Calgarians deserve answers from the Mayor and Council

Jeromy Farkas - April 25, 2016

During a recent secretly taped conversation, Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi made serious charges against transportation company Uber. Taken as a whole, these claims raise serious questions about Calgary’s safe operations, the good use of tax dollars, and the competence of the City’s management and leadership.

Mayor Nenshi wasn’t aware that he was being recorded, but that’s irrelevant. We expect our leaders (and their facts) to be the same in private as they are in public. For that reason it’s important to consider his comments as genuine, or at the very least, true to his knowledge.

Most of the media coverage has surrounded the mayor’s feelings toward Uber and its business practices, and while a problem, that’s not actually the real cause for alarm.

The core issue is that “we” (City of Calgary staff, the mayor, Council, or all) hired or “sent” registered sex offenders and violent criminals to test Uber’s background screening process. 

Whether or not you’re a fan of ride-sharing, this fact alone should give you plenty of pause and cause for concern.

As a Calgarian homeowner subjected to compounded residential tax rate increases of 55 per cent over the past seven years, consider: What was the cost of this program? Were these new hires, or transfers from existing departments? Now that Uber has been run out of town, albeit temporarily, are we obliged to find a job for these individuals elsewhere in front-line City services? For how long? And as we are hit with the economic downtown and closing many community police stations city-wide, is this really the best use of our limited resources? 

Calgarian business-owners, having stomached compounded 180 per cent tax increases over the same period of time, deserve answers as well: Has your industry been targeted? Will you be targeted next, or at the urging of one of your competitors? Do you even have a way to know, or appeal? And more broadly, is it the role of government to go to such ends to pick winners and losers in private business?

This also unfairly tarnishes and calls into question the quality and ability of our world-class and professional City staff. Is Council side-stepping its own internal HR policies to hire sex offenders to sting a private company? Was the City combing through personnel files to find those with criminal records? If new hires were made, will they be given priority for promotions or staffing? Was union leadership informed or involved?

The biggest questions remain for City Council. Were they briefed, and if so, by who? If council suspected that something was a-foul, why didn't they stop it? Did council as a whole approve this operation, or was it just the mayor and specific councillors?

The Alberta Municipal Government Act explicitly prohibits the passing of a resolution or bylaw behind closed doors. In recent years, council has spent more than 25 per cent of their time in secret, up from 18.5 per cent during the last term, and 12 per cent from 2007-2010. One-in-five meetings now spend more time closed to the public than open. Many other cities, like Toronto, remain safe while keeping their time in secret to under five per cent.

An immediate inquiry into Calgary City Council’s time spent in secret is needed both for their protection and ours. While the City is a complex operation and some confidential issues should remain so, this incredible amount of time spent in secret flies in the face of council’s legal obligations and commitment to transparency. 

Sadly, this is impacting taxpayer and investor confidence at the worst time possible. As Calgary’s leadership clamors for more taxing powers and autonomy, can they really be trusted? And why would anyone want to invest in a place where the local government goes to such ends to drive new business out of town?

The City of Calgary is an organization with an annual budget of over $4 billion and 15,000 employees. It demands a better and more serious focus on governance from our leaders. Calgarians know leadership when we hear it, and it doesn’t sound like “I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to know.”

Calgarians want, and deserve, to know.

Jeromy Farkas is a Calgary-based open government advocate and the creator of the Manning Centre’s www.counciltracker.ca

Disclosure: Jeromy is a registered candidate for Calgary’s 2017 municipal election.

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