Calgary’s municipal government looks a whole lot different this Tuesday, as more than half of the city’s councillors are new.
Monday’s election had the highest turnover of any civic election in Calgary’s history, and both the city hall newcomers and incumbents have a new, somewhat rocky landscape to navigate.
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Aside from sorting out the logistics of where they go and whom they talk to, the new cohort of councillors will have to hit the ground running on major issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and deliberations for the next budget, which get underway in a matter of weeks.
So what challenges must the new city council confront in the coming weeks, months and years?
Strengthening relations with the province
One of the first priorities for this new government will be addressing its relationship with the provincial government, which has faltered some through the course of the pandemic.
“Forging those relationships, looking around the council table and thinking about, which of us is best equipped to interact with the provincial government, to advocate on behalf of the municipality to the provincial government? — that’s going to be a challenge,” University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas said.
“In ordinary times, I think you would be able to ease into that a little bit.”
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Political commentator and University of Calgary researcher Jason Ribeiro said there are opportunities to be harnessed with the provincial government right now, though, because “the UCP is in need of a win.”
“If the new council liaisons or executive committee or the new mayor is able to strike a very leveraged balance between, not only what is the right thing to do, but what might also be the politically advantageous thing for the UCP to do — I think as long as it serves Calgary, you’ll start to see those cards being played,” he said.
Economy and the downtown ghost town
The new council will also very quickly be confronted with the struggling economy, and have to take a hard look at the downtown vacancy rate, property taxes, as well as getting through, and eventually recovering from, COVID-19.
“I would say that the economy and the challenges that we were facing prior to COVID — but certainly post-COVID — with the sort of restoration of the downtown, are incredibly important, and the solutions are not simple,” outgoing Coun. Druh Farrell said.
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Lucas said the “extraordinary commercial vacancy rate” downtown has created a “big fiscal hole right in the heart” of the operating budget, which will need to be addressed in just a few weeks.
Council will also be inheriting the financial implications of decisions made by the previous councils on major initiatives like the Green Line LRT expansion, the new event centre, and the allocation of police funding.
“I would suggest: fall in love with the problem, see opportunity there and find solutions that help build a more robust society,” Farrell said.
Unifying council to harness public engagement
Unity on council was an issue that plagued Calgary’s previous government, with council members throwing jabs at each other and political infighting making headlines on several occasions.
According to Ribeiro, Calgary’s new mayor will need to set the tone right off the bat about how she expects councillors to conduct themselves both inside and out of council chambers.
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“That tone is not just about … representing all Calgarians,” Ribeiro said. “The priority of any mayor, once they’re elected, is to immediately dispel with some of the campaign tactics, immediately dispel with some of the jousting that happened between candidates, and really focus again on being a mayor for all Calgarians.”
Lucas added councillors and the mayor will need to determine what the biggest agenda priorities are for individual councillors, and the government as a whole.
“An initial challenge for this group will be: What do we all care about? What priorities do we share that we can make rapid progress on? And what kinds of policy areas are going to be more difficult and perhaps a little more contentious?” he said.
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Coming off a couple of years of active civic engagement in the form of Black Lives Matter rallies, student climate change walk-outs, and COVID-19 vaccine protests, Ribeiro said the new council will also have to reckon with the fact that political engagement is “at the poles of the electoral cycle,” and Calgarians are, in large part, divided.
“How you … stop appealing to that polarity now that the campaign is over and drag them into the middle while also reigniting the middle’s interest in civic issues is going to be a very, very tall order, given that all the engagement right now is happening at the poles,” he said.
New mayor has ‘massive’ shoes to fill
Calgary’s new mayor will be taking over the chair from Naheed Nenshi, a high-profile, well-known and well-respected leader who forged relationships with other leaders across the province, country and the globe.
Lucas said Gondek also “has big shoes to fill and real responsibility” when it comes to fostering a council that effectively works together.
“When it comes right down to it, it’s just one vote. But the mayor has a lot of important responsibilities aside from just casting a vote, and one of those is building, helping to and working to establish the sort of culture of how city council meetings will proceed,” Lucas said.
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Considering Gondek was previously a councillor, Ribeiro said the shoes worn around city hall “will fit their experience enough” to hit the ground running.
“Outside of that council horseshoe, in both community and outside of Calgary, representing our interests to the masses — those shoes are massive and not just for this mayor and this election, but in any mayor that comes after (Nenshi),” he said.
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Ribeiro said the new mayor will have to have a “very thick skin and discipline,” and be able to “lower the temperature” and ensure the focus is on making change in the city.
Shaping Calgary for ‘a decade or more’
According to Lucas, historically, 90 per cent of incumbent city councillors in Canada will be re-elected, meaning this new council may be around for longer than just one term.
“We’re not just choosing a council for one term. In some ways, we’re choosing a council that’s going to shape the policy agenda of the city for possibly two or three terms or more,” he said.
“Because if it continues to be the case that incumbents, once elected, tend to be re-elected, and if it’s the case that these councillors want to stick around for a while, we really have the opportunity this time around to shape how things will look, possibly for a decade or more.”
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Ribeiro said the new council has an opportunity to take the diverse backgrounds of newcomers to city hall and harness their lived experience in carrying out council duties.
“These are people who have put in their time,” he said. “These are people who have been active in the community who seem incredibly competent on the issues, and they are bringing with them learnt experience, perspective, and I think potentially even a storytelling ability to add to the story that has been missing for decades.”
‘Historic’ diversity issues
With Calgarians electing several women and candidates from diverse backgrounds, all three election watchers are optimistic about what that means for the city’s future.
“This could be historic for the very nature of not only changing the complexion of council, but bringing not only skills (but also) lived experience together to the table,” Ribeiro said.
The new council could bring richness and perspective, he said. “I think will pay for itself … in their first year, and in the long term.”
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A council with more diversity is something Farrell said she would have loved to have see in her time at city hall.
“Something that I would have dreamt about as a member of council is to have more balance and diversity around gender and culture and race and background,” she said.
“I believe that Calgary has a bright future. I hope people recognize that opportunity and get engaged.”
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