With the announcement of a provincial election on April 23, The City of Calgary officially launched CitiesMatter.ca—an online survey of political party policies on municipal issues. Mayor Naheed Nenshi, on behalf of City Council, distributed a survey addressing 10 questions about the relationship between large cities and the provincial government.
“It’s our responsibility as Albertans living in cities to ensure the issues that affect our daily lives are also critical issues during this election,” said Mayor Nenshi. “Supporting front-line services, eliminating homelessness and poverty, fixing the fiscal imbalance, and creating a sustainable transportation strategy with cities are just a few of the topics that all-too-often fall off the political radar.”
The survey was distributed to the five political parties with representatives sitting in the Alberta Legislature: Wild Rose Party, Progressive Conservative Party, New Democratic Party, Liberal Party, and Alberta Party. The deadline for responding to the survey is 5pm on April 9, 2012. Responses will be posted on www.CitiesMatter.ca after that date.
“Cities matter, so let’s make our voices are heard by those who will govern our province,” said Mayor Nenshi. “Elections are important moments where every one of us has a say in our political future and, in this case, the future of our cities.”
Over the course of a week in November and a half-year of consultation with more than 24,000 Calgarians, your City Council approved a budget and business plan that reflects the priorities of Calgarians. The tax increase approved by Council was six per cent which, while higher than I would have liked, maintained our taxes as amongst the lowest in Canada.
However, in an example of the antiquated relationship between cities and the provincial government, the province invoiced the City of Calgary for its portion of the property tax. Simply put: the province surprised Calgarians by asking for 7.2 per cent more on residential property tax.
Since about half of the property tax you pay goes directly to the Province, and the City has no control over the rate or use of these funds, this would have meant a blended increase of 6.5 per cent (six per cent to the City and 7.2 per cent to the Province).
(The Calgary Herald editorial board has shared its own opinion on this issue.)
This put my Council colleagues and me into a into a challenging position: either break faith with citizens and allow the increase to happen or pull from a fund designed to pay for City debt and infrastructure to hold the line on property taxes.
After much debate, we chose to do the latter (by reallocating $5 million of the $15 million tax room vacated by the province) to keep the tax increase to what we promised Calgarians back in November 2011.
Unfortunately, this solution is not ideal—it still means less for Calgarians based on the whims of the province. Of course, my colleagues and I will raise this issue (and other issues pertaining to the relationship between cities and the province) during the coming provincial election at CitiesMatter.ca.
One of Mayor Nenshi's priorities for 2012 is the creation of a comprehensive, long-term plan for Calgary Transit--a plan that includes the participation of many Calgarians who are transit users and non-users alike. Here is the release about the launch of the project that will create that major plan for transit in Calgary. Please visit www.routeahead.ca to see how you can get involved.
Today, Calgary Transit launched RouteAhead—a 10-month project that will result in a 30-year plan focused on:
Continuous customer service improvement
Capital infrastructure planning for the growth of the bus and LRT networks
A fiscal strategy to sustainably manage the costs and revenues of the system
Organizational structure and governance of Calgary Transit
Operational service delivery objectives such as service frequency and reliability
“This comprehensive plan is a major priority for me because a healthy public transit system is a critical part of building a working, sustainable city,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a member of the steering committee. “RouteAhead will help City Council and Calgary Transit make better decisions about our public transit system.”
RouteAhead will build upon the existing Calgary Transportation Plan and will explore new ways to better serve Transit customers. It will also discuss what is working well and what requires additional support.
“This is a great opportunity to open up the dialogue between citizens and Calgary Transit to understand how we can provide better transit for Calgarians,” said Doug Morgan, project lead for RouteAhead.
The RouteAhead plan will be developed in two steps. The first step will be to listen to and understand the views of customers and citizens. The project team will also research best practices from other cities to also explore different approaches to service delivery.
The second part of the project is to develop the long-term plan for transit based on the results of public engagement and research including existing data from surveys of Calgarians.
“This is our chance to create a long-term vision for our transit system,” said Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart, another steering committee member. “I look forward to hearing from Calgarians about the amazing system we will build together.”
Visit www.routeahead.ca for updates on the strategic plan’s progress as well as information on upcoming public events.
I write a monthly column in the Calgary Herald. Here is my March story:
Late last week, reflecting on the ongoing robocall scandal, Post-media columnist Andrew Coyne wrote on Twitter: "Always remember: everyone in politics is trying to con you in one way or another. Some go to greater lengths at different times than others."
The sometimes-witty Coyne was, I hope, being tongue-in-cheek, but I was surprised when people jumped in to agree with him. One Calgary journalist wrote that Coyne was "merely expressing a belief held by large (numbers of Canadians)."
I simply don't believe that's true. While journalists can succumb to this insider thinking, I'm not sure it's relevant to citizens. In one radio interview this week, another national columnist, in discussing robocall, framed the entire thing as a political exercise. The Liberals are wounded by the Vikileaks issue, he said, and the strongest NDP performers in the House are on the leadership trail, so the issue will die.
Completely missing from his analysis was any discussion of why this matters outside of the House, or of whether or not the allegations are true. Citizens don't care about question period, they care about Canada.
I don't blame Coyne for being cynical. To read his live tweeting of the House of Commons is to know true despair. And it is certainly true that some of what is going on in some governments defies more rational explanations - from the provincial government's inexplicable decision on power lines to the ongoing questions about misleading robocalls.
The robocalls, in particular, are troubling. The evidence seems to be that someone was actively trying to suppress the votes of those with whom they disagree. If this is true, then whom-ever is responsible is actually acting from an anti-democratic place. Indeed, they were trying to subvert our system of government, which is inexcusable for anyone in politics.
But Coyne's statement doesn't actually stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I know this may sound self-serving from a politician, but I wasn't always in this job and I won't always be in it. I got into this work because, as I said every day during the election, I believe that government matters in people's lives, that politics matters, and that the people we elect matter.
Does the profession attract bullies, jerks and egomaniacs? Sure, just like every profession. (And some would say I am all three.) Are there some con men? Maybe.
But the vast majority of people I meet in politics are hard-working folks who really believe that our community can be better, and who want to work to improve the lives of their neighbours. Of course, we sometimes disagree with one another on how best to do that, but politics, at its best, is about the clash of ideas in the public market-place.
The problem is that Coyne's statement reflects a deep cynicism about what we do, and one that is un-fair. Do I spend a lot of my time selling my ideas? Of course. Does this mean that I am trying to con you? I don't think so.
I often quote the Aga Khan in his 2010 Lafontaine Baldwin lecture: "Too often, democracy is understood to be only about elections - momentary majorities.
But effective governance is much more than that. What happens before and after elections? How are choices framed and explained?
How is decision-making shared so that leaders of different backgrounds can interactively govern, rather than small cliques who rule autocratically?"
That's why our city government has worked so hard to be even more transparent and even more accountable to citizens than we've ever been before. We have to make tough decisions, and not everyone is always happy with them. But I firmly believe we make better decisions when we invite citizens into the decision-making process, when we explain the trade-offs we are considering.
Some would say this makes me naive, and that real politics is about a winner-takes-all, bare-knuckled fight to get one's way. Sometimes that's true, and I will mix it up in the corners when I have to.
But the fight isn't about misleading people. It's about making the kind of change that our community needs. And going out to the public with my ideas, stress-testing my beliefs, and framing choices, isn't about conning people, it's about making better decisions.