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10 open council seats: What it means for Calgary’s upcoming municipal election… and beyond

When Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi decided it was time to leave after serving three terms in office, he anticipated a large turnover on city council.

“We will probably have a majority of council flip over because there’s seven people who are either not running or running for mayor now,” Mayor Nenshi said in an April 6 interview with LiveWire Calgary.

In three-plus months, that number has increased to 10 open seats. In the last week, Couns George Chahal and Ward Sutherland have withdrawn from this year’s municipal election.  Ward 2 Coun. Joe Magliocca is undecided. His departure would leave Peter Demong, Sean Chu, Diane Colley-Urquhart and Gian-Carlo Carra as the only incumbents in the race.

It’s possible that one of the councillors who left to run for mayor could win, so it would mean five of 15 possible chairs around the city council horseshoe would be filled by incumbents.  It’s also possible all 15 are new.

It’s the most open seats since Calgary went to a 14-ward system, according to University of Calgary political scientist, Jack Lucas. 

There’s an impact to this unprecedented turnover; there’s both opportunity and potential for pitfalls.

Calgary is at a turning point both economically and socially and while there are many factors at play, it coincides with this potential shake up at city hall.

‘It’s very unusual’: Lucas

The previous high number of open seats was six. That was back in 2001. That number was also hit in 1989 and 1983, according to data Lucas pulled.

Lucas couldn’t say if this was unprecedented for all of Canada.

“I can say with confidence that this is unprecedented since Calgary adopted its 14-ward structure in 1977 – by some margin,” Lucas told LiveWire Calgary.

“… and it’s very unusual by Canadian standards, there’s no question about that.”

MRU political scientist Lori Williams said you’d have to go back to the 50s or 60s to find anything comparable.

“But it’s hard to compare because the ward system was different and the terms were different, and so forth,” Williams said.

Lucas thought that there may be a handful of situations in smaller cities that saw larger turnover on their respective councils, but you wouldn’t see it in Canada’s larger cities.

Mayor Nenshi provided a reminder that eight on council is a majority. With 10 open seats, a ‘majority’ could be elected in the Oct. 18 Calgary municipal election.

“So, you know, we really have to pay attention to the city council thing as well,” he said.

Coincidence or part of Calgary’s existential narrative?

The coming turnover on Calgary city council evident. Why it’s happened is a little murkier.

There are already 127 candidates registered to run in the upcoming election (council, mayor, school boards). In the 2017 election, 121 were on the ballot. Nomination day – the cut off to file your intention to run – is Sept. 20 at noon. There’s two more months for more candidates to step forward.

Williams said that, to a degree, it’s understandable what’s happening.

“Calgary is facing huge challenges right now, and someone who wants to leave a positive political legacy doesn’t see as much room for that in the current political and economic climate as they might have once seen,” she said.

“They see the possibility of making a more positive difference in other ways, or they’re simply retiring.”

Lucas said in similar instances where there’s a larger than normal turnover, it’s often due to a scandal. He pointed to a recent example in Ontario. He said though many councillors weren’t involved in the scandal, they decided to leave to avoid negative repercussions at the ballot box.

“We don’t have that here,” said Lucas.

“It’s not as though all of these councillors have decided not to run because they think that they’re all going to get turfed or anything like that.”

Lucas said it’s a confluence of events, but also of individual decisions. Whether that’s the decision of some first-term councillors to run for mayor, long term councillors deciding it’s time to retire, or others fulfilling other political ambitions.

He said many candidates will try to mobilize the narrative of a changing Calgary. That could mean economic, cultural, social or even just the faces on council.

“They’re probably not wrong to do so,” he said.

“It is pretty striking that at a moment when the city is facing so many important policy challenges and has so many important policy decisions to make we also see this really dramatic turnover and the potential for a very different kind of city council than what we have seen over the last couple of terms.”

The impact of higher turnover

Coun. Druh Farrell was first elected in 2001. That’s the last time there were six open seats on council. If you recall, that’s the second highest-ever number of open races.

Farrell said there’s a huge learning curve for any first term councillor.

“But it took the good first term to understand really how the city works. I’m 20 years in, I’m still learning,” she said.

What’s different about today, she said, is politics 20 years ago was “less tribal.”  Fellow councillors would work with each other to learn processes and pick up past history on projects.

“I got elected when Dale Hodges was on council so he had a mind like a steel trap and he would remember dates going back to the 80s and be able to pull files from his records,” she said.

Farrell said it will be a difficult time. She said it would be an unstable for a while.

While there are challenges, Farrell said a reset gives council the chance to get out of a rut.

“What we have seen in the past is some members of council share bad habits with the newbies,” she said.

Williams said the turnover could be a big problem. Elected as city councillor is not like being a backbencher in provincial or federal politics. There, you’re given some time to season.

“There are a whole lot of people coming in who really don’t know the ropes that are going to be spending most of their time and attention just learning,” she said.

“Every councillor has to be learning and participating in decisions. They have to be making informed decisions or they have to be involved on committees and they need to be making a contribution.”

Calgary direction could change

Lucas said it’s possible the incoming set of councillors could have different priorities than the past council. Whether that’s Green Line or the downtown, some of the city’s policies could change dramatically, he said.

“It’s totally obvious that this has the potential to transform the complexion of city council’s policy agenda, the policy priorities of council, the literal complexion of city council and its racial or gender diversity, or lack thereof,” he said.

Lucas said, however, that he’s been reminding himself not to overstate things. While there are 10 spots up for grabs, it doesn’t always mean a massive shift in policy. He said recent work that’s been done around municipal elections shows that people tend to vote for those who resembles themselves ideologically.

That means wards that have traditionally elected more progressive councillors would likely do the same. Similar with more conservative wards. So, the faces may change, but the general feel of council may not.

There’s wiggle room there, Lucas said, in that while a candidate may reflect a voters’ ideology, they may have different issue priorities than the previous councillor.

“There’s so many ways that the council can be transformative, even if it sort of resembles the overall distribution of policy views or ideological perspectives as the current council,” he said.

The pros of having new faces

Whether it’s the 19 candidates running for mayor, or the handful wards already boasting 10 candidates, the races will be competitive.

That should mean higher voter turnout, according to Lucas. Especially because of the mayor’s race.

“Open races are more competitive. More competitive races tend to have higher turnout,” he said.

“It’s probably also true at the level of ward races. When people perceive the race to be competitive and they have a candidate they care about, they want to win, they go out and vote.”

Coun. Farrell said in her 2001 open race, there was a lot of engagement. It had seven candidates. Ward 7 generally has higher engagement than other wards, Farrell said, but when her second term (2004) rolled around she was acclaimed.   Four others were acclaimed that year.

It was a year that Calgary had one of the lowest ever recorded voter turnouts at just over 19 per cent.

Oscar Fech was the long challenger to incumbent mayor Dave Bronconnier.

There’s a breaking point to engagement, Williams said. Too many candidates could be overload for the typical voter. As could a potential federal election overlapping the municipal one.  

While she agreed that competitive races will drive higher voter turnout, too many choices can paralyze some voters.

“That might actually be a negative, going into this race,” Williams said.

“I’m expecting higher voter turnout than the last election. But with all of these other variables in play, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going to happen.

All three agree that a big plus of a new council could be the change around the table to reflect the city’s diversity.

“We need new energy right we need diversity. The potential we have for the next council is to elect a council that’s more diverse and more and more interested in Calgary’s future,” Farrell said.

Greater influence of third-party advertisers

With more candidates to choose from, voters might be looking for others to help them decide where to cast their ballot.

The surge in third-party advertising (TPA) has added a new layer to Calgary’s municipal politics. While TPAs have been operating on the fringes in the past, they have unfettered access to cash  and candidates in this election. That means their influence could grow.

Lucas said as the number of candidates grows, so does the information demand on voters. With the absence of partisanship at the local level, some may have a difficult time trying to determine the best candidate.

“If there are third party advertisers or others out there who are saying to voters, ‘here’s who you should support and here’s why,’ or they’re directly supporting particular candidates as donors or what have you, that can really transform who emerges from the confusing mass of candidates in any particular ward race and becomes a really competitive front runner,” he said.

There’s a chance in many hotly-contested races, the difference could be in one endorsement, he said.

Williams agreed the strain will be felt on voters to research appropriate candidates. It will also be on journalists and commentators in keeping up with everything happening during a campaign.

That presents and information gap for voters.

She said there’s potential for enormous unseen influence in this municipal election. We won’t know where it’s coming from until after TPA donor disclosure in the new year.

Money will also be a factor.

“Money doesn’t necessarily buy votes but it’s certainly going to be a factor,” Williams said.

“There will be some candidates that have very limited resources, and when it comes to two unknown candidates, the one with more money to get their word out is definitely going to have an advantage.”

Old faces become new again

In two wards, there are familiar faces that once served on council.

In Ward 10, Andre Chabot is running for council. Chabot spent 12 years on city council before running for mayor in 2017. In Ward 6, Richard Pootmans is vying for a seat. Pootmans was first elected in 2010 and then served on council again in the 2013 election.

Williams said this certainly gives them an advantage in their respective races. But, the question that needs to be answered is whether the type of experience they bring is what voters want.

“They will at least have some idea about how council works; but a lot has changed in recent years,” said Williams.

“The challenges facing the current council and the incoming council are substantially different than when either of those candidates were on council.”

Williams also said that other candidates like Ward 12’s Evan Spencer or Ward 7’s Heather McRae already have some political background. Spencer served as a part of Coun. Shane Keating’s team in that ward and McRae is wife to political operative Stephen Carter and has experience with Druh Farrell’s past campaigns.

Quality of candidates matters

Williams said there’s a potential for a change on council that reflects the makeup of an evolving Calgary. It will depend, of course, on the quality of candidates and their ability to sway voters toward their vision of Calgary.

The one thing this election does is present an opportunity to test the incumbent always wins trope in the city, she said.

“The reality is that in Calgary’s history of incumbency being almost a guarantee of re-election has made it very difficult to bring new faces on the council,” Williams said.

“We’ve had horrifically underperforming councillors that just get re-elected repeatedly, no matter how much or little they do.

“This could be an opportunity to begin something better.”

There will be new faces on council come Oct. 18. Farrell said that there will be some bumps along the way. The new council will be hamstrung by tight budgets that might temper the desire to dig into immediate changes.

And there will be a bit of a holding pattern for the city to start. But Farrell believed that city administration was well equipped to handle the transition.

As she leaves her two decades on council, Farrell had some advice for the newcomers. Don’t lose the ability to learn, she said.

“I would encourage the new councillors to learn as much as they can. Understand the issues and lean on administration and their knowledge in your first term on council,” Farrell said.