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The tasks facing the newest members of city council

By Jason Herring. Illustrations by Samantha Lucy

Throughout Calgary’s 2017 municipal election, the pervading narrative was one of change. Early polls suggested that Bill Smith, not incumbent Naheed Nenshi, led the pack in the mayoral race, while many candidates vying to unseat an established councillor focused more on their opponent’s weaknesses and the city’s desire for change than their own strengths.

But when voters went to the polls on Oct. 16, things largely stayed the same in city council. Every incumbent who ran for re-election won, meaning that only four new faces — Jyoti Gondek in Ward 3, George Chahal in Ward 5, Jeff Davison in Ward 6 and Jeromy Farkas in Ward 11 — will sit on council this year.

“You didn’t see a dramatic shift one way of the other,” said University of Calgary political science professor Jack Lucas. “As we learn about these new councillors, we’ll better understand which policy areas are going to look different and which are going to pretty much remain the same.”

Even though council didn’t undergo sweeping change this election, the new voices will have the opportunity to alter the balance of city council and influence policy and city services. In order to get a better idea of how those new councillors will fit into City Hall, we talked to each of them about six issues they will likely face over the next four years to find out what ideas they bring to the table.

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CALGARY TRANSIT

Discussions about Calgary Transit during the election largely centred around already-secured projects, like the Southwest bus rapid transit route on 14th St. or the first phase of the Green Line LRT. Now that the election is done, the city’s new councillors placed their public transit priorities largely within their own wards.

The southwest BRT passes through Farkas’s ward. The young councillor has already vowed to reevaluate the transit route, which is nearing the end of its first phase of construction. Lucas says Farkas will need help to hold an audit on the ongoing project.

“Farkas can’t stop anything by himself. He’ll have to build a coalition on council to do that, if he’s going to do it at all, but he’s certainly going to try,” Lucas said. “That’s going to make for some politics around the Southwest BRT, for sure.”

Beyond that, Farkas lists his long-term transit goals as pursuing a train link to the airport and introducing electronic fare payments.

“It’s technology that allows us to tap and go so that the city can get information about where trips are beginning, where they’re ending, who’s using transit, what time of day and so on,” Farkas said. “All of this comes together to make our spending decisions on transit a lot more cost-effective and so that we’re deploying our resources to the maximum benefit.”

Calgary Transit first announced plans for an electronic fare payment system in 2009. The city contracted Schneider Electric to create the “Connect” fare payment system twice, calling off the deals in 2012 and 2015 after the company was unable to produce a working product. Edmonton is currently looking into a similar service, while cities like Vancouver and Seattle have used electronic fare payment systems for years.

Other council newcomers also said they wanted to make sure transit routes are connecting patrons in the best manner possible.
Davison raised concerns about the effect the west Blue Line
LRT has had on his ward since its opening in 2012.

“It took away a lot of direct busing routes that we had. Now instead of people from Coach Hill going directly on a bus to go downtown, they have to take a bus to a train,” he said. “It affects how a lot more of those people are choosing to drive downtown, since they don’t need the extra 25 minutes added to the commute for them.”

Gondek and Chahal both noted the importance of the Green Line for their north communities. Gondek said it’s vital that the new train line gets finished in earnest, instead of only up to 16th Ave. as is initially planned.

“For my ward it’s the Green Line not coming north in the first phase. It’s devastating for our communities,” she said. “We have demonstrated strong ridership over time, to the point where even our students in our public school system are being taken off yellow buses and being put on public transit. To not get the next logical upgrade was disappointing.”

Lucas expects to see Gondek, as well as Ward 12 councillor Shane Keating, push to have the first phase of the Green Line extended.

“They’re going to work really hard to try to figure out if there is room in the existing budget to get a couple of extra stops, either north or south, out of the current Green Line budget,” Lucas said. “I think Keating is planning, for example, to try to propose that when they put out a call for proposals, that the length of the line be one of the competitive pieces of the bid process.”

During the election, the Alberta provincial government said they would reconsider their portion of funding for the Green Line if Calgary dramatically reworks the project.

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WATER FLUORIDATION

In 2011, city council voted to remove fluoride from Calgary’s water supply, a charge led by Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell. The change was controversial at the time, with council voting 10–3 to discontinue water fluoridation after voting against bringing the issue to a plebiscite earlier in the same day.

When that decision was made, Cumming School of Medicine researcher Lindsay McLaren began focusing her research on water fluoridation.

“I hadn’t really thought a whole lot about fluoridation before then, but for various reasons it struck me as a great research opportunity to start to explore whether the decision to stop fluoridation would have any implications for children’s tooth decay,” McLaren said. “We’ve done a number of studies but the biggest one was the short-term evaluation of the implications of stopping fluoridation for children’s dental cavities in Calgary.”

McLaren was the lead author of that study, published in tandem with researchers from the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services. The study compared children in Edmonton, which still fluoridates its water, to those in Calgary. It found a more severe increase in tooth decay among Grade 2 students in Calgary since fluoride was removed from the city’s drinking water in 2011 than students the same age in Edmonton. Returning councillors Peter Demong and Diane Colley-Urquhart asked council to review the study and reopen the debate on water fluoridation, but the motion failed 9–5.

Among the new councillors, Davison said he thought council shouldn’t be making decisions on the polarizing issue and advocated for the issue to go to a plebiscite. Chahal and Gondek both said they needed more information before they’d be willing to take a stance on water fluoridation.

“I’m not waffling, but I do need to see the research that clearly demonstrates that water fluoridation is the best way forward,” Gondek said.

Farkas came out fully in support of water fluoridation, saying it was wrong for council to discontinue the practice without adequate citizen consultation and advocating for a plebiscite.

“I strongly would support water fluoridation,” Farkas said. “In my time working at the Faculty of Medicine at the U of C, I was exposed to research that suggested it was a safe and cost-effective way to address dental health, especially in children and those living in poverty.”

McLaren said that opponents of water fluoridation can typically be placed into three groups — those who are skeptical of fluoride’s benefits, those concerned about the safety of fluoride in drinking water and those who consider the addition of fluoride to water to be an unreasonable infringement on their individual rights. But, based on other research she has done with master’s students on the connection between water fluoridation and both thyroidism and learning disabilities, McLaren says there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about.

“There’s really no robust association that we could detect between fluoride and those health outcomes on a population level in Canada,” she said.

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SECONDARY SUITE LEGALIZATION

During the election, Mayor Nenshi was explicit about his shortcomings during his first two terms, pointing to secondary suites reform as an example of something he wasn’t able to accomplish. Though the mayor accounts for only one vote on a 15-person council, the lack of council action on secondary suites is a blot on his record.

Currently, applications for secondary suites — self-contained basement or backyard dwellings attached to an existing residence — are processed by City Council on a case-by-case basis for residences not zoned for the suite development. This means that council votes individually on each secondary suite proposal, a process that on some days has occupied more than six hours of council time.

The time-consuming process of legalization has led to an illegal secondary suite market that Nenshi estimates serves over 35,000 Calgarians. Farkas says he’s seen first-hand the dangerous environment this can create.

“As a student, I lived in an apartment above an illegal secondary suite,” Farkas said. “Not a day went by without having concern about the safety of my neighbours and that of my guests.”

Farkas added that though he thinks the current system is broken, he doesn’t think blanket rezoning is the solution. Instead, he wants the process to be more “bureaucratic” with a focus on using set criteria to evaluate whether a residence should be allowed to develop a suite.

Davison shared Farkas’s attitude, saying that many communities he represents in Ward 6 are R-1 communities that are not zoned for secondary suites and that those zoning rights should be respected. He raised concerns with residents getting tired of the approval process and renting out their entire residence, as they are permitted to do under R-1 zoning.

“On one hand, people who want to live in an R-1 community want to live in an R-1 community,” Davison said. “On the other side of it, we’ve got people who just give up on the whole secondary suite approach and rent the entire house out. At that point we don’t really know what the difference is between them.”

Chahal and Gondek were both enthusiastic about secondary suite legalization. Chahal argued that reform is necessary because he thinks the current process is unfair to residents and wastes council’s time, while Gondek pointed to her work on the Calgary Planning Committee — the step of secondary suite approval before going to council — when explaining her solution.

“I would be fully in favour of making secondary suites a discretionary use, which means that they would go to administration to determine if the right requirements are being met and then a development permit would be issued,” Gondek said. “The regulatory bodies would ensure that it’s done in a safe manner and a permissible manner.”

In July 2016, council voted not to bring a plebiscite to the election ballot asking voters whether they would support rezoning in their community, with returning council members like Nenshi and Farrell arguing that a plebiscite was unnecessary and lacked nuance. This, along with countless other proposed solutions to secondary suites, was defeated in a narrow vote. The new council could tip that delicate balance, Lucas says.

“It’s been so close that a shift — one vote, one way or the other — is going to make all the difference,” he said. “We just don’t know what direction that shift will go yet.”

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RESIDENCE PROPERTY TAXES

The buzzword of this election was “property taxes,” with many candidates arguing that tax rates for property owners had ballooned during Nenshi’s time as mayor. This January, the U of C Students’ Union named property taxes as a municipal advocacy priority, specifically those levied against post-secondary residence buildings. According to the school’s Residence Services, the U of C paid about $693,000 in property taxes in 2016, and every student living in residence paid $255 in property taxes for the year.

Property taxes are a large source of Calgary’s revenue, amounting for over 40 per cent of its operating budget. Other provinces in Canada, like British Columbia, don’t levy property taxes on residence buildings.

Though the SU listed residence property taxes as an advocacy issue, none of the four council newcomers were familiar with it. While Farkas declined to comment until he does more research, the other three councillors gave their immediate thoughts. Gondek thinks that if students are paying property taxes, there has to be services in place for them that are financed by the tax. She also expressed concerns about the shortfall that would emerge if the city didn’t receive property taxes from university residences.

“If it’s something that has to be in place, I want to make sure that students are getting a benefit from the taxes they are paying,” Gondek said. “I would be open to looking into whether the mill rate needs to be different or whether these properties need to be categorized differently.”

Davison was concerned that renters had to pay property taxes, comparing the scenario to any other rental situation.

“On the surface it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to have residents pay property taxes since they’re not owners of the buildings,” he said.

Chahal sympathized with the issue but was cautious about how the city’s books would balance if that revenue was taken away, citing an already difficult budget.

“We are already in an operating deficit, we’re already scrambling to find savings and costs and if that taxation wouldn’t happen there, then taxpayers across the city would have to pay more as well,” Chahal said. “I think it could be looked at, potentially, but I think the current system is built that all property owners pay taxes.”

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CALGARY FLAMES ARENA

Despite proclamations to the contrary by Calgary Flames executives, a new arena for the city’s National Hockey League team became one of the hottest election issues. The city hit a snag negotiating with the team, with Calgary’s proposal offering to pay for a third of the arena while leaving the team and ticket-buyers on the hook for each of the other two thirds. The Flames want the city to pay at least half and to be exempt from property tax.

Sports franchises trying to leverage their economic weight in a city as a way to get a better deal on a new arena are well-documented, including by fieldofschemes.com, a site dedicated to monitoring professional teams’ dealings with municipalities. There, it’s seen that similar situations are also playing out in cities like Columbus, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia.

Post-election, everyone in Calgary government, including Nenshi, seems willing to go back to the negotiating table with the Flames. However, council newcomers agree that any public funds used for the arena have to result in tangible benefit for taxpayers.

Chahal says compromise is necessary, comparing the arena deal with the city’s bid to become home to Amazon’s second headquarters.

“I view this somewhat as a real estate transaction. We’re looking to bring Amazon into the city now but we also need to attract new businesses and retain the ones we have,” he said. “So as a customer or a tenant, an integral part of our city, it’s important that we work with the Calgary Flames and make sure we get a deal that’s fair for the residents and the
taxpayers of the City of Calgary.”

Davison doesn’t want the phrase “public funds” to become a dirty word as the city re-enters negotiations.

“I don’t think we have to be hung up on the public funds conversation because ultimately there’s many ways public funds can benefit the public,” Davison said.

Gondek echoed those remarks, saying that she’s spoken with former mayors of Denver and Pittsburgh who negotiated similar arena deals to scope out ideas for ensuring public value. Farkas preferred a more fiscally conservative response, saying that the city could play a facilitating role but that the endeavour should be privately funded.

For now, the ball is in the Flames’ court for arena negotiations.

“I don’t think anything will happen until the Flames decide what their next move is. My expectation is that council, the mayor and administration are probably ready to engage whenever the opportunity arises, but the Flames said a month ago that the conversation on a new arena is over,” Lucas said. “That’s where things stand right now. It’s just a matter of whether they decide to restart that conversation.”

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2026 OLYMPIC BID

In August, City Council voted to delay a decision on whether to pursue a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games until more information was released by the International Olympic Committee, essentially delegating the Olympic decision to the incoming council. And it’s a pretty monumental choice — estimates for the cost of the Games come in at a staggering $4.6 billion, with $2.2 billion in revenue expected to offset that number.

Once considered a heavily competitive honour, hosting the Olympics have recently become an expensive endeavour marred by controversy. After low interest in Summer Olympic bids resulted in the 2024 and 2028 Games being awarded to Paris and Los Angeles, respectively, the IOC is attempting to make the Games more appealing to hosts by lowering restrictions and costs for host cities.

The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC) has already concluded that a second Olympic Games for Calgary would be financially feasible, but it will be up to council to decide whether it’s prudent.

The four newly elected councillors share a skepticism of whether changes to the Games made by the IOC will be enough to make hosting them worthwhile. Davison questions the economic climate in which the decision is being made.

“Calgary is a far different city and the Olympics are a far different organization now than in 1988,” he said. “There’s too many people struggling in the city right now. Businesses are struggling. Is this something that could revitalize the economy or is this something that would be a detriment to our society?”

For Farkas, 2026 might be too early for a Calgary Games.

“I’m not willing to cut essentially a blank cheque for an international organization with, let’s say, a spotted record. What I’m supporting is, instead of a 2026 bid, we hold our cards for a 2030 bid,” Farkas said. “Let’s see if the IOC has followed through on their reforms to make the Games cheaper and let city staff have more control. If so, I’d be willing to have that discussion for a future Games. But let’s have other cities be the guinea pig.”

Chahal fondly remembers the 1988 Olympics, but doesn’t want to support an event that would run a deficit. He thinks the best course of action is waiting until the city has more numbers. Gondek embraces the idea of reusing facilities like the on-campus Olympic Oval as a cost-saving measure, as long as the IOC is consistent with its requirements for host cities.

“If host cities have more control and can put on a Games in their own way using existing facilities and can rehabilitate existing facilities, I would definitely want to investigate it,” Gondek said. “But there has to be some sort of an assurance from the IOC that the game would not be changed.”

The topic of an Olympic Games is linked to a new arena for the Calgary Flames, since the CBEC’s report worked under the assumption that two full-size hockey arenas — the Saddledome and a new development — would be available for the Olympics and would not be part of the Games’ budget.

“Obviously, the landscape has shifted on the politics of the arena, so I think we’re going to see the Olympics connected with the arena and we’ll see it emerge again later this year,” Lucas said.

City council is expected to revisit a potential Calgary Olympic bid in 2018.

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