October 16, 2017. The last Calgary municipal election. The headlines told us Calgarians sought change; the ballot box told a different story. Every incumbent won re-election, and the only new faces on council were elected to open seats. With approximately 390,000 votes cast, only 30,000 votes separated the two-term Mayor from his closest competitor. As Calgarians watched the numbers come in, the next four years were set to look much like the past four.
I’ve never written a report card for anyone before, but today is as good as any to start. Taking a look at the top issues identified by Calgarians, if A is for excellence, and F is for failure, what is the appropriate letter for an express lack of enthusiasm? M? Outside of that one pesky expense scandal, the lights have been kept on, some even changed out for lower-light pollution street bulbs. Calgarians deserve better than four wasted years.
An early 2020 Macleans article quoted the current Mayor as saying: “I feel like 2019 was the worst year I’ve experienced in this job. There were days, especially in the middle part of the year, when I was kind of going: ‘What am I actually accomplishing here?’”. With that sentiment extending to all of Council, many wonder the same thing.
Council’s best mark is probably on its COVID-19 response. The Mayor deserves credit for managing a crisis well, and his communication style and social media presence helped during the flood and again here, though there was some early confusion. The overall response likely warrants a B.
On taxation, the grade is a clear F. Before COVID, Calgarians had seen no meaningful steps taken to even maintain tax levels. Amid shuttered business and high unemployment rates, taxes and fees are being rebooted, increases are planned, and Council has discussed 32 new ways to place the burden on Calgarians. Council has failed to take stock of the economy and COVID-19 and reprioritize its objectives accordingly. Naysayers may call this a misunderstanding of civic realities. I call it failing to lead and adapt.
On community safety, entrenched ideologies prevent a reasonable conversation. On the critical issues of homelessness, drug addiction, and policing, Council has done some good work but defaults to either/or positions, not creative solutions. The grade might be a C.
Transportation is a similarly low grade. Final Green Line approval descended into a divisive battle over a pricey project that still will not reach the north-central communities that need it most. Bike lanes are so over-engineered that they frustrate all user groups. Moving people efficiently around the city is a critical component of our city planning.
The arena deal, the grade is a D at best. Whether you argue for or against, it was up to Municipal leadership to lead. Instead, it took years to get a deal done, as ideology and ego got in the way.
Oversight of City administration: Council’s core job. Big F. Our City Manager resigned, our per-capita costs are through the roof, and our civil servants are demoralized and unmotivated.
With our next municipal election only one year out, all business leaders and all Calgarians should be paying attention to municipal politics. This will be the most important civic election in a generation: Calgarians need to reimagine and reignite the energy and creativity that made Calgary a magnet for talent in the past. As we head into another campaign period, ask yourself whether Calgary has the City Council it needs for this challenging period in our history. If the answer is no, I’ll see you on the campaign trail.