OPINION | Why can't Calgary city council get along?

Regardless of how much actual conflict there may be, council suffers under a cloud of bad publicity. Most Calgarians will tell you our councillors don’t get along and their conflicts affect how work gets done.

Demonstrate better working relationships, before Calgarians run out of patience

Members of Calgary city council enjoy a lunch in Chinatown in February. Despite the smiles here, most Calgarians will tell you our city councillors don’t get along. (Ward Sutherland/Twitter)

This column is an opinion from Dave Robertson, a meeting facilitator and writer in Calgary.

"Calgary's city council was never noted for its tranquillity."

Those are the words of Calgary's 28th mayor, Grant MacEwan, and they're from his 1958 book, Calgary Cavalcade: From Fort to Fortune.

Fast forward to 2020 and nothing appears to have changed. 

In its most recent term, our city council has had more than its usual share of cringe-worthy moments.

There have been accusations of bullying during closed meetings, insults and name-calling in council chambers, and threats to eject members for disrespectful remarks. Meanwhile, public approval has dropped dramatically

But how bad is it, really?

In search of an objective opinion, I asked veteran CBC reporter Scott Dippel for his observations. He's been covering Calgary city hall since September 2009.

Dippel is careful to stick to the facts.

"Some things I see in meetings, people calling each other names, sometimes belittling them or dismissing their concerns, talking over each other. So, yeah, there are, at times, levels of dysfunction that I see as an observer," he says.

But when Dippel compares it to previous councils, he isn't sure if this is worse.

"It seems like every council has a measure of dysfunction. Is it worse? Perhaps it's getting worse."

But he adds, "We saw some of it with the last (council) and certainly some with the group before that."

Dippel isn't the only one who is ambivalent. Even council members can't seem to agree on how much they do (or don't) get along.

Calgary city council, led by Mayor Naheed Nenshi, met behind closed doors last spring to learn a thing or two about how to work together better. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Prior to a closed meeting about council relations last spring, Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart told her colleagues, "In my experience, we've had more highly charged interactions and controversy, and previous councils that were more — a lot more — highly partisan than ours."

In the background, a puzzled Mayor Nenshi could be heard asking, "Really?"

Regardless of how much actual conflict there may be, council suffers under a cloud of bad publicity. Most Calgarians will tell you our councillors don't get along and their conflicts affect how work gets done.

There's some good news — council is trying to collaborate more effectively by engaging an external facilitator. The bad news is, except for some hard-to-find meeting notes, council isn't talking about the results. 

Anyone who has been to mediation or been in any kind of difficult meeting knows that people need time and privacy to resolve their differences. But Calgarians have yet to hear any updates on council's efforts, and they need assurances that our leaders are pulling together to help Calgary weather bad times. It's becoming a matter of public trust.

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart says she has served on previous councils that were a lot more highly partisan than the current one. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

My facilitation work sometimes involves conflict resolution, so naturally, I'm curious about their conflicts and the potential solutions. In the absence of much detail from city hall, I went looking for answers to two questions: what is causing the conflict at council and what should councillors do to fix it?

An absence of norms

Edmonton Coun. Ben Henderson says, "There's a kind of joke that you don't get to pick your family.… Here (on municipal councils), we don't get to pick our colleagues."

Henderson is not just a councillor. He's also a mediator and a conflict resolution professional.

"We're thrown together by someone else, not because there are natural connections here, so you have to build those," Henderson says.

Conflict resolution professionals help groups foster those connections by setting standards of behaviour called norms. Establishing norms is a crucial first step in any difficult conversation, especially when people share different experiences and expectations.

Norms also ensure behaviour remains respectful when discussions get challenging and people get tired and frustrated.

Coun. Ben Henderson of Edmonton is also a mediator and a conflict resolution professional. (CBC)

Our councillors already have standards to follow. But the Code of Conduct for Elected Officials — which states members must communicate "respectfully, without abuse, bullying or intimidation" — is too vague, and the city's more detailed Respectful Workplace Policy hasn't had much impact. 

Henderson says Edmonton's mayor, Don Iveson, started a discussion about setting norms for council members there.

"He really wanted to … bring that sense of order to the table," Henderson says, adding, "There's no question when we have those discussions … our stability level improves."

Edmonton's council now does occasional check-ins to see if their norms are being followed. 

I'm hopeful that Calgary city council will have the same face-to-face discussions about its own norms and make a public commitment to follow them.

And if you're dismayed by what you see at council, you need to make your expectations known to your elected officials.

A lack of shared vision

Colley-Urquhart thinks council relations are pretty good, but her Ward 7 colleague, Coun. Druh Farrell, sees it differently.

"We're terrible," says Farrell, who describes the level of conflict as "the worst I've seen."

Farrell believes some of her colleagues treat council meetings as an opportunity to score points on their opponents.

"It's based on this sort of partisanship of getting at the 'gotcha' for the other guy, rather than we're in this together," she says.  

According to her, it isn't supposed to work this way.

Coun. Druh Farrell describes the level of conflict on the current council as 'the worst I’ve seen.' (CBC)

"We have a common purpose. We need to act as a team. We may not agree on every topic. We all have something valuable to add. And at the end of the day, our decisions will be stronger because of our differences as well as our similarities," Farrell says.

But, she laments, "Lately, I think we've lost that perspective."

Farrell believes council doesn't share a common vision.

"Part of our problem is, we've set really remarkable policies, starting with imagineCalgary.… And there's very little attachment to those policies. So we're drifting."

Without a vision, Farrell says, "We have a council, who is just operating based on sort of day-to-day decision-making."

Others have said the same thing about the consequences of council's missing vision.

Farrell believes city administration should step in and give council members a refresher on the long-term policies that came from imagineCalgary.

"You may be a new member of council who has no loyalty to previous policies. Well, you can't develop brand new policies every term, (or) you would be bogged down in … navel gazing and hand-wringing," she says.

"I think it's the role of administration to help bring council along (on) why (these long-term policies are) important. And we don't do that."

In interest-based mediation, the parties identify their mutual interests and brainstorm ways to act on them. So if council's first responsibility is acting in the best interests of Calgarians, what should its next move be?

Conveniently, imagineCalgary has 28 goals — it's just a matter of this council picking a couple they can publicly commit to working on together.

Regardless of what they pick, council needs to show some unity around a few issues of importance to Calgary's future. It would be an important boost to citizen morale right now.   

Public obsession with accountability

Last month, Ward 1 Coun. Ward Sutherland posted photos to Twitter showing council members at a lunch to support local business in Chinatown.

His colleagues seemed to be enjoying each other's company, but in the comments, there are the usual, near-sighted jabs about taxpayer money. 

Former city manager Jeff Fielding remembers when municipal politicians were allowed to meet informally. It built better, more social relationships. But today's obsession with accountability makes that too complicated now.

Fielding, now the chief of staff at the city of Toronto, thinks that's unfortunate.

"It's really where you get to understand … the ins and outs of the personalities around the table that you're expected to work with," Fielding says.

Former city manager Jeff Fielding thinks it’s unfortunate that municipal politicians are no longer allowed to meet informally like they used to. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Maybe, if we want our council to work better together, Calgarians should be prepared to stop complaining and invest in a few more off-site lunches. They're a far better investment than the hours wasted over the ugly stalemates and standoffs in council chambers.

Is party politics the answer?

In last spring's meeting, Colley-Urquhart remarked, "We don't have a party whip in this system to keep us focused. So it's up to each and every one of us to make today work."

She hints that party politics offers another potential solution to the dysfunction.

In theory, it has some appeal.

Fielding summarizes why that might be.

"(Council isn't) a situation where a cabinet (can) sit down and hash out a position and bring it to the floor of council with a majority of votes, so you can avoid some of these embarrassing moments that happen when there is conflict in public," he says.

But according to the Samara Centre for Democracy, party politics are far more dysfunctional than anything we've ever seen at council.

After interviewing members of parliament, Samara published a report called It's My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered.

It says party politics interfere with the positive work politicians are trying to do, and that, "MPs claimed to be embarrassed by the public displays of politics in the House of Commons, saying they misrepresented their work."

There's talk that an upcoming review of the Local Authorities Elections Act will give political parties more influence in Alberta municipal politics.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Kaycee Madu has denied that this is his intention, but city politicians like Ben Henderson and others are still deeply concerned

Some are concerned that an upcoming review of the Local Authorities Elections Act will give political parties more influence in Alberta municipal politics. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Farrell will always prefer how our current municipal system forces well-intended, professional politicians to work together.

"That's always been the beauty of Calgary's political system … you would find your allies depending on the topic, not whether you like them or not, or whether they fit your politics," Farrell says.

When compared to what we see in Parliament or the provincial legislature, it sounds like a much more mature way of doing political business.

But to really capitalize on this approach, Calgary city council members will have to demonstrate better working relationships before Calgarians run out of patience.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Dave Robertson is a meeting facilitator and writer in Calgary. He has written about biking in the city, restrictive covenants, stressed-out volunteers and an avalanche rescue in Sentinel Pass.


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