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Calgary city council to debate keeping tabs on attendance at meetings

It conjures up images of Ben Stein sitting in an economics class with his list of students doing roll call in the 1980s hit movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

“Bueller… Bueller… Bueller… Bueller…”

Attendance tracking at Calgary city council meetings will be debated at the Feb. 11 Priorities and Finance committee meeting in a notice of motion put forth by Coun. Jeromy Farkas, with fellow councillors Peter Demong, Sean Chu and Joe Magliocca also supporting the measure.

The notice states a councillor’s duty to attend meetings under the Municipal Government Act, and instances where meetings were unable to start due to lack of, or loss of, quorum (minimum number of participants required to hold a binding meeting).  

Farkas’ motion is asking for a summary of attendance between October 2017 and January 2020 and a plan for routine disclosure of council attendance.

“At the end of the day, though, it’s about accountability,” Farkas told LiveWire Calgary.

“It’s about giving Calgarians the tools that they need to be able to hold city council accountable, and ultimately giving the voters the information that they need to be able to decide whether the representation that they’re getting is effective and it’s representation that they agree with.”

When asked about the importance of attendance at council as a measure of a councillor’s efficacy, Farkas acknowledge that it was only one piece of good representation.

“Well, the primary duty that a city councillor has is to represent the constituents,” he said.

“You can’t take the city council out of a city councillor. So, I would argue that if you’re not present in the meetings advocating for your constituents and backing up that advocacy and those words with a vote at council, then there are some serious questions that should be asked.”

‘…we wanted to be accountable’: St. Albert councillor

Farkas said other cities have undertaken a similar attendance-taking measure. St. Albert adopted the practice in December 2013.

Coun. Wes Brodhead, who has served for 10 years on the St. Albert city council said their seven-member government brought it in unanimously.

“There was a sense within council that we wanted to be accountable to the people that elected us,” he said.

“Nobody seemed to make a big deal about it. And it hasn’t been a burden since.”

Brodhead said with technology advances and the ability dial in by phone, videoconference and the like, there’s little aside from other commitments that should hold a councillor back from attending.

“Most of our councillors have some other employment, some are retired, and some, by the virtue of their family responsibilities, aren’t always able to be in chambers at the time of the meeting,” he said.

“But it’s rare when they don’t phone in or participate in the meetings in some form or another.”

He also said aside from some clerk maintenance and posting it to the city’s website he’s not aware of any additional cost for taking attendance.

Brodhead also conceded that attendance wasn’t the measure of a councillor’s ability to do the job well. But, he did say if they aren’t there, they aren’t voting – and that’s not exercising effective representation.

Farkas roll call requests

Coun. Farkas already requests roll call for many votes in council, as it records who is in attendance for that meeting. That repeated request led to a spat early on in his council career with Coun. Jyoti Gondek.

In 2018, Gondek and Farkas tangled on the topic, according to a CBC article. Farkas said he’d continue to ask for roll call until there was a mechanism in place to account for participation in meetings.

He’s not trying to single anyone out with this, he said. Attendance by and large is good. Farkas also said there’s no expectation of 100 per cent attendance. He just wants there to be a record and, when possible, rationale for one’s absence.

“At the end of the day, people aren’t asking perfection from politicians. We’re human just like anybody else,” he said.

“But information like this I think it’s just so crucial to be able to ensure that Calgarians remain well informed.”

When asked if councillors will be required to produce doctor’s notes, Farkas chuckled.

“Well, at the end of the day, I think we have to be accountable for our attendance.”