Analysis

Why would a city councillor record a private conversation with another councillor?

When one councillor reveals she records a conversation with another councillor, it can be difficult sorting out just who was "thrown under the bus."

Maybe all city councils are dysfunctional, in their own way

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart has been battling other city council members since the October election, including Joe Magliocca, left, and newcomer Jeromy Farkas. (CBC)

What are we to make of Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart's admission she recorded a phone call with one of her colleagues?

City councillors typically face less public scrutiny compared with MPs or MLAs. 

Many Calgarians probably are unaware who sits in the 15 chairs around the city council table, never mind who their councillor is currently.

But let's take another look at what Coun. Colley-Urquhart put on the public record last week.

In bashing a decision by Coun. Jeromy Farkas to start talking publicly about putting a motion before city council on the southwest bus rapid transit project, the veteran councillor for ward 13 said his actions ran counter to an earlier conversation they had.

She said they talked about proceeding in a different way. And she was sure.

There's a reason she was 100 per cent sure he had said something that didn't involve a motion. 

"I recorded our conversation he and I had on November the 2nd. A Thursday evening. I was at home that night," said Colley-Urquhart.

Councillor regrets supporting Farkas

When asked why she recorded that conversation, she said "I was very concerned about how this was going to be handled."

She revealed that she signed the motion put forward by Farkas on the S.W. BRT only because the rookie councillor had announced that's what he intended to do and she wanted to support him.  

Colley-Urquhart said that was a decision she regrets.

Working as a reporter, I record conversations all the time. 

People can see that I'm recording them or, if we're chatting on the phone, I have a legal and ethical duty to alert them to the fact they are being recorded.

Was that courtesy extended to Farkas? And does Colley-Urqhart record all of her conversations?

For what purpose does she record conversations like this? Perhaps she has a poor memory and this assists her later in recalling who said what.

Or perhaps she doesn't trust her colleagues.

No comment

I asked Colley-Urquhart why she would record Farkas or any of her colleagues?

"No comment."

Do you record other conversations?

"No comment."

Why won't you talk about this?

"No comment."

Colley-Urquhart wasn't present when the motion she co-signed with Farkas was debated and soundly defeated by city council.

She was away on a long-planned vacation to Antarctica. She never actually made it there as the ship she was travelling on developed mechanical issues and turned back.

Farkas had already joked that his colleague's absence while their motion was discussed made him feel like she had "thrown me under the bus."

Coun. Jeromy Farkas said his colleague's absence while their motion was discussed made him feel like she had "thrown me under the bus." (CBC)

When told of the mysterious recording of their conversation and her very different take on the events leading up to the motion, Farkas took the high road.

"I can't speak to any recordings I was not informed of," said Farkas.

But surely he finds it odd that one city councillor would record another city councillor. 

"I don't want to go into a 'he said, she said.' Obviously, I was disappointed with the outcome of our notice of motion," said Farkas.

Other councillors targeted

Another member of council who was targeted by Colley-Urquhart in this episode wasn't so diplomatic.

In her comments wondering what the big fuss was about regarding her Antarctic absence, Colley-Urquhart decided to name and shame two other council colleagues for their prior absences from budget talks.

You see, last week was just a council debate on the adjustments to the final year of a four-year budget document.

But during the actual debate of that four-year budget plan back in 2014, Colley-Urquhart told reporters two councillors weren't there and no one complained.

I don't think I'm going to go there just yet. Let her sweat it out.- Coun. Joe Magliocca, on why he hasn't confronted his council colleague yet 

"When Councillor Stevenson and Councillor Magliocca took a whole month off during the four-year budget cycle … with no mention of that or no letter to anyone to advise them," said Colley-Uquhart.

Except they weren't on vacation.

They were actually away on council-sanctioned business.

They were at Grey Cup events in Vancouver, representing council and Calgarians as part of the city's Grey Cup committee.

And they weren't gone for a month.

The pair missed a couple of days of the lengthy budget debate and both were back in time for the final vote.

'Don't cross me again'

Magliocca wasn't happy with Colley-Urquhart's choice of words.

"She should find out her facts before she opens up her mouth," said the councillor for Ward 2. 

He said he hasn't spoken with her about the comment. 

"No, I don't think I'm going to go there just yet. Let her sweat it out a bit."

Might this leave some lasting ill-will?

"I'm a better person than her. Not really. But you know what? Don't cross me again," said Magliocca.

"She should find out her facts before she opens up her mouth," Coun. Joe Magliocca said of remarks by his council colleague. (Mike Symington/CBC)

As Calgarians have seen in the past, group dynamics can be an odd thing around the very public city council table. 

After all, these politicians spend a lot more time around each other than most of us do with our co-workers.

The last city council brought in a facilitator and talked about manners.

That group finished its term with one member making animated gestures behind his colleagues' backs, another councillor switching chairs in the council chamber to get away from him and complaints being filed with the integrity commissioner.

Maybe it's time for an intervention

Wendy Giuffre is the president of Wendy Ellen Inc., a Calgary company that does human resources consulting work with small and mid-sized groups.

She didn't want to comment on the actions of the individuals described here.

But Giuffre said that situations like these require leadership and, occasionally, an outside perspective to get the team rowing in the same direction again.

"I would talk about two key issues: trust and respect," said Giuffre.

Calgary-based human resources consultant Wendy Giuffre says group conflicts won't go away if they aren't dealt with. "It just snowballs and gets worse," she says. (Wendy Ellen Inc. )

Sometimes, an intervention is required. Is this one of those times?

"The real key going forward is everybody to have an understanding of what the accountabilities are to the group, to each other as members of that group. We often call it the rules of engagement."

The last council brought in a facilitator to help them. No sign of that yet with this group.

It may get worse before it gets better

Which does raise the question of what happens if this stuff doesn't get dealt with?

She's seen this movie before with other groups. 

"It just snowballs and gets worse," said Giuffre.

"Whoever is leading that team typically needs to deal with key players individually first and, hopefully, you build the buy-in, member by member."

The challenge with a city council is that people think the mayor is in charge when in fact, the occupant of that chair's real power is that of moral suasion. And that's about it.

But one month into this new council, perhaps some team-building is in order?

"Actually looking at people and saying, 'You don't trust me or I don't trust you.' Those are hard words to say and hear. But I think when it gets down to that level, that's exactly what needs to be said," said Giuffre.

Now then. Who's going to say it?

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.