New Calgary councillors ‘going to have a fire hose’ of learning to do

Calgary city council has many new and a few returning faces following the municipal election on Oct. 18, 2021. Global News

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the list of new councillors with experience in the city or councillors offices. 

Eleven Calgarians have a new job as new councillors following Monday’s municipal election. And like any new job, there’s some learning to be done.

The ten weeks following the swearing in ceremony on Oct. 25 is spent in council orientation with city officials.

Councillors and their staff will learn about their new roles and responsibilities, existing plans and projects, how municipalities work and are organized, the city’s code of conduct, and public participation. Representatives from across city departments participate.

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Councillors also have opportunities for “deep dives” on topics they’d like to or need to get more information on.

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But they’ve got less than two weeks until they begin work on the largest file on their desk: the city budget.

“First thing I did was read the budget front back, like, twice,” outgoing Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley told Global News.

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“A long time” was the answer when asked how long it took him on the first two reads of the city budget.

One of the first meetings for the new city council is a special meeting on Nov. 8 to begin addressing adjustments to the city budget, an annual process that’s part of the four-year budgeting cycle.

“Money talks. Money tells the story of how the organization is run,” the two-term councillor said, recalling the first budget meeting came “very, very quickly” in his first term in 2013.

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Woolley counts himself fortunate for not being a complete novice in how the City of Calgary operates, having experience in the city’s culture division and heavily involved in his local community association.

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Woolley, who recently became a father and announced he would not seek another term in early 2021, said he would regularly clock a 40-hour work week by Wednesdays.

But the council orientation process was still a steep learning curve for him.

Ward 14 Coun. Peter Demong, who was re-elected for a fourth term on Monday, said the faster a new councillor gets up to speed, the better they will be able to represent their constituents.

“For the first six months, these guys are going to have a fire hose permanently attached to one of their ears, there is so much to learn,” Demong told Global News.

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Demong, who enters his third term as a veteran council member willing to provide guidance the novices sitting around the horseshoe in city hall.

“One of the first things I’m going to suggest to anybody that’s willing to listen is: go to all the committees. You’re not necessarily appointed to all the committees, but go to all of them. There’s so much more than just reading an agenda. … There’s a lot of osmosis involved here.”

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Woolley said he also sought audiences with senior management at the city early in his first term.

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“Relationships are important, and I spent a significant amount of time introducing myself to the senior management team at the city,” he said. “Getting to know them very, very quickly is very important to accomplish the things that you want to accomplish.”

The respect given to councillors from public servants was a surprise to the man who was the city’s youngest councillor at 33 years old.

“It’s a very powerful role and I was surprised at that,” Woolley recounted. “I remember thinking, ‘Did you realize when you got elected that your jokes became a little funnier and your words became a little more profound?’”

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But Woolley also realized that members on council fell into two broad categories.

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“Workhorses and show horses on city council. And the workhorses are the ones who do the work and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Ideological differences were dropped in order to get the work of governing the city done.

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“Peter Demong and I have very different views of the world and (didn’t) vote often the same way,” the outgoing Ward 8 councillor said. “That said, I had an unbelievably close working relationship and friendship with Peter Demong despite that, because there’s just (a large) amount of work to do.”

Demong says his first days on council were “certainly intimidating” in 2010.

“I was scared spitless when I walked into that thing,” the Ward 14 councillor said. “There were people in here that seemed to know what they’re doing left, right and center. I had 15-year vets on council. I had grizzled campaigners that I had been in battle with.”

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But the collegiality took over as soon as the campaign ended.

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“It was very pleasant because there was no animosity in that room. And I hope to continue that trend by saying, ‘Listen, if there’s anything you need to know, it’s just a matter of asking.’”

When Woolley became a veteran on council in 2017, he also helped the new council members: Jeromy Farkas, Jyoti Gondek, George Chahal and Jeff Davison.

“I worked very closely with all of them as they came on and most people are open to it.”

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Not all of the new faces on council are completely inexperienced in how the city works. Richard Pootmans and Andre Chabot have previously served on council. Sonya Sharp, Terry Wong and Evan Spencer all have experience in city and councillor offices.

And even the vets on council have to be constantly learning. Demong said he’ll be alongside his colleagues to learn about the recent reorganization of city committees.

Woolley’s advice to the new crop of councillors is simple: “Don’t spend time on silly things that don’t matter,” a quote that hung on his office wall.

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Demong’s advice for council newbies seemed to fit alongside Woolley’s.

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“Remember through your term that all politics is local. Remember who got you there. Remember to take care of the people that not just voted for you, but the people that are in your ward because they’re the reason you’re there.”

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