Wednesday, November 26, 2008

City Hall Shenanigans

Nation, I've made no secret of my utter disdain for the job that many of our elected officials are doing in Calgary's Municipal Building. For evidence of this, take a re-read of this post, and remember it when the next big dumping of snow hits (but we've already had the annual newspaper story quoting the head of the roads department about how "the trucks are out there after the first flake hits the ground", as though that makes their inability to do the job, or council's unwillingness to fund the job fully at the cost of their pet projects okay, because, well, they're trying their best).

Obviously, the big story as late has been the cowardly attempt by council to raise taxes by nearly 25% over 3 years, under the guise of "giving the ratepayers what they've asked the city to fund" (the cowardly part comes in when you figure that the lion's share of that increase was coming NOW, so it would be long forgotten by the time Calgarians are next asked to cast their ballots). If council feels strongly that the "we're giving you what you asked for" argument is a justifiable and tenable position, then they should show the courage of their convictions and run their re-election campaigns on a proposed rate increase.

Calgarians, against all odds, actually revolted at the proposed hikes, showed up in force, wrote letters, made phone calls, and forced council to re-consider the budget. Council instead trimmed a smidgen of the fat, and came back with a mere 19% increase over 3 years (the likelihood of my income, or yours, following suit is somewhat low). A proposal by Diane Colley-Urquhart to, quite sensibly, approve a one-year budget indexed to increase at the rate of inflation while council and city administrators worked out an acceptable long-term plan was shot down. The fact that it never should have COME to this is besides the point.


Dale Hodges, Ward 1
Gord Lowe, Ward 2
Jim Stevenson, Ward 3
Bob Hawkesworth, Ward 4
Ray Jones, Ward 5
Druh Farrell, Ward 7
John Mar, Ward 8
Joe Ceci, Ward 9
Brian Pincott, Ward 11
Linda Fox-Mellway, Ward 14
Dave Bronconnier, Mayor
Joe Connelly, Ward 6
Andre Chabot, Ward 10
Ric McIver, Ward 12
Diane Colley-Urquhart, Ward 13

"Calgary has one of the lowest tax rates in the world", we're told. "If we want world-class services, we have to be prepared to bite the bullet, and see our taxes rise to be on-par with those other great cities". There's logic in that, but it avoids the inescapable reality that what OTHER cities have their citizens pay is entirely beside the point... just because we're better off than those other cities, doesn't mean we're good. "Your house is getting broken into 5 times a year, sure... but don't expect the police to do anything about it, just be grateful you're not living next door, they get broken into NINE times a year...". It's a tough sell, politically.

Council lacks leadership. A lot of people think that the Mayor runs the city - and that's simply not the case. As outlined here, the mayor of Calgary's job description essentially boils down to:
  1. swinging the gavel at council meetings, and
  2. communicating with the people of Calgary.

Anything ELSE the office-holder may choose to do (steer council debate, present white Stetsons to dictators) is of their own volition. That said, though, the job of mayor is more important for its SYMBOLIC position as head of the city than for any legislated powers it imparts: The mayor can't push things through, but s/he CAN stand up in front of the microphones and say "I don't believe this is what the people really want, it's not good enough, they deserve better governance and I'm prepared to give them an outlet and talk to them about it".

The mayor may not be a chief executive in any formal, legal sense - but the mayor can still lead.

Calgary's mayor is NOT leading. He's following. When confronted, he's combative, indignant and defensive. He talks about the "hard work of the administrators", as though the fact that they're putting in a lot of (paid) hours excuses the poor job they did on the budget. He talks about how the city always comes in on-budget, as though it's a feat to come in on budget when you can set your own income through the tax rate. If I budget for a Porsche this month, and then tell the Government of Alberta that they're going to pay me $216,990 for the month of November, I'm not a great manager of my money (although I likely have a great future as an NHL player agent). He talks about how the budget includes "what the people said they wanted", as though it's our fault for having the audacity to ASK things of our civic government.
It's an abdication of leadership to hide behind any of those arguments, but especially the last one: The leader's job, when times are tough, is to look people in the eye and tell them "I know that you WANT this, but you can't have it right now, because we can't afford it". It's what a good parent does - but then again, if parents faced a mandatory job interview every 3 years, they might be more inclined to pull out the Platinum card for the Disneyland trip. The point is, Dave Bronconnier is NOT doing it. We need leadership in the mayor's office, and we're not getting it. We need a change.

In other City Council news...

Council votes to allow mail-in ballots. Wow... we're going to party like it's 1959. Mail-in ballots? We can file our taxes on-line, but we're spending time & money debating mail-in ballots? What's next - pottery shards (shout out to Ancient Greece!)?

Take the choice away from the people: Chabot. Alderman Andre Chabot, who scored big points with the E.S. Nation by voting against the budget, threw them away with THIS gem: He believes that the best way to re-organize City Council is to have the people of Calgary elect 15 Aldermen, and then have those 15 go into enclave and choose one among them to be mayor. Wow... just wow. The municipal level is the ONLY level of government in which we actually directly elect the head of government - even if the job is more ceremonial than executive. Taking that franchise away from the voters and putting it in the hands of aldermen elected by, in some cases, 10% of the eligible voters in their ward, is lunacy. A LANDSLIDE in a Calgary Ward is 20% (figuring a typical 20-30% turn-out), so all it would take under Chabot's plan to elect the mayor is the support of 8/15 (53%, assuming you even need 50%+1 support of council and not just a plurality) of a council elected by, generously, 20% of the electorate. That's 10% of the voters of Calgary, choosing (through their Alderman) the mayor. Even for a ceremonial head of government, that's low (for the record, Bronconnier got about 15% popular support of all eligible voters in 2007 - just over 60% of those who bothered to vote).

Nation, the City may not run the hospitals or get to make deductions off of your paycheque every 2 weeks, but never forget that the roads, buses, police, fire department, parks, leisure centres, and virtually dozens of constructions zones
and cranes you pass every day are managed or affected directly by the people in that big building across from Olympic Plaza, with all the windows. More than any other level of government, the things you do every day are affected by these people. And more than any other level of government, your interest, support, and vote counts. If only one in 5 vote municipally, then your vote is worth 5 times what you think it is. And the people at City Hall know that, too.

Take an interest. Hold your council accountable. Tell them you want Calgary to be better. And then tell them how - because when they don't get explicit direction from us, they start to assume we all want $25 Million pedestrian bridges and don't mind 25% tax hikes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suspect the reason the Mayor and some members of council can claim we have low taxes is because they/we are not including the impact of "user fees".

Take the new recycling initiative, for example. If I am required to now pay $8 per month for curbside recycling, whether I use it or not, is it really a "user fee"? Or is it a tax by another name (Dalton McGuinty can take kudos for this one based on his health care levy)? Especially since I was supposedly already getting some sort of recycling service paid for by my property taxes (the community based recycling stations). And, as a result of now paying a user fee, was the amount that I was paying via property tax for the older, less convenient service, deducted from what would have been my taxes? Doubtful.

The sneaky element of it is that if you lump some items into user fees, it is much more difficult to compare across jurisdictions.