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There's plenty examples of city councillors working together
Thursday, 26 March 2015 - 10:15am
Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently travelled to Halifax and made some serious charges that were broadcast on national news. The claim: newly elected councillors have allowed partisanship to get in the way of doing their jobs.
While that makes for a good sound bite, the Manning Foundation has spent over 5,000 hours studying actual council meeting records at City Hall for our aptly named CouncilTracker.ca project. Here is what the numbers — rather than what the politicians — have to say.
The facts don’t support the claim that councillors base their votes on who moves an item, rather than the substance. There are many examples of co-operation and compromise on council, even on contentious issues.
We’ve seen left-leaning councillors advocating for more typically free-market taxi reforms, while right-leaning councillors have adopted “progressive” positions on restricting predatory lending. While Coun. Peter Demong opposed citywide secondary suite reform in 2011, he put forward a successful compromise that legalized secondary suites in all new neighbourhoods moving forward.
Earlier this year, Coun. Sean Chu supported a motion by Coun. Druh Farrell that trimmed the Stephen Avenue cycling budget, while avoiding causing problems for the pilot project.
Do some council members vote together more often than others? Yes — but crucially, it depends on what the issue is. On the most recent budget, council was clearly divided into two coalitions. A larger and more spending-happy coalition, including Nenshi and nine other council members, largely set the agenda and won votes more than 80 per cent of the time. In terms of polarization, Coun. Andre Chabot was the least likely to vote for spending increases, while Coun. Brian Pincott was the most likely — neither of whom were elected in 2013.
On other major issues, such as secondary suites, different blocs emerge. A group of seven council members regularly votes in favour of most secondary suite applications, and another group of three regularly votes against. But the only councillor opposing each and every single application, Jim Stevenson, was elected in 2007. A remaining group of five is usually the swing vote, depending on the specifics of each application.
This is another example of alliances forming on an issue-by-issue basis, not based on partisan leanings.
There have also been allegations from others that some councillors “hassle” City Hall employees with questions more than others. At the beginning of every meeting, council can ask questions of administration, check on the activities of the civil service, and otherwise demand accountability on behalf of voters. While this is highly subjective, it’s important to remember that critiquing and asking uncomfortable questions is part of their job.
There is evidence that some councillors ask more questions than others, but it may not be who you think. Coun. Richard Pootmans was responsible for the most questions, followed by Chabot, Diane Colley-Urquhart, Ray Jones and Gian-Carlo Carra — all of whom are veterans of council. The other council members don’t take as much advantage of this opportunity, and maybe they should.
The biggest question is accountability. In 2014, council spent a full 25 per cent of their time in secret, up from 18.5 per cent from 2010-2013, and 12 per cent from 2007-2010. One in five council meetings now spends more time in-camera than in public.
While the city is a complex operation and some confidential issues should remain so, this incredible amount of time spent in secret flies in the face of council’s stated commitment to transparency. Many other major cities, such as Ottawa, are able to keep their time in secret to under five per cent.
Council is running the city as if it were still in the 1950s. Micromanagement has reached epic proportions, with minor issues such as secondary suite approvals and the naming of individual streets taking up massive amounts of time.
An organization with an annual budget of over $4 billion and 13,000 employees demands a better and more serious focus on governance from our leaders. The numbers say that when rhetoric and wild claims get in the way of finding solutions, we all lose.
Jeromy Farkas is a Research Fellow at the Manning Foundation
This column appeared in the March 26 edition of the Calgary Herald