Councillor Tom Pickard wraps up his first term on Whitecourt Town Council next month with the hopes that he can secure victory in the race for the Mayor's chair in the October municipal election. Having grown up with a father who was a town councillor and a mother who was a school board trustee, his future in the political realm was all but a certainty. "This is something that has been in my family's makeup, and because of that, my interest in local politics, and all politics, started when I was very young," said Pickard.
Pickard has lived in Whitecourt for years. He married his wife, Tina, back in 1988 and briefly left the community before transferring back with the RCMP in 2001. "I was the detachment commander here for just over four years. I then left the RCMP and worked in private enterprise for fifteen years before I retired last year," he said.
With a degree in Economics and Political Science, Pickard joined the RCMP out of university and enjoyed a 23-year service with the department in various locations throughout Canada. Upon moving back to Whitecourt in the early 2000s, he said that getting involved with politics wasn't possible as a police officer, so he found other ways to volunteer instead. "I worked with the snowmobile club, was president of minor hockey, vice president of the legion, and I was on the Community Services Advisory Board." He also worked on local initiatives through his RCMP position. In 2017, Pickard was awarded the Governor General's volunteerism medal for his dedication to the community.
Pickard said he waited to delve into politics until he felt ready to take on the time commitment. "My wife and I have three children, and we were very active in their lives. By 2017, they had all left home, were educated and lived elsewhere in the province. I felt that I had the time and the experience where I could go down that municipal politics road."
Having dedication is essential as a council member, and Pickard said as a retiree, he can put more time into it than others. "I think I'm still the only retired guy on council. There were meetings during the day, and there were times when we wanted a representative to attend, and I was available. Not everyone has that extra time, but they still fill valuable roles on various committees that they are on. Having that mix on council is important with younger, older, working, and retired members. That way, you get a different perspective, and it also allows you to have someone to attend daytime meetings when others are working."
Pickard said that working as a group of seven, dedicated and focused with one goal, was a great learning experience for him over the last four years. "I think we've had seven very different personalities but with one goal, and that is to make things better in Whitecourt. The collective is stronger than any individual alone, and I think that Maryann's leadership was part of that. She really, really wanted everyone's opinion and worked to ensure that it was delivered. I think we had a good group."
Working through restrictions and maneuvering Zoom meetings wasn't Pickard's favourite part of the last four years. "As an old cop, I focus on what else the person is saying other than the words they are speaking. What's their body language saying? That isn't easy in a Zoom meeting. You also lose some of that camaraderie," he explained. "The good thing is that I think everyone was engaged, and it allowed the public that can't always come to a council meeting to see what kind of decisions we were making."
Looking ahead to the upcoming election, as a candidate for mayor, Pickard said he is proud of the strides made to be as transparent as possible. "If you go on our website or to the town office, you can see the project lists, the budget reports, strategic plans, quarterly reports, and everything else down to parking studies, councillor pay and press releases. If you look up what a municipal transparency policy should look like and then look at ours, ours is textbook to what the thinktanks say a transparent municipal government should look like."
Focusing on coming out of COVID, Pickard feels that Whitecourt is poised to bounce back in a better position than other municipalities due to the planning and sound decisions made. "I strongly, personally believe that we are in a position to rebound stronger than most communities because we did have that discipline, planning, and foresight to stay on topic and budget. We kept our taxes reasonable and kept service delivery as high as we could. We cut over a million in our last budget, which hurts when you reduce services because any budget cuts reduce services. We made some difficult choices, but I think the community is better for it, and I think we are poised to rebound." Through conversations with other mayors and councillors from other municipalities, his thoughts on rebounding become even stronger. "We are in a good position, and I think it's a reflection of the decisions that all seven of us have made in the last four years. I'm very proud of that."
Pickard said he and his family chose to stay in Whitecourt because there is a deep sense of community. "When you live here, you feel it. It's a safe community. I do not deny that there is crime, but I feel safe here. It's a place to raise your kids, with a great education system, good amenities, and reasonable taxes. I think there is no other community in Alberta that delivers the level of service we do at the tax rate we have here."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press