Mayor Jyoti Gondek said there’s nothing new on the Sean Chu situation, people weren’t paying attention on the campaign trail and she would have voted for the Calgary police budget, but…
In our year-end interview with Calgary’s recently elected mayor, we talked about the city, priorities and what citizens can expect in 2022.
We looked back on 2021 to get a sense of how things might shape up for the next year.
(LWC Members will be getting exclusive audio of our interview with Mayor Jyoti Gondek in the launch of our monthly Mayor and Me podcast. Sign up in our $25/mo tier for access!)
It came as a surprise to many on election night when Mayor Gondek said one of the first orders of business would be to declare a climate emergency.
Calgary is behind other major cities in the generally symbolic declaration. In the declaration, councillors made the pledge to be net-zero by 2050.
The mayor was criticized after the city approved the climate declaration, with many saying she didn’t campaign on taking Calgary down this climate path.
“I would have to say that people weren’t paying attention to a lot of my words during the campaign. I have used those words before,” Mayor Gondek said.
“If semantics are getting in people’s way, I would urge them to go back and listen to many things I’ve said during the course of that campaign.”
Mayor Gondek said the city needed to take more concrete action on climate change.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, a cast of mostly new councillors went from the campaign trail into one of the most detailed-oriented parts of their job: The city budget.
It was the final budget adjustment of the current 2019 to 2022 One Calgary document. The budget presented by administration had a proposed tax increase of between .66 and .99 per cent. With millions in additions, it climbed to four per cent.
Mayor Gondek said the new council spent time together hashing things out in advance of the budget meetings.
“We spent time together understanding what people’s values were, what they wanted to deliver on, what they heard at the doors,” she said.
“And those amendments were reflective of their desires.”
And working with the newbs?
“The newbs are awesome,” the mayor said.
They’re thoughtful, well-read and well-spoken, she said.
“They’re an incredibly collaborative group,” Mayor Gondek said.
“Now, that doesn’t mean they always agree. But they’re collaborative, and they wish to work together to achieve common good. And that’s the biggest thing you can ask for.”
Mayor Gondek said that the debate was indicative of the values on council right now. Setting up for the new four-year cycle will be strategic, the mayor said.
“I think in this four-year process, you will see something incredibly strategic, where, as a council, we give direction on what we think are the important things that we need to accomplish in four years,” she said.
“You will see administration come back with an operating plan of how they will accomplish those goals. And we’ll set a budget accordingly.”
Police budget / relationship
Mayor Gondek was one of four on council to vote against the Calgary police budget addition.
The Calgary police had come to council a request for an additional $6.08 million request on top of their $411 million budget. That cash would be used to fund an additional 38 people – 25 civilian and 13 sworn officers.
Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld said he didn’t come lightly with the request for added funding. He said increasing case complexity, criminal code amendments and their commitment to human resources reform to address equity, diversity and inclusion were behind the request.
“As we saw through our most recent employee engagement survey, the impact of all of this is undoubtedly affecting employee morale, with responses to the survey being some of the bleakest we have seen in years,” he said.
Mayor Gondek didn’t say much during the debate over police funding.
“Ultimately, I’m there to be the chair. That’s my primary role,” the mayor said.
“And so, I try not to intervene in the debate, if I don’t have to. I felt that the points I would have raised had been raised by other members of council. So, for me to opine at that time was just repetitive.”
Mayor Gondek said she voted against it because she didn’t believe they could fulfill the hiring request. She felt with attrition and vacated positions, it would be a “tough slog.”
“Had they asked for that money to create more partnerships to alleviate the burden from frontline officers of having to respond to every single call, I might have considered it,” she said.
She said she still maintains strong relationships with many members of the service. Mayor Gondek said she has tremendous respect for the organization, but it doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be at odds.
Top priorities for 2022
Without hesitation, Mayor Gondek said the biggest priority for 2022 is the keep the downtown revitalization in focus.
Since the downtown strategy was approved earlier this year, the city’s been focused on activations of different projects. They’ve also seen an oversubscription in developers hoping to cash in on downtown office conversion incentives.
The mayor said having spoken with the mayors of both Houston and Denver, it was clear that ongoing investment is needed to evolve Calgary’s downtown.
“They indicated that when a city invests in itself, like we have, it will take some time to see the results. But you can’t veer away from that,” she said.
Mayor Gondek said it was important to send a strong signal of community in the downtown core. She said that signal would be a critical one to send to the investment community.
The downtown is a top priority, but it isn’t the only one.
The mayor said you’d be seeing a greater commitment to vulnerable Calgarians and the environment.
“All of those things go hand in hand,” she said.
“A good, resilient city is one that takes care of its people, takes care of the environment and its economy.”
The headwinds that may blow
Mayor Gondek said the city, and council, need to celebrate the small wins. There’s a danger in the task ahead that’s so big that people get worried about the time it takes. Ensuring they have the expertise to tackle it is also a concern.
“I think when we take little bite-sized chunks, and we celebrate any of the small victories we have, it gives us hope and optimism,” she said.
More stable and predictable funding is needed, the mayor said. Trying to rely on property taxes is a “blunt instrument.” She said “archaic” legislation needs to change to allow that. Funding needs to flow to cities to provide for services and infrastructure, she said.
Of course, the pandemic will be omnipresent, she said. The city is getting accustomed to not knowing what the future holds. And, for the longest time, many in the city were longing for the good old days.
“I think the pandemic has shown us that we will never be where we were, but we have a chance to be something better and stronger,” she said.
With that in mind, the mayor is optimistic about 2022. “Incredibly” optimistic, in fact.
“I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think we had a strong future in front of us,” she said.
“It’s all starting to come together. We just need to stay committed to it.”