A pair of Calgary mayoral candidates faced off in a debate Friday afternoon, hosted by Global News Radio 770 CHQR.
Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek and businessman Brad Field joined host Mike Tarasko on The Drive for more than an hour of debate ahead of the 2021 municipal election.
Topics like economic recovery, downtown revitalization and government relations were discussed. But listeners hoping for fireworks may have been disappointed with the civil, interview-like answers.
A businessman by trade, Field aimed most of his barbs at divisions on city council.
“When I engage with Calgarians on the street and we’re having conversations, what I’m hearing is that there’s a disconnect between council and the citizens,” he said.
“People tell me they aren’t being listened to, and that city hall thinks it always knows best.
“The infighting has led to displays of disrespect and lack of collaboration with the public,” Field added, pointing to the recent process around the Guide for Local Area Planning.
“We need to respect and provide collaboration in order to recover.”
A path to post-pandemic recovery
Gondek, pointing to her experience building community before and on council, said “recovery requires a team.”
“If we wish to get back to a state of stability and balance, we’ll need to build strong partnerships, both within council, and with public and private and community sectors,” she said.
“As someone with 19 years of experience with national, regional and local businesses, I can tell you that organizations only remain relevant when they recognize and embrace the need for change.”
The councillor said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the economic realities in the city and the difference between those who could work from home and essential workers who had to continue to physically go in to work.
“It should make us stop and think that we have to remain united in our calls to the federal and provincial governments, to make sure that all of these folks are getting the support they need throughout this pandemic,” Gondek said.
She pointed to the need to support small businesses, which she said represent 30 per cent of the business community and 38 per cent of GDP.
“We need to make sure that, as a regulator, our local government continues the work of streamlining processes by which those businesses can adapt to new economic realities,” Gondek said.
“We need to do that by continuing to cut administrative red tape, getting out of our own way and using policies to encourage small business success.”
Field, having run businesses and having been a vendor for the city over the past 25 years, said a post-pandemic recovery needs to begin with “healing emotional wounds created by the COVID(-19) pandemic.”
“On a business front, we’ve done a great job as Calgarians supporting local businesses,” he said. “But now it’s on us as council to support them, and that’s given me a clear line of sight towards taxes.”
Property tax problems
“They have to be able to budget. Like families, we have to have a clear line of sight and can’t have that peaks and valleys in our property taxes,” Field said, referring to the city’s Phased Tax Program.
The initiative tried to offset sizeable increases in non-residential property taxes outside of the core because of dropping downtown values by dipping into city reserves.
Gondek called the Phased Tax Program a “Band-Aid solution.”
“What we need to do in my opinion, is make sure that we understand the revenue opportunity, as well as the operating budget, and then fulfil the gap,” she said.
The councillor proposed asking the province to leave a tenth of what it takes from property tax bills with the city to cover operating revenue gaps.
Gondek, who currently chairs the city’s planning and urban development committee, also suggested leasing out city buildings, selling land assets to incoming businesses and rapidly rezoning in-city areas to take advantage of burgeoning businesses seeking industrial lands.
Field wants to address city budgets before addressing taxes.
“I go back to the downtown revitalization program that we’ve just approved,” he said. “One of the line items in that was a $10-million team to oversee the downtown revitalization,” he said. “By my math, we’re talking 30 additional employees added.
“We continue to look at other revenue streams and go to the province for a larger handout instead of looking at how we’re operating within the City of Calgary.”
Gondek disagreed that seeking a better deal with the province is a “handout.”
“Calling it a ‘handout’ to expect a better deal with the province when you’re sending them 40 per cent of the only tax revenue you have is an interesting characterization,” she said.
Council’s relationship with the province
Answering a question about how each would handle addiction treatment given the province’s $1.4 billion in alcohol and gaming revenue, Field claimed the relationship between Calgary city council and the Alberta government was “tenuous, at best.”
“The argument of combative style leads to nothing,” the city hall outsider said.
“Negativity on social media and attacks on social media to the province doesn’t put us in a good position to negotiate terms when we look to the province for funding and so forth.”
Field claimed Calgary councillors needed to have a “collaborative” approach and relationship with the province.
“I would love to have a collaborative relationship with the government who cut $13 million from our police budget, who did not prioritize our firefighters for getting vaccinations, a government who is not interested in making a decision on the Green Line which will generate 20,000 jobs for our city — I’d love to have a collaborative relationship,” Gondek said.
“The point being, sometimes you need to fight for what you deserve, and that’s what I’m interested in doing.”
With a staff of 55, Field said he has the experience and know-how to build positive relationships in a workplace and can translate that into inter-governmental relations.
“To me it’s about having a positive relationship, having a meaningful dialogue and being open-minded to different points of view,” he said.
“(It) doesn’t mean we always have to agree, but at least show each other respect and decorum.”
Gondek said building positive relationships was a “two-way street.”
“If we’re talking about building relationships and pushing buttons, one of the obligations of a municipal government is to defend the interests of its citizens.
“And if Calgarians are not getting the service that they deserve from their provincial government, it’s incumbent upon me as their representative to call for more,” she said, citing a successful lobby of the province to open up more COVID-19 vaccination sites.
There are 14 candidates running for mayor and Calgarians head to the polls on Oct. 18.