Calgary·Analysis

City council a lonely place for Jeromy Farkas

Jeromy Farkas was elected to shake up city hall. So far, the pushback has left him shaken, but undeterred.

Rookie councillor's tactics grab attention but fall short of making change happen

Coun. Jeromy Farkas has been a lone voice on council. (James Young/CBC)

It's been an eventful couple of weeks for Jeromy Farkas, a political newcomer to Calgary's city hall.

Let's see. He's been asked to apologize three times in council meetings. Found to have violated the council code of conduct.

He's been told that his behaviour is "unacceptable."

"Insulting."

"Uncalled for." 

"Disappointing."

Farkas has also heard he is undermining council and discrediting it in the public's eyes.

At least that's what his council colleagues are telling him.

The history books tell us city hall has seen its share of firebrands and populists. Visionaries and charlatans.

But successful politicians all have one common characteristic. 

They find ways to get things done.

And on that front, Jeromy Farkas is facing challenges. For him to make change happen at city hall requires seven others to vote with him. 

Sometimes, he can't even get one.

Farkas critical of backroom meetings

Since well before last fall's municipal election, Farkas has been railing against what he calls "secret meetings" held by city council. 

Some of those meetings are held in a boardroom he calls the "chamber of secrets."

You can kid him about it. After all, he's a councillor who now goes to those closed-door meetings.

Coun. Jeromy Farkas has complained about closed-session meetings held by city council. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

But he's serious when he says council spends too much time in closed sessions and he has ideas on how to fix that.

Now, no one is pushing for more or longer confidential meetings. 

They're actually required under the Municipal Government Act and the Freedom of Information legislation if certain matters are to be discussed. But Farkas thinks there's more than that going on in that boardroom.

Farkas says council is sometimes pulled into closed sessions "to instill fear, intimidate and shut down new ideas."

Potential allies aren't supportive

The reaction of his colleagues to these accusations is anything but funny. And no one is interested in his ideas because of the way he's framing this discussion.

Coun. Jeff Davison, like Farkas, is a new member of council. He said his colleague's strategy isn't working.

"I think the overall tone of the rhetoric being used in the media — secret, lies — those type of things, it gets to the point of being a little bit excessive," said Davison.

It just spins things out of control and it doesn't build any kind of positive rapport with Calgarians.- Coun.  Jeff Davison

Like Farkas, Davison feels city council can be more transparent. But.... 

"Calling things secretive? It just spins things out of control and it doesn't build any kind of positive rapport with Calgarians."

Davison is a conservative-minded councillor. So are people like Peter Demong and Ward Sutherland.

Rather than being potential allies, these councillors are just as alienated by Farkas and his tactics as any of the other council members.

Sutherland used an analogy in a recent council meeting to spell out what the dispute with Farkas is all about.

He said it's like everyone sees a wall as being purple but there's one person who says it's actually red.

Coun. Ward Sutherland is tired of what he describes as a 'circle of conflict' at city council. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

"Councillor Farkas doesn't grasp any of what anybody has said," said Sutherland. "So I'm not sure what he's going to grasp or when or if he will."

But Sutherland is sure of one thing.

"Unless things change, this circle of conflict is going to continue for the next four years. And it's very sad." 

Not right vs. left

The source of the friction isn't a schism between the left and the right.

It seems to be the difference between right and wrong. But whether you're Farkas or the rest of the council, both sides in this stand-off think they are right and the other side is wrong.

Coun. Sean Chu is another self-described fiscal conservative and has also been a divisive figure at times.

He's not too fussed about the turmoil around Farkas.

Coun. Sean Chu has said no one should be surprised by Farkas's priorities. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

"We're politicians. We're peacocking all the time. That's what we do," said Chu. "We have to let people know who we are."

Chu adds that no one should be surprised by what Farkas is choosing for his priorities.

"He said before the election what he'd do and he's doing it. Do I like it? No. But he's doing what he said he would do."

And Farkas is not backing down.

Stubborn or calculating?

At council's behest, Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently ordered him to apologize during a meeting for disparaging the entire group on social media.

After what seemed like an agonizing 48 seconds of silence following the mayor's request, Farkas said no apology would be forthcoming.

Council then debated ejecting him from the meeting.

However, the motion was defeated — primarily because councillors feared punting him was precisely what Farkas wanted and it would only fuel the dispute.

It's very difficult to work with people when you start out by insulting and lodging accusations.- Prof. Lori Williams, Mount Royal University

While several councillors say his actions are corrosive and don't bode well for team building, Farkas says there are no hard feelings. 

"I respect and I admire every other member of council including the mayor," said Farkas in an interview. "Collectively, I see us as all part of the solution to be able to address this culture issue."

When asked if he has seen anything during the closed-door sessions he has attended that should not have been discussed privately, Farkas sat in silence for 23 seconds. 

He could not offer even one example.

Is change even legally possible?

Still, he has ideas on how to spend less time behind closed doors.

Council can't reduce the number of personnel issues, land negotiations or legal matters on its agendas. But it could do it quicker.

He suggests it can bring in furniture that's less comfortable, ban verbal briefings and council should vote every 30 minutes on whether to stay in a closed session.

Farkas suggests closed sessions be video recorded for future use, that audits be conducted on why certain items are off-limits to the public, and allow council members to bring in their own legal counsel.  

The fractious relationship Farkas is crafting with his colleagues has meant there is little to no support for these ideas. Some councillors question whether some are even legal.

Council chamber not a legislature

A political scientist at Mount Royal University, Lori Williams, says a municipal council is not like a provincial legislature or the House of Commons.

It's more like a board of directors for a large corporation with the job of doing what's best for that organization. 

There are no political parties. No leader of the opposition. 

Two members who vote together on a motion that's on the table could very well be opposing each other on the next one.

She said these closed sessions aren't secret meetings. They're actually confidential discussions on matters that legally must take place away from public eyes.

"It looks like he doesn't fully understand the purpose of such meetings," said Williams. 

"He's starting with the assumption that any such meeting is being conducted for some kind of nefarious purpose."

Maybe the goal isn't change

She says his intent seems to be to get publicity and boost his profile. However, Williams adds there's a problem especially when his approach is alienating even those who might agree with his political stances.

"He's making accusations and suggestions that are so extreme, so hyperbolic that I think he's actually undermining his credibility rather than enhancing his profile publicly," said Williams.

"It's very difficult to work with people when you start out by insulting and lodging accusations."

It means the political victories could be rare for the rookie councillor unless he can find a way to build support.

Farkas has said that all council members owe it to their constituents to work together. 

So far, that is not what's happening on the very city council that he was elected to join last fall. 

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.