Get to Know Who's Running: Byron Vass (Ward papastew)

By Emil Tiedemann

There happens to be a Municipal Election coming up in Edmonton on October 18, 2021, and I think it's important for locals to get to know the City Council candidates running for their particular ward (as well as their Mayoral candidates, of course). I chose to get more involved in the election this year and so wanted to give each candidate a chance to tell us a little about themselves, their vision, and why you should vote for them. I have sent a 10-question questionnaire to each of the 2021 Edmonton Municipal Election candidates and will post their responses (100% as written) here as they come in. With that said, let's get to know...

Ward papastew

Byron Vass

I was raised just north of Edmonton in the city of St. Albert. In 2003 I made the move to Edmonton which is when my love for this city really began. In my years as an Edmontonian I have lived in various communities ultimately leading to my current home in the community of Ritchie, where I own a house with my partner. Shortly after I made the move to Edmonton, I attended the University of Alberta where I obtained my B.A. in Economics with a minor in Political Science. While at the University I served on the executive board of Students International Health Association (SIHA), and sat on the board of directors for the Alberta Public Interest Research Group (APIRG). My time at university was when I started to become passionate about both the environment and municipal politics. I saw the changes that were possible with forward thinking local governments and the immediate impacts these changes can have on our lives and the planet. Since graduating I have worked in the environmental sector, where I have viewed first hand that proper planning and execution can achieve ambitious goals. I want to bring this foresight and positive attitude to public service and put an end to the divisiveness that plagues our current political landscape. Through collaboration with council and ensuring the voices of ward Papastew are heard and represented, we can ensure that tomorrow's problems are solved today."

The Questions:

IE/ Why do you want to run for City Council?

BV/ I’ve always been deeply interested in City Council. Compared to provincial and federal government, municipal government has the most direct impact on our daily lives. What stirred me to run in this election was the birth of my son, the COVID pandemic, and changes to municipal election funding.

The reason my son sparked my decision to run was all out of concern for the world we are going to leave him and his generation. The last decade has brought with it increasing divisions politically and more visible impacts from climate change. To turn things around we need leaders in public office that are willing to get beyond right v. left arguments and come up with solutions.

Speaking to the pandemic, it is critical we have sensible leadership to design and implement a recovery strategy. With the Mayor and a number of Councillors deciding not to run this year, there is an even greater need for qualified, trustworthy candidates.

Finally, with respect to changes in municipal election funding, I see this as inviting more political party influence on council. I strongly believe that there is no place for party politics in municipal government, regardless of the party with which a candidate is affiliated. I see a number of candidates with past or even current ties to various political parties and that concerns me. My promise to voters is that I will work with all fellow councillors to build support and achieve results. 

IE/ Can you tell us about your past or current experiences that you think could possibly benefit/ translate to your position as a member of City Council?

BV/ I believe that all my experiences, both professional and personal, provided me with lessons and knowledge that make me an ideal candidate. Starting way back, my experience in retail taught me how to listen to people’s concerns and understand their issue before offering a solution. Working in road construction during my time at the University of Alberta allowed me to see firsthand what goes into road maintenance and appreciate the hard work involved. I also graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, so I understand the fiscal and monetary details hidden in municipal budgets. My academic knowledge is coupled with my daily experience as a new father in Papestew; increasing property taxes and utility costs are important issues with which I contend every day. Sitting on the Board of the Alberta Public Interest Research Group taught me how to achieve results when making decisions by consensus; learning to discuss items until agreement was reached refined my ability to listen and approach disagreements with empathy.

My current role has also provided me with experiences and skills that would be highly beneficial on City Council. Managing a compliance department requires me to review large amounts of data to identify errors and anticipate issues. This skill set would be ideal when reviewing reports and proposals presented to council. I also work with various jurisdictions across Canada, which requires me to form constructive relationships with a range of stakeholders. Finally, I’ve been involved in the development of multi-million-dollar budgets that required reprioritization and reallocation of funds, ultimately providing stability through uncertain times. 

IE/ What do you think are the 4 or 5 biggest issues facing Edmonton right now that you want to focus on most?

BV/ Bike lanes, photo radar, the funicular…. just kidding. The biggest issue facing the next City Council will undoubtedly be economic recovery from the pandemic. The recovery is not only going to set the tone for the next budget, it will have an impact on the entirety of next council’s term. The next budget is going to have to deal with almost two full years of significantly impacted revenues while simultaneously facing deep cuts from future provincial funding. City Council already has an over reliance on property taxes and government transfers, so we need to ensure the next budgets are responsible. The difficulty in over burdening the city with debt is that our debt limit is controlled by the province. If spending is out of control when revenues are significantly impacted, we can handcuff ourselves if future unexpected infrastructure costs or emergencies arise. With this said, it is important that the recovery ensures services are not reduced, as this will disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable. Additionally, any recovery needs to provide supports to local businesses, arts & culture (e.g. festivals) as these sectors are vital to our recovery.

The recovery sounds daunting, but I view it as an opportunity to reprioritize capital projects and reallocate funds to address the other major concerns for our city. When it comes to affordable housing, Council must lobby the provincial and federal government for increased funding. In the meantime however, more can be done if we effectively allocate the resources currently available. Countless studies have shown that the public cost of homelessness far outweighs the cost to provide adequate affordable housing. Ending homelessness makes sense, morally and economically.

Working within the constraints of the upcoming budgets we can also shift to focus on smaller projects that address gaps in transportation infrastructure. By focusing on removing certain barriers we can increase transit usage.

Ultimately the goal should be to make Edmonton a more livable city. This will lead to reduced environmental impact and increased investment, thereby reducing the municipal burden on households. 

IE/ What do you think are some of the issues/struggles affecting your particular ward that you would like to focus on most?

BV/ Depending on the geographical section, Papastew is a ward with diverse concerns. The central portion of the ward sees the impacts of chronic homelessness and the related lack of affordable housing. I would like to find ways to increase funding but also reallocate the funds available to ensure all Edmontonians are housed. I would like to see a variety of housing options in the central neighbourhoods that can create more affordable options for younger families. One option is to bring back the secondary suite grant funding— a way to ease mortgage costs for new homeowners and create more affordable housing options.

Looking at the southern areas of Papastew, there are concerns that their voices are not being adequately heard on council. A lot of the focus in the new ward of Papastew is on the University and Old Strathcona areas, so there is concern that the further away from this portion, the harder it is to be heard. This is already an issue with a number of communities in southern neighbourhoods unhappy with how infill is approved. While infill is important, a cookie cutter solution for all areas of the city isn’t right. Council needs to ensure that these concerns are addressed and allow a greater say by the various communities as to what developments happen in their area. We need meaningful community engagement. 

IE/ What are some of the city/community initiatives that you loved and would like to expand upon?

BV/ My personal preference for commuting to and from work is by bike so I’m a huge fan of the active transportation initiatives. This includes the bike lane network that has resulted in significant increases in daily trips by bike with only a small percentage of the total transportation budget. While there have been some mistakes in placement of the lanes, I believe overall it has been a success. Beyond cycling, I appreciate the city focusing on pedestrians when developing big projects such as Imagine Jasper Avenue. As well, the Capital Composite program has done a good job of listening to concerns from citizens and increasing accessibility through installing curb ramps, improving bus stops, and replacing stairs that access our lovely river valley. There is lots of work to do to increase accessibility throughout the city but progress is being made.

It was also great to see Edmonton purchase 40 electric buses and make electric vehicle infrastructure a priority moving forward. Initiatives like this need to be expanded as we are already seeing a number of vehicle manufacturers making plans to go fully electric in the near future.

I could keep going (this city has some amazing things going on), but I’ll end with the green shack programs. These kinds of programs encourage youth to get outdoors and are vital to building strong communities. 

IE/ What are some of the city/community initiatives that you are/were against, and what would you do differently?

BV/ One area where I believe some significant improvements can be made is in public engagement. This is vital to get right as good communication between councillors and residents is required to not only ensure the right decisions are made but to also communicate the benefits or detriments of a specific decision. Edmontonians want to see value for their tax dollars and some of the current frustrations related to taxes could be resolved with better communication. To that point, I think the Edmonton Insight Community doesn’t hit the mark on intended public engagement. There are a number of issues that request feedback through surveys but only the most invested Edmontonians are providing feedback. In our current social media landscape, there are a number of tools at Council’s disposal that can result in more feedback from a wider range of Edmontonians.

IE/ Do you think elected officials, such as City Councillors, should be able to block people on social media sites like Twitter?

BV/ Yes. Too often people use social media as a tool to harass and promote misogyny and/or racist beliefs. Removing the ability for elected officials to block individuals will prevent them from protections against these attacks. I personally believe that blocking shouldn’t be done without reason but trying to develop rules to govern this gets extremely difficult. With that said, if elected officials are blocking anyone that disagrees with them they are only going to hurt their ability to effectively do their job. To be a good councillor you have to listen to different opinions. The more open you are, the better representative you will be.

IE/ When it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, what do you think we got wrong (if anything) as a city or province, and is there anything you would want to do differently (municipally OR provincially)?

BV/ COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone and our elected officials have had a particularly difficult task. In situations like this, politicians should be making decisions based on advice from the experts, and this is where the province is failing. Restrictions should only be eased or introduced when it is advised by public health officials. Science must inform every decision. Short-term openings followed by additional shutdowns only cause additional harm to our health and economy.

Municipally, I believe the city has done a fair job of navigating the pandemic. Municipal jurisdiction has limits and the City has tried to make the safety of Edmontonians the top priority. With that said, the mask exemption cards were an obvious blunder. In addition, I believe that businesses that deliberately and continuously flout public health orders must be penalized; non-enforcement or ultimately dropping charges only invites copy-cats. 

IE/ What is your favourite thing about living in Edmonton?

BV/ I love the people of Edmonton and our ability to embrace the extreme climate. We pride ourselves on being resilient and making the most of the cold winter months. Anyone that has made it out to one of our gorgeous winter festivals knows what I’m talking about.

IE/ Can you describe yourself in 5 words or less?

BV/ Fighting for our city’s future.

Thank you, Byron! 

Follow along with the candidates on Twitter HERE#yegvotes2021
Find Byron on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram
See Byron's Platform/Priorities HERE.
Visit Byron's website HERE
Contact Byron HERE.


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