October 18, 2021, saw a historic turnover on city council in Calgary.
Eleven new members of council were elected and 12 new seats were filled. Two ward representatives returned to their previously-held seats around the city hall horseshoe after a term away from office. The diversity of the newly-elected council was improved from its previous iteration, with six members of racialized communities and five women. And Calgary’s first woman mayor was elected.
That was 100 days ago.
“The first 100 days after an election is where citizens tend to form their most powerful opinions of leaders,” Jason Ribeiro, community advocate and policy expert, said Wednesday.
“There are some political and policy issues that have made a meaningful mark on this council’s first 100 days and have reached the collective awareness of Calgarians,” Ribeiro told Global News.
Calgarians Global News spoke with on the 100th day of the new city council had mixed opinions on the mayor and council, with women tending to have a more favourable attitude.
To date, Calgary city council can mark a number of achievements including the passing of a budget offering funding boosts across the board, the declaration of a climate emergency, the altered swearing-in of a councillor embroiled in historical sexual assault allegations and the collapse of an event centre deal. Council has also been involved in addressing the needs of the city’s unhoused population, protests at elected officials’ homes, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“One hundred days is too short an amount of time to expect big changes, but we are off to a strong start,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said, noting the pandemic has been the biggest challenge for her and Calgarians.
“The level of unpredictability of what happens next is really cause for some alarm and some pause,” she said.
The new council started its training and meetings in-person in late-October, but had to pivot to more virtual amenities with the onset of the Omicron-fueled wave of the pandemic.
Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer, one of the nine novice councillors, called those early days “quite unifying” and admits the “honeymoon phase” seems to be over with the new council.
“We’re into navigating what it looks like for people to carry competing priorities and objectives, and to try and synthesize that and learn and figure out how to work together,” Spencer told Global News.
He said there have been some bumps along the road, as novice councillors like him learn on the job and in public. But he said a spirit of collaboration plays a part in the work the 15 councillors are doing.
“As we start to find our own path, as we should, as independent voices for the constituency that elected us in each of our wards, there’s conflict,” Spencer said. “Obviously, it’s politics – that’s going to arise and that’s been probably my steepest learning curve.”
The divisive reputation of the previous council is something Mayor Gondek heard about while on the campaign trail and she said having a cohesive team is a top priority for her.
She’s taken on the roles of facilitator and “strong chair” of council meetings, with a council that brings different ideas, ideologies, perspectives and lived experiences to the table.
“The interesting thing about this council is there’s so many people with really good ideas that are different than the way we’ve done things before, than the way we’ve entered into discussion and debate before,” Gondek said.
The mayor pointed to the November budget deliberations as an example of councillors looking to work together despite differences of opinion.
“The other thing that’s interesting about this council is the number of people that will seek each other out to ensure that they can have some conversations about the types of things they would like to bring forward.”
Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp, whose prior experience was as a liaison with the business community for the city, said having that variety of opinions around the horseshoe at city hall isn’t a bad thing.
“In municipal politics, you’re talking about 15 elected officials. So if you take away the titles of a mayor and councilor, you’re a board of directors with a chair and there’s going to be different opinions and different ideologies and things like that,” she said. “And that actually is really important.
“If you’re always agreeing on the same thing all the time, are we actually listening to our citizens?”
Sharp, who chairs the business advisory committee, pointed to the success that committee has seen in making the city more business-friendly and emphasized the importance of council listening to public opinion.
“Not trying to put anybody down from before, but I mean the reason we’re in these chairs is because we were elected by our citizens. So we need to be listening to them,” Sharp said.
That’s on the mind of the mayor, as well.
“I think it’s important for any elected official who gets less than 100 per cent of the vote to understand that you’re also responsible for representing people who maybe did not think that you were their first choice,” Gondek said.
The mayor said she remains committed to working on her campaign mandates of attracting investment into Calgary, caring for the city’s vulnerable populations and continuing to prepare for and reduce the effects of climate change.
The Ward 1 councillor pointed to her office’s work improving relations with ward residents and continued dialogue with the city’s business community. Sharp said work is still needed on improving roads, paths and community safety – concerns she heard while doorknocking.
Spencer said some of his quintet of campaign planks – economic recovery, community safety, fiscal responsibility, citizen engagement and the Green Line – have seen movement in the first 100 days in office.
But communicating with Ward 12 residents over things like how spending decisions and the phased-tax program – which provided tax relief for some business – affect both their quality of life and their bills is a challenge Spencer anticipates having to tackle.
“It’s a bit of a bummer to be in office now and recognizing that when the tax bills come out in May, I have a lot of explaining to do to help Calgarians understand why they’re going to see the changes that they’re going to see on their tax bill,” he said.
Hearing citizens – and citizens having the sense they’re being heard – is one of the major tasks ahead for this council, according to Ribeiro who called the early days of a term a “trust-building moment.”
“This is something that many people campaigned on and the proof will be, I think, in this year – in 2022,” Ribeiro said. “Whether the kind of listening that they were articulating on the campaign trail can actually be achieved with the restraints of municipal government is something I’m going to be watching closely for.”
— with files from Adam MacVicar, Global News