Perfect Storm

How The Results Of 3 Disastrous Elections Have Left Calgary Reeling

Hit hard by the oil crash of 2014, Calgary’s economy continues to struggle, a result of the decisions made by politicians locally,  provincially, and federally. In a three part series, I will examine the roles the mayor, the premier, and the prime minister have had to play in this economic crisis.

Part One: Municipal Mis-steps-The Mayor 

As Calgary enters 2019, there is debate as to whether or not the Alberta economy is recovering as some analysts have suggested. Many Calgarians would tell you that things haven’t improved at all, and statistics tend to support this view.

What everyone seems to agree on, is that we have entered uncharted territory. This is the longest period of economic turmoil in the history of the province, and we are by no means out of the woods.

In 2014, when world oil prices collapsed, Alberta was hit hard, and another bust period was upon us. More than four years on, it is unlike any that have happened in the province’s history. The reason for this, is that it is now about more than just the price of oil. The policies of the federal and provincial governments have just as much to do with the lousy state of our economy, and, in Calgary, the local government shoulders more than its share of the responsibility for the crisis we find ourselves in.

In this first of a three part series, I look at the role city hall has played in this disaster, while parts two and three will look at the roles that the provincial and federal governments have played.

The City of Calgary

The old city hall is covered by a protective canvas while restoration work is done underneath. According to the city, it spent $165,000 on the canvas, which depicts the building underneath.

There are people around these parts who think that, as a whole, the current Calgary City Council will be known as the worst one ever. I count myself among that particular group. In the roughly 15 or so months since being seated, this council has proven to be the most dysfunctional this city has ever seen. The normally boring routine of council meetings has been broken, and replaced with moments of drama worthy of reality television. The person who can take credit for this, is the chair of those meetings.

Naheed Nenshi, World Mayor, Uber Patron

The Mayor

Meetings of the sort council holds are run by a chair, and the chair of city council meetings is the mayor, Naheed Nenshi. In order for the chair to be effective, they have to have a neutral approach to the meeting, allowing for all voices to be heard equally. It is also important that the chair remember that the meeting is not their own personal forum, and that they are there to act as a facilitator.

Anyone who has seen Nenshi in action for themselves will tell you, this is not the way he runs a meeting. For starters, he is someone who likes to hear himself talk, and given the slightest opportunity to do so, he will talk, and talk, and talk. In 2017, the mayor’s inability to properly run a meeting had administration floating the idea of hiring someone to chair council meetings, at a cost of roughly $170,000 per year.

He bristles at criticism, often responding to it with sarcasm, before putting on a display of attitude befitting an 11 year-old, and stomping off in a huff. Now, given that he was an academic in the field of city governance before becoming mayor, I would have expected that his Pompous Purpleness would have taken “Chairing a Meeting 302”, and “Toughen Up, You’re in Politics Now: How To Grow A Thicker Skin”.

The Accidental Mayor

In a race seen as being between Alderman Ric McIver and local news personality Barb Higgins, relative unknown Naheed Nenshi would best them both. In a first for North America, Calgary had elected a Muslim mayor, and this is what he basically rode on during his first term. It would earn him the title “World Mayor” (which only fed his ever growing ego), and those who dared oppose him could be met with shouts of “Islamophobia”.

When he ran in 2010, he promised a municipal government that would be more transparent. What he has delivered has turned out to be more opaque than transparent. The amount of time council has spent “in camera”, or behind closed doors, has risen dramatically under Nenshi’s watch, reaching levels never before seen in this, or any other major Canadian city.

Prone to episodes of Foot in Mouth Syndrome, Nenshi has made statements that have come back to haunt him.

Behind closed doors, he doesn’t have to watch what he says like he does when he’s in public. Statements he made during the 2013 mayoral campaign would lead to a $6 million defamation lawsuit against Nenshi by a local homebuilder. The matter was settled out of court, with Nenshi issuing a retraction and an apology, and the city on the hook for $300,000 in legal fees. Nenshi would have to pay the tab himself, depending on donations from supporters to cover most of it.

Neheed Nenshi compares Uber CEO to male genitalia during a trip to Boston.

Then of course, there is the video of Nenshi, taken in an Uber in Boston during an April 2016 trip, where he called the CEO of Uber a “dick”, and suggested the City was testing Uber’s screening process by planting criminals as applicants. That would also warrant an apology, and an admission that he should have chosen his words a lot more carefully. Six months after the fact.

Legacy Building

Purple is the mayor’s favorite color, and is also the name city hall insiders refer to him by. When he first ran for office, he said that it was the perfect color for him, combining the blue of his fiscal conservative side with the red of his socially liberal other half. It’s hard to see him as anything other than crimson red.

Nenshi’s term in office so far can be best remembered for higher taxes and for pet projects the mayor and some on council hold near and dear. Creating rarely used bicycle only lanes on busy streets, millions spent on controversial public art projects, and millions wasted on a mishandled Olympic bid effort will be among the things he will be best known for.

Mayor Nenshi addresses the media after voters overwhelmingly reject a 2026 Olympic bid.

Despite his initial claims of being neutral about the matter, bringing the Olympics back to Calgary is exactly what he wanted all along. Ever the advocate of making Calgary a “world class” city, Naheed Nenshi would jump at the opportunity to showcase Calgary on the international stage.

The blame here is not entirely on Naheed Nenshi’s shoulders. Putting a municipal budget together is a difficult and complicated task, reliant on a number of variables to determine how much tax businesses and homeowners will pay. This process becomes more difficult in cities like Calgary, where boom and bust cycles make predictable budgeting virtually impossible. It isn’t like there are a lot of places to to cut expenses either, given that most of the budget covers emergency services.

High vacancy rates and a depressed economy have meant a decrease in value of Calgary’s downtown office towers, leading to much lower tax revenue for city hall. To make up for the shortfall, businesses and property owners will be paying more, with businesses shouldering a disproportionate amount of the load. This is hardly a selling point, especially at a time when we are trying to attract business to the city.

Downtown Calgary icon Riley & McCormick closed its doors in 2016, citing rising costs and slow sales.

The combination of increased operating costs due to the carbon tax, increasing property and business taxes, and the provincially mandated increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, has forced many business to close their doors. Restaurants and lounges are being hit the hardest, and many have had to shut down, no longer viable given the current environment. The once thriving live music scene in Calgary is growing ever quieter.

The city has just announced that a $600 million proposal for a new arena is in the works, giving some the hope that a deal can finally be worked out that will appeal to everyone. I’m not hopeful. Assuming a deal is made, and a new arena built. If the economy continues to struggle after it is built, how many people will be able to afford a night out at a hockey game? Without the energy companies around to buy up luxury suites, or blocks of bowl seats, who else will step in to fill the void?

Unfortunately, Calgarians are stuck with an egotistical crybaby in the mayor’s chair for a couple more years. However, on the bright side, a provincial election is approaching in a matter of weeks, and Justin Trudeau’s disastrous term is up in the fall.

DBC

In part 2, The NDP pulls off the unthinkable, bringing socialist ruin to the province.

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