Keith Gerein: Mike Nickel has long been council's contrarian. He may struggle to be its captain


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Mike Nickel is currently Edmonton’s third longest-serving city councillor.

Since 1998, he’s run in six municipal elections — seven if you count this year’s mayoral race — and won three.

In all, he’s served 11 years in office, meaning that he’s taken part in 11 budget deliberations, at least a couple of hundred public hearings and more committee meetings than he’d probably care to remember.

He is knowledgeable, experienced and, I dare to say, a fixture at city hall at this point in his career.

Which is why I find it a bit strange to see Nickel continue to portray himself as a rebel, underdog and victim. Such self-characterization is of course a well-worn part of the populist wardrobe, though usually it fits better on someone who hasn’t been a member of the system as long as Nickel has.

Still, the three-term veteran has been committed to the theme, using it to fuel both his roles as councillor and campaigner, which have sometimes been difficult to tell apart of late.


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We’ll know on Oct. 18 if it proves to be an effective approach for Nickel, who shouldn’t be underestimated. But while the strategy could indeed propel him to the mayor’s office, voters may want to consider how it reflects on his ability to be an effective leader once he’s there.

Take his repeated transgressions of council’s code of conduct, which began last summer with a handful of antagonistic social media posts against colleagues, including a crass cartoon depicting Coun. Andrew Knack throwing money into a fire.

The posts were unusual because although Nickel has long acted as council’s contrarian, he had rarely gone after colleagues in such an aggressive, personal and public fashion.

When members of the public complained about the posts, Nickel called it an attack on his free speech.

Integrity commissioner Jamie Pytel instead called it a violation of behavioral standards requiring respect, decorum and accuracy that Nickel himself voted for back in 2018. (He even moved the motion for approval.)

Nickel escaped sanction by a single vote, though he was so unrepentant about his actions that none of the minor forms of censure available to council would have likely dissuaded him from continuing.

And continue he has, drawing further complaints this spring (including one from Mayor Don Iveson), more rulings from Pytel and another vote on sanctions scheduled for June 24.

This time, the transgressions are more serious.


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Pytel ruled that posts Nickel made in April constituted an attempt to “intimidate or bring ridicule upon” those he believes are responsible for the first set of complaints last year, particularly Knack and his supporters. The posts insinuate, in question form, that Knack was responsible for a “stunt” that cost the city around $50,000 to have investigated.

Nickel’s defence has again been to play the martyr, arguing the code is being used to stop him from asking tough questions. He suggests the complaints are politically motivated, which seems a hypocritical argument considering the violations are most definitely motivated by politics.

Oh yes, it should be obvious to everyone now that Nickel’s pugilistic behavior has become part of his election strategy. Even this past week, with Pytel’s latest rulings coming to light, Nickel has continued with social media posts attacking Knack and Iveson, and even the media for covering the story.

Such behavior from an elected official using disobedience as a weapon puts council in a bind. Making complaints and issuing sanctions helps feed his narrative of the underdog victim. Ignoring his behavior makes the whole exercise of having a code of conduct and an integrity commissioner essentially worthless.

Either way, we’d all be a lot better off if Nickel decided to run a campaign of ideas. He’s certainly capable of it, and a check of his campaign website shows that he does have some intriguing proposals.


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In particular, his plans to streamline development permits, protect the river valley and reduce management costs have some merit, and his proposals come with considerable detail.

And I would love to talk to him about all his ideas, if he ever returns my messages. In fact, I’m not aware of many local journalists who have had recent success getting an interview, which is another interesting strategy for someone wanting to be mayor.

Unfortunately, to my eyes, Nickel’s campaign has focused too little on his proposals, and too much on misleading rhetoric and division.

As an example, Nickel has recently imbued the campaign with a partisan bent, by characterizing the race as a two-horse showdown between himself and the Liberal Party of Canada, represented by former cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi.

A recent campaign email titled “Stop the Liberal machine” claims the federal party is bringing out all their professional campaigners.

“There is no trick they won’t try.”

All of this is important to consider because for any mayor, a position that carries few special powers, a leadership style based on diplomacy is vital.

Frankly, Nickel’s history of voting no to anything controversial, being on the wrong end of lopsided votes and his antagonistic campaign style all suggest he would struggle mightily as mayor to build consensus for his policies.

You can imagine council descending into near-daily dysfunction, trying to be led by a man who breaks the rules he agreed to, then claims he’s the victim when someone calls him on it.

To me, that’s not the behavior of an underdog or rebel, but rather a shrewd politician trying to game the system he’s long been a part of for his own ends.


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