EDMONTON - Last Friday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in Edmonton for quiet — dare I say secret? — talks with Mayor Stephen Mandel, the City of Edmonton’s arena bargaining team, and senior representatives of the Katz Group, to hash out details of a possible deal for a downtown arena.
Who exactly was in the room? Where did the meeting take place? Who decided Bettman should be there? So far, no one from the mayor’s office nor the NHL is willing to say. Yet somehow, after Bettman had slipped away, the news leaked out that the meeting had happened, that a deal was all but done.
It’s all a rather ridiculous, melodramatic way to conduct city business.
Granted, the nitty-gritty negotiations between the city and the Katz Group have to be done behind closed doors. That’s why city council gave city manager Simon Farbrother and his negotiating team a mandate to negotiate directly with Daryl Katz and his people. Farbrother has the authority to represent councillors in those meetings — and the responsibility to report back to council on his progress.
No one at Friday’s secret meeting, including the mayor, had the authority to green-light a deal, or make any promises on the city’s behalf. A mayor isn’t a premier or prime minister. He doesn’t speak for council. Not even the presence of the great high holy NHL commissioner himself, here to bless and sanctify a deal, could make it so.
As for those councillors who weren’t invited, or even informed of Bettman’s visit? They say they don’t know what went on in that secret location either.
“If such a meeting even in fact took place,” says arena proponent Ben Henderson, “it wouldn’t disturb me, nor would I be shocked by it. Someone has to negotiate this, and it can’t be done by all 800,000 of us.”
That’s true enough. But the aura of secrecy casts an unnecessary shadow over events. Maybe such cloak-and-dagger antics bring out the romantic in our politicians and business leaders. But this isn’t 18th century France, and Gary Bettman isn’t the Scarlet Pimpernel. And at the end of the day, it will be Edmontonians who have to live with the consequences of any arena agreement.
Wednesday, city council is scheduled to hear a report from city managers on whether it would be feasible or desirable for the city go ahead and build an arena on its own, without the direct involvement of the Katz Group. Normally, councillors would receive their written reports and briefing packages from city staff on the Thursday or Friday before the meeting, so they can prepare. But as of Monday afternoon, no briefing material had yet been made available to council or public — leading some councillors to assume city staff have been updating those reports, to reflect Friday’s hush-hush conclave, or delaying them, to prevent leaks.
Now, if you’re of the opinion that council was never serious about the notion of the city building its own arena, that councillors only asked for the report to bluff Katz back to the bargaining table, then the tactic has worked splendidly. Still, before we get too excited, shouldn’t we take a hard look, not just at what was discussed with Bettman but at all the city’s arena options?
“I’m curious to see what was accomplished and who the mediator was,” says Linda Sloan, a critic of the arena project. “I don’t think Mr. Bettman could have been a mediator, because he has a vested interest in the NHL. If a tentative deal has been negotiated, I think it’s important that all aspects of it be formally discussed, in committee and in public hearings.”
“I don’t care if the negotiations involved Bettman or Henry Kissinger,” says Kerry Diotte, another arena-deal skeptic. “There’s still a long way to go realize a deal that’s good for taxpayers. I’m not usually a big one for wrapping things up in red tape or discussing them to death, but this is a big deal for Edmontonians, and we only get one chance to get this right.”
I understand the phenomenon of arena fatigue as well as anyone. After years of debate, who would blame a lot of frustrated Edmontonians — including some on council — if they just wanted to stop talking and start building? But just because something is mysterious and romantic and long overdue doesn’t make it good. Let’s at least see what we’re getting, before we decide if we’re buying.
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