, the incumbent members of council would have faced defeat had they chosen to seek re-election. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

"The taxes and utilities, see where they can go, see where they can cut and save for residents," said Lavallee. 

But it could be a bumpy road for an entirely new, rookie council. 

"People will see some hiccups in the beginning," Lavallee predicts.

Political analyst Duane Bratt believes the province should be more hands-on when it comes to training for neophyte councillors. 

Right now, the training is done by members of the administration, which can be problematic. Bratt said that in small towns and cities, councillors often work part-time, but members of administration are full-time professionals 

"Who is working for who? That's the problem," said Bratt.

The City of Chestermere is being urged to expand its tax base beyond residential. The former city manager, Randy Patrick, says the new council should work toward an 80 per cent residential base and 20 per cent commercial. The city currently receives 96 per cent of its taxes from residential property owners. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

"There's always a concern in any government about the distinction between the elected representatives and the permanent bureaucracy. That's even more significant in some of these towns where the most powerful person may, in fact, be the city manager or the town manager," said Bratt.

The Mount Royal University political science professor said it's important for voters in Chestermere to do their research on the candidates.

"They need to do their due diligence to make sure they've got the right people who are being elected," he said.

Business growth desperately needed 

Chestermere's former city manager has some advice for the new council. Randy Patrick would like to see an expanded business base for Chestermere.

"Grow the business in town and make sure that's one of your biggest goals," said Patrick, who left the city in June after a five-year stint as chief administrative officer.

Chestermere is a bedroom community to Calgary in the true sense of the phrase: there is virtually almost no non-residential tax base in the community. 

Residential taxes make up approximately 96 per cent of the tax base. Patrick said the community should strive for an 80/20 split. 

"It's a long-term process, it's not going to be solved overnight," said Patrick. 

He's confident in the city's future. He said the population, which officially surpassed 20,000 this year, is now at a point where it should be able to attract different types of retail, commercial and light industrial players. 

With a whole new council up for election, it will be interesting to see if residents' rage over rising utility rates will be reflected on voting day.

Turnout in the 2013 election was just 26 per cent of eligible voters.   


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.