The first few months of Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s first term in office have been busy.
The mayor refused to swear in one of the re-elected members of council following allegations of past improprieties with a minor.
A much-debated declaration of a climate emergency was announced in Calgary, two years after jurisdictions around the country made similar declarations.
The approval for fluoride reintroduction to city water was passed by council, following through on the question put to voters during the municipal election.
Emergency one-time supports for the city’s homeless population were announced, as well as work on supporting challenges to Quebec’s Bill 21.
And before the end of 2021, the Calgary Flames ownership group said it was unable to move forward with the new event centre and arena.
All as the COVID-19 pandemic approached its second year.
In a year-end interview with Global News Calgary anchor Linda Olsen, Gondek said the bitter conflict of councils past isn’t present now.
“I think in the past what may have happened is we had some very polarizing debates, and we had some personalities that perhaps liked to fuel that polarization,” the mayor said. “I don’t see that right now with this council and I’m quite happy about that.
“And I think we’ve also realized through the pandemic and the economic downturn, that the friction will be there, but we have to find solutions together. So the desire to collaborate has taken over.”
The Oct. 18 election saw historic turnover on city council: 12 people are in new seats on the 15-member council. Only three incumbents – Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu, Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra and Ward 4 Coun. Peter Demong – and Gondek sat on council last term. Ward 6 Coun. Richard Pootmans and Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot last sat on council in the term ending in 2017.
Gondek said some people are concerned about the turnover on council.
“I think it’s an incredible blessing for the city, because we have a chance to start fresh,” the mayor said. “And the thing that I enjoy about this council is that we have learned how to use processes and procedures to our benefit.”
Tax dollars to work
The mayor pointed to the budget adjustment process that saw 11 amendments be added to the original recommendations from city administration, all debated and approved in just three days of meetings. That, less than a month after being elected.
Budgets for police, fire, roads and snow got increases, as did funding for affordable housing, downtown redevelopment, climate action and arts and culture.
Gondek said despite the top-line increase of 3.87 per cent to the property tax rate, there are many factors at play in what Calgarians will see on their tax bill.
“When we talk about the increase, it was an increase to the operating budget, and it will have an impact on property owners – there’s no doubt about that. But the other thing we need to consider is that the market-based assessment of those properties really drives whether the taxes go up or down. And that’s been an ongoing concern for municipal governments.
“So we’re looking to partner with the province to make changes to the Municipal Government Act so that we can actually start thinking about how to collect revenue from citizens that reflects their income, not just the wealth that they hold in property.”
Gondek said she is committed to have all orders of government work together and has had conversations with her Edmonton counterpart, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, on working with midsize cities to “lift all municipalities in the province.”
Plotting a path to net-zero
The mayor maintains the declaration of climate emergency was a means to flow investment capital into the city.
“When I began to understand the amount of capital that’s available to cities and corporations and organizations that make a commitment to climate action, I realized that it’s something that our city needed to tap into,” Gondek said, pointing to ongoing decarbonization work in the city’s energy and tech sectors.
“Hand in hand with that, we have to look after our world. We have to make sure that what we’re handing to our future generations is something that’s sustainable: a place that they wish to live and raise their own families. So there’s much work to do, but I believe that that declaration gives us a lot of opportunity.”
The mayor’s office hosted a breakfast with leaders from energy companies so council could have direct conversations about how the city could support their decarbonization efforts.
“They have all included emissions reductions targets in their strategic plans. They’ve all made net zero commitments by 2050,” she said. “We haven’t followed suit as a local government, so our promise to them was that we would be in step when it comes to climate action.”
A downtown with more than 30 per cent vacancy remains a priority for the mayor, to both improve the city’s coffers and the quality of life for those who want to live in the core.
A recent trip to the World Petroleum Congress in Houston, Tex., provided an opportunity to look into Calgary’s future.
“I chatted with (the City of Houston’s) revitalization folks and they said it took about five to 10 years to really see the results of their initial investments. They said, ‘Stay the course. Don’t get distracted. Understand it’s a long game,’” Gondek said.
“And that’s what we’re trying to do here in our city as well.”
With a rising wave of COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant has left Mayor Gondek’s plans for the holiday season upended.
“I think all of our plans just got disrupted by the new variants. I think all of the hopes and desires we had to do, maybe some more traveling, maybe some more gatherings, has been stifled a little bit,” Gondek said.
“But I also know that we are hearty people and we’ll find different ways to make sure that we have a good enjoyable time over the holiday season.”
Ahead of that holiday season, the mayor had a message for Calgarians.
“I would like to thank Calgarians for being so patient as we faced an economic recession as we faced an incredibly unpredictable pandemic. Thank you for being so committed and so patient as we try to figure out how to get through this.
“It’s with the support of Calgarians that we will be stronger together and I have great optimism and hope that our city will shine again. We are already seeing all of the signs our employment numbers look good. Investors are interested in coming here and you know, you just see so many more people saying ‘I feel good about my future.’”