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One year later: Mayor Jyoti Gondek reflects on first year of new Calgary city council

Mistakes, things learned and what's ahead for 2023 in an interview at the one year mark of Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek's first term.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said she loves a good debate.

And, in the 360 days since she was elected as the first female leader in Calgary’s history, she said that’s been one of the biggest adjustments for her.

“As a councillor, I really enjoyed sitting through items and listening to what everybody had to say and writing down my notes,” she said in an interview with LiveWire Calgary on the first year in her first term as mayor.  

“I was a big note taker, I still am, and then getting to my five minutes was a joy. I don’t do that now. That’s not my role.”

She said she picks her spots and makes her case when necessary. Now, she’s there to chair the meeting and help other councillors’ ideas take the stage, the mayor said.  

Mayor Gondek was elected Oct. 18, winning handily over former Coun. Jeromy Farkas.

The mayor wasted no time in making her mark. On election night, she said something had to be done to deal with the election of Coun. Sean Chu. She later said he should resign and that she wouldn’t swear him in.  So, she didn’t. (Chu remains on council and was sworn in by Justice Rooke.)

In November 2021, the city declared a climate emergency. It was something many claim the mayor didn’t campaign on. City council forged ahead.

In December 2021, during a bitter cold snap, vulnerable Calgarians were left without places to stay. They wouldn’t access shelters and were congregating at LRT stations and in encampments, including one that was dismantled. The city later approved $750K to help the situation.  

At the turn of the new year, the deal for a $650 million Event Centre was scrapped.

In February 2022, Chief of Staff Stephen Carter was relieved of his duty. Later, different councillors came forward saying they’d made official complaints about Carter’s actions while on the job.

All of this while emerging from the grip of a pandemic.

‘An incredibly tough time’: Mayor Gondek

The Omicron variant prolonged the city’s pandemic response. At the same time, the economy was trying to get back on track.

“I would say that my assessment of this past year has been, we came through an incredibly tough time coming off of the pandemic,” the mayor said.

“We had our work cut out for us as a council.”

The mayor said there were some wins this year. Particularly around the downtown revitalization and mental health and addiction strategies.

“It was really good to see that when we stayed the course, and we invested in ourselves, we had partners come to the table,” Mayor Gondek said.

Those investments resulted in the private sector committing to converting 770,000 square feet of downtown office space into housing. That was done through the Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program.

The mayor also said having the province step up with recent funding for homeless, mental health and addictions programs is a key milestone this year.

Slowing council down

The mayor said things at council are moving at a rapid pace. Decisions are being made quickly.

If there’s one thing she’s learned over the past year it’s, “we need to slow down,” she said.

She referenced a recent decision during a debate on the missing middle bylaw that, had a proposed amendment moved forward, it could have created a bigger issue with housing.

“We need to make sure that when people are bringing amendments that it is clearly explained what the consequence will be,” the mayor said.

“And that people are very clear on what they will be voting on.”

With that said, the mayor also said that council, elected on a four-year mandate, must recognize that change happens slowly. The Indigenous Gathering Place is a great example, the mayor said. While they agreed to provide a space for the IGP last November, there’s no location yet.

“It feels to us like it’s taken forever to deliver on that promise. But there’s complications along the way,” she said, referring to finding the right piece of land and which business unit it belongs to.

“Things take a lot longer than sometimes we think they will when we set a policy or make a decision around an action. So, I think that’s been a lesson for us.”

Mistakes made over the past year

The mayor said one of the mistakes over the past year was how the homeless encampment was handled outside the Drop-In Centre.

She said as a council, they were concerned about tearing down the encampment where many vulnerable Calgarians were lodging.

“The information we had at that time was that these were people in extreme positions of vulnerability and the only housing they had at that time was to set up camp,” she said.

“We found out much later, and when we did find out we have to keep it confidential for a lengthy period of time until the investigation was done, the encampment was actually being run by a group of violent people who were actually preying on others that needed access to specific services.”

They initially made a decision for the encampment to not be moved. When they got more information, the correct decision was made, she said.

“It’s tricky to always do the right thing immediately because there’s so many complications and some of the wicked problems we’re dealing with,” Mayor Gondek said.

That mistake, however “helped us crack open” what the problem was, the mayor said.

It allowed the Calgary police, Calgary bylaw and the city take down the criminal element and improve accessibility to services, she said.

Goals, barriers and rating her own performance

Over the next year, the mayor would like to see the City’s executive leadership team take the strategic priorities of council and influence change within their business units.  She’d like to see the departments act more nimbly, based on the needs of Calgarians.

“There are a lot of people in this organization. To get the message through to everyone that we need to be doing things differently is not always easy,” Mayor Gondek said.

It’s an organization that’s done things in a specific way for a long time. While evolution is important, council need to have patience, she said.

As for her own performance, the mayor said she’s a competitive person. She said she’s competitive with herself more than anything.

“I always strive to be at the top of my game,” she said.

It’s a learning game, constantly refining her own practices and working with city council to make good decisions.

One thing she wants to refine is building in enough space during the day for the expectations.

She cited the recent protests by the city’s Iranian community as events that conflicted with other items on her itinerary.

“To the public, it feels like I’m not present, and I’m not supportive. I’m incredibly supportive,” Mayor Gondek said.

She said it’s a challenge to live up to those expectations, plus balance family and policymaking.

The first year was a work in progress. She – and she believes council – is up to the task of delivering a better Calgary for citizens.

“I will continue to strive to be the best mayor I possibly can be and to ensure that the needs of Calgarians are met on a regular basis,” she said.