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Alberta Election: What you can expect from the city, Calgary city council

Calgary doesn’t have political parties, per se, at the municipal level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean city councillors won’t be helping campaign in one way or another over the next month.

The provincial election writ will come down on Monday, and that sets into motion 28 days of hardcore campaigning across Alberta leading up to the May 29 vote. (Though, we all know they’ve been out stumping for weeks now, right?)

It’s no secret that Calgary is a critical battleground for both of the primary provincial parties in this election. Most of the recent polls have the party horserace as a statistical dead heat. 

In Calgary, there are 26 provincial ridings. Individually some of these races are further apart than the overall party horserace; nonetheless every edge matters.

“The one thing when we’re looking at polling results, city-wide or province-wide and trying to figure out how they play out on the ground, what we don’t factor in is the particularities of the local race,” said Lisa Young, political science professor at the University of Calgary.

That sets up an important question.

Since Calgary is a battleground, what is the role of the city, council as a body and individual councillors during this time? LWC looked at what we can expect from each of those entities. The first is straightforward. The second is fairly clear, but open to interpretation.

Individual councillors, however, are mostly free to exercise their political will.

The City of Calgary and YYC Matters

Calgary municipal building. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Let’s first look at the straightforward answer: The City of Calgary.

Generally speaking, city administration always plays a non-partisan role, according to Kelly Cote with the City of Calgary.

“Definitely when the writ is dropped, or we’re gearing up for an upcoming provincial or federal election, we do have an extra level of scrutiny that we ensure the information we’re providing isn’t interpreted as being in favour of one party over another,” she told LiveWire Calgary.

The City of Calgary – and through that, city council – recently launched their YYC Matters campaign. That does reflect election content, Cote said.  She said they’re careful to ensure that what they produce in relation to that site doesn’t contravene Election Act rules under third-party advertising.

YYC Matters provides a high-level look at upcoming provincial election priorities. Outlined on that page are: Affordable housing, a vibrant downtown and public transit (including safety). Also mentioned is the City’s commitment to resilience economically, socially and in terms of climate.

Overall, Cote said the City of Calgary goes about things business-as-usual during election time. If there’s anything coming up where direction from council includes outreach to the province, city admin suggests holding off until the election is complete.

The YYC Matters priorities were discussed during a strategic meeting of council earlier this year. In a recent regular meeting of council, the item was pulled from the consent agenda and two councillors voted against these priorities: Couns. Andre Chabot and Dan McLean.

“These priorities that were identified by council, were not my priorities, which is one of the other reasons why I voted against the YYC matters,” Chabot told LWC.

“I think that if we’re going to be looking at advocating for a particular position as a city, that those priorities should not be driven by individual council members or a group of council members, but rather from the electorate.”

Calgary city council and their role in the provincial campaign

In March, during an Intergovernmental Affairs Committee meeting, attending councillors had a conversation about the upcoming election and shaping the YYC Matters topics.  At that time, they discussed the apolitical role of city administration.

“We, as council, do not necessarily have to do that,” said Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

“But here we are in a situation where we have… we’re declaring that we’re the battleground. Administration can’t do that. We can. We can say that.”

Coun. Evan Spencer asked in that meeting if it was possible for admin to take their approach and council has the freedom to “add context and details around the edges.”

“A decision around advocacy is, of course, something that you have as a right and a responsibility if that’s your choice,” said People, Innovation and Collaboration Services General Manager, Chris Arthurs.

“And you can be informed by the factual information that administration pulls together to help you with political messaging, as you wish.”

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said at that meeting that the YYC Matters priorities were about looking toward what will help improve Calgary in the future.

“We’re not partisan at the government level. We are partisan at the city level and our job is to make sure we’re giving the best Calgary for Calgarians regardless of who’s in power at the top,” he said.

All the councillors we talked to believe that council, as a body, should stay non-partisan.

What about the councillors themselves?

There are no specific rules around personal activity during a provincial election. The Code of Conduct for Councillors has general rules about Election Activities.  According to the councillors we’ve spoken to, there has been some advice from the Integrity and Ethics office – particularly around the distinction between city business and personal (political). One councillor said it’s always wise to ask beforehand.

We reached out to the city’s integrity and ethics office for clarity on the advice provided to council. No response was offered.

Political free will

In this month’s LWC member-exclusive Mayor and Me podcast, Mayor Gondek said that impartiality was important for council, particularly because they don’t know who they’ll be working with come May 30.

She said her role will be to ensure the city’s priorities are front and centre during the campaign; after that, it’s making sure the public knows how each party will handle those priorities.

“I find that to be my job – to make sure that the information gets put out in a certain way,” she said.

“I probably have colleagues who are going to be much more partisan. That’s always the case. I have to work with whoever gets elected.”

During the last municipal campaign, there were many instances of provincial party members out door-knocking with certain candidates. LWC asked several councillors whether there was a quid pro quo during this provincial campaign. All said no.

Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean said he doesn’t like the term quid pro quo. He said that’s not the way it works. If he agrees with a candidate’s approach to moving the city and the province forward, that’s who he’s going to support. He said he’s already done that going to events and showing support for MLAs.

Coun. McLean said he has no qualms about doing it during the upcoming provincial election.  When he’s a councillor, he represents the City of Calgary. Outside of that, he’s free to express himself politically, McLean said.  

“It’s a democracy. It’s free speech. In my own time, I can do whatever I want. I won’t be silenced.”

Coun. Andre Chabot said that it’s not as much returning the favour as it is personal relationships – regardless of political stripe.  He acknowledged most of his political relationships have a conservative lean to them.

“I’m likely going to be helping them to some degree, likely door-knocking or something,” he said.  

“I’ve actually been involved in nine campaigns. So, I got a little bit of experience with that.”

Advocacy for priorities

Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian said she sees her role during the provincial election as that of an educator. It’s also to advocate for what they’ve listed as city priorities, Mian said. She believes those are priorities for most Calgarians.

“I’m not in the business of telling anyone who to vote for,” Mian said.

“I think that there’s going to be good parts and bad parts about working with both parties, depending on whoever is elected. I’ll just try to encourage my residents to ask really good questions about the areas that they are most interested in.”

When asked if she would be campaigning for anyone, Mian was blunt. They’re non-partisan at the city level.

“I have to work with whoever gets elected, so I think it’s inappropriate to campaign for a party,” Mian said.

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said every councillor is going to make personal decisions on how they participate in the 2023 provincial election. Penner said she has no plans to door-knock at this time.

“I truthfully believe that neutrality is really important,” she said.

Coun. Penner said that her approach is what’s in the best interest of Calgary, referencing specifically the YYCMatters page.

Regardless of each councillor’s decision during the upcoming provincial campaign, Mayor Gondek hopes they all keep a couple of things in mind.

“What we choose to do as members of council, I would hope that people are professional, and they remember that we will need to work with whoever gets elected,” she said.  

“There’s people that draw party lines and that’s their prerogative.”

Albertans will vote on May 29.

For further information, visit our provincial candidate tracker.