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Sean Chu and 140 years of Calgary city council resignations

The bar for a Calgary city council resignation has changed over the past 140 years.

A series of stories broke before and after Calgary’s Oct. 18, 2021 municipal election. These stories involved Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu and resulted in the widespread call for his resignation. Those calls continue today with a regular resurfacing of the #resignseanchu social media hashtag. At least two protests have come up calling for resignation.

Even Chu’s council colleagues made a post-election appeal for him to step down. This, due to his involvement with a 16-year-old girl when he was a Calgary police officer more than 24 years ago.

Chu has refused to resign.  The victim set up a GoFundMe two days ago to help with legal costs because of ongoing troubles related to this case.

With this in mind, we wanted to take a step back in time to review Calgary’s political history. We were on the hunt to find how many councillors had resigned and the reasons behind those resignations.

We wanted to see if there was a definitive point that pushed a councillor to make that decision.

The research

Before we get into it, there’s some context to provide.

First, credit for doing the initial city council research goes to History Hunter, Frederick Hunter. Without his exhaustive list, it may have been impossible to track what we did.

(Note: According to a UCalgary post, Mr. Hunter died in June 2021.)

Mr. Hunter also documents some of the irregularities in early recordings of city council. We’re not going to get into the nuances of it, except to say that many of the resignations are due to an annual turnover on council after a year.  There are also some record-keeping issues going back nearly a century and a half.

We also want to recognize the Calgary Public Library and its exceptional access to Calgary Herald newspapers. Aside from general searches, there was no issue in finding what we needed for the purposes of this piece.

Finally, resignations seemed commonplace at the turn of the 19th Century. That could be due to transience and changing opportunities of the time, but also because the formal government structure we know today didn’t really exist.

That added to the task of sifting through the past.

We’ll also note what this doesn’t dig into. It doesn’t look at instances at city hall that may have warranted a resignation. That’s a different story altogether.

Council resignations – 1884 to the present

We’ve been able to unearth 64 resignations from city council over the past 140 years. Some were easier to track than others.

There’s a caveat here: We can’t guarantee this is every councillor that’s resigned. It was checked against Mr. Hunter’s list, a list of past Calgary elections and then cross-referenced in the Calgary Herald archives. We think it’s a pretty complete list.

There was one year, at the turn of 1893/1894 when th e entire city council resigned. This was due to the town’s incorporation and a city charter introduction. There was some confusion over recognition of the council elected in December 1893 since the Act came into effect on Jan. 1, 1894. That group resigned Jan. 2, 1894 and a by-election was held Jan. 15, 1894.

It also must be noted that due to the frequency of early elections, there are several past politicians who resigned multiple times to run for specific offices. They were then re-elected as aldermen and resigned again to pursue other offices. They were counted as separate resignations.

With that, here are some of our findings.

64 resignations breakdown (not including the full council resignation)

  • 41 – As expected, the vast majority of resignations were to pursue a different political office (Mayor, commissioner, MLA, MP, city solicitor, judge, police magistrate, etc).
  • 8 – unknown
  • 5 – left Calgary (transfer, business interests)
  • 2 – enlisted in armed forces
  • 2 – Health
  • 1 – retirement (non-health related, in-term)

5 councillor resignation stories

Calgary’s historic city hall (OMAR SHERIF/FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

There were only five prior councillors with stories more substantial than any of the abovementioned reasons. We’ve broken it down so you can see the circumstances.

April 2, 1904 – Alds. John Thomas Macdonald, James Alexander McKenzie

After the report of Chief Justice Sifton in April 1904, Alds. Macdonald and McKenzie submitted their resignations. 

They were found to have “acted in a way as to render themselves ineligible to serve as aldermen,” read a summary found in an April 2, 1904 copy of The Daily Herald. 

The pair are said to have met privately with the City Clerk at the time to review city lots for sale, and the prices of those lots. The clerk was asked to be in his office earlier than normal the next day. When he arrived (earlier than normal) he found a list of lots in the writing of Ald. McKenzie to which he would issue receipts in the names of other citizens.  The report suggests that McKenzie was securing the land for himself before it was available to the general public.

Ald. Macdonald is said to have worked with Samuel J. Blair of the so-called Blair Syndicate to secure lots for one-sixth of the listed price of between $8,000 to $10,000 for potential resale by the Blair Syndicate. He was to share in the profits.

The City Clerk in that matter was also censured.

May 27, 1912 – Ald. John Goodwin Watson

Little is said on Watson’s specific resignation date, just that it was read and accepted without comment. 

Watson was in the papers in the prior days (May 1912 papers) speaking about poor paving quality and asked for a civic investigation. He said if the investigation proved he was wrong, he would resign. There was an editorial that talked about him saying he would resign and then having a community meeting where they convinced him not to resign. The editorial said he should resign for making Calgary look foolish for having to call a civic investigation into pavement quality.

The same piece stated Watson was suggesting there was “graft” in Calgary civic affairs. 

An engineer was brought in to sample work done over the prior year. 

Watson did appear in front of a committee investigating defective street works the same day as his resignation (as an ex-alderman). He insisted it was defective and city inspectors weren’t up to snuff. 

Then there was a snippet in the reporting about a parks superintendent selling potatoes from St. George’s Island. The super said no, they were just stored in his house until they could be disposed of.

August 17, 1959 – Ald. James David MacDonald

Ald. MacDonald resigned to protest city council’s failure to take action on the scandalous Turcotte inquiry report. 

Justice Turcotte had investigated impropriety at the city involving Mayor D.H. Mackay and others. Turcotte’s report found that Mackay and others derived “improper advantage” in the form of substantial gifts from firms doing business with the city.

A motion requesting the mayor to resign failed 5-8. Councillors felt as though the electorate should be the “sole judge and jury” of Mackay, as reported by the Calgary Herald’s Merv Anderson. Mackay didn’t resign.

Harry Hays won the mayoral election the following year.

November 29, 2004 – Ald. Margot Eleanor Aftergood

Aftergood resigned after what the Calgary Herald referred to as “Aftergate.” This involved allegations of fraud involving 1,266 mail-in ballots during the 2004 municipal election.

In 2005, five people were initially charged under the Local Authorities Election Act. Two people pleaded guilty.

Aftergood was cleared of any involvement in the scandal. She ran for council again in 2017 in Ward 7. Incumbent Druh Farrell defeated her.

Couns. Magliocca and Chu – the unresigned

Former Ward 2 Coun. Joe Magliocca. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Prior to Chu’s circumstance, former Ward 2 Coun. Joe Magliocca was in a scandal of his own. That involved ineligible expenses rung up during Federation of Canadian Municipalities conferences.

Though there were calls for his resignation (and apology), Magliocca didn’t resign (nor apologize). He ran in the 2021 municipal election and lost to Jennifer Wyness.  

He’s facing charges of fraud and breach of trust in relation. A trial date was recently set.

There’s one major difference between all of these cases and Chu’s.

All of the aforementioned resignations, and the Magliocca situation, happened while the councillors were in office or obtaining office.  

The Municipal Government Act of Alberta, Section 174, outlines the criteria for disqualification from council.  It covers many of the areas mentioned in these other resignations. 

Councillors can be ineligible for running for a host of reasons (including Elections Act and Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA) offenses within 10 years). It also includes Criminal Code violations in sections 123 (municipal corruption), 124 (selling or purchasing office), 125 (influencing or negotiating appointments or dealings in offices) within the past five years.

None of the documents speak to time or conduct outside of office, especially 24 years prior.

From the search through history, it seems as though the individual themselves (outside of legislative reasons for resignation) determine their own fate. Some resigned after actions taken while in office. Others resigned out of a moral cause due to others’ actions.

There’s just nothing in Calgary’s history that demonstrates a clear precedent for resignation.

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