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Calgary city councillors to look at potentially adding more members

Sure, being on Calgary city council means you’re regularly burning the candle at both ends for an often-thankless job as a political public servant.

Even so, not every current councillor thinks adding more bodies around the horseshoe to lighten the load is the right thing to do.

At the June 6, 2023 regular meeting of Calgary city council, members will mull the idea of setting in motion a plan that could add up to six additional councillors, likely by the 2029 city council term.

Councillors will be asked to choose between two options – one to potentially add councillors and one not, through the recruitment and reporting of a Ward Boundary Commission.

This comes to council after a 2014 Ward Boundary Commission gave direction to review the number of councillors after the 2021 election. It’s now 2023, some ward populations are booming and questions have been raised about the workload.  The 2014 report also directs the city to examine localized ward offices and the potential co-location of city services.

Calgary has had 14 councillors since 1976. The population at that time was roughly 472,000. For comparison, Edmonton has 12 councillors (they had six wards, still 12 councillors, until 2010 when they went to 12 wards). Ottawa, however, has 24 for a similar, albeit smaller, population.

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said he’d be open to the idea of adding councillors. His ward, once the most populous (prior to the boundary redraw in October 2020), sits third, according to 2021 population data (102,060).

“I think it makes sense to at least explore what the trade-offs are, and to make a good, informed decision around it,” he said.

“There’s definitely parts of my ward that if they’re not noisy, I don’t make it out to very often. It’s a lot of a lot of people.”

Spencer also added that suburban councillors have a different experience than established area councillors. They’re also dealing with the development balance in their areas.

The councillors we spoke to reiterated much of what the 2014 report found: Councillors handle their roles different from one another. Some focus on policy while ward staff deal with emails and phone inquiries.

Others are more hands-on with responses.

Bigger job than just adding more bodies

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner, whose ward population sits second at 103,755, was also interested in the discussion on adding more councillors. She did point out, however, that it’s not just adding more councillors.

Coun. Penner said council chambers would need a significant renovation to add six people. Plus, the councillor offices would have to be expanded or changed to accommodate six elected officials plus their staff.

As a final piece, there would have to be a massive public awareness campaign to ensure people knew about the changes to wards and their representation – right down to a potential change in ward numbers.

Still, Penner said the job is non-stop responding to citizen concerns, plus handling the governance side of things.

“It’s a day and night job. It kind of never ends,” she said.

She suggested doing more work around educating citizens on the role of the councillor and the ward staff.

“We campaign as if we’re going to be the face of the ward. However, you know, really, it’s our staff who are answering a lot of those constituent emails,” Penner said.

The owner of the biggest ward population, Ward 5 Coun. Raj Dhaliwal, said he didn’t think more councillors needed to be added.

“We don’t need more people around the horseshoe because, as you know already, it’s very politicized,” he said.

Dhaliwal said that more resources could help deal with the challenges, particularly in his ward of 106,710. He said it has a lot of newcomers, there are many different languages and cultures and socio-economic aspects.

“It’s hard for them to go all the way to downtown to talk to a city councillor,” he said.

Spencer agreed.

“Even just the fact that we spend so much time downtown makes us a little bit more inaccessible than even potentially an MLA, at times, or at least when they’re in town,” he said.

Councillors should be connected to the citizens: Dhaliwal

Adding more councillors won’t make city council more effective, Coun. Dhaliwal said. Putting the councillors closer to the people – with more resources – would help.

“What makes it effective, in my opinion, is how connected the Council is to the people,” Dhaliwal said.

He would be in favour of adding satellite councillor offices in the wards. That would be a place where citizens could come in, talk with the councillor, discuss questions with staff, or even participate in city council meetings.

Dhaliwal said having that kind of connection could help address lower voter participation in his area. Being closer to the people helps get them engaged, he said.

“It’s not a result. It’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of people being disconnected from the municipal government, especially in my ward. The sense is there is no equity when delivering city services,” he said.  

“So, in my opinion, getting (more) councillors is not going to help. It’s just a couple more mouthpieces.”

 While Dhaliwal has nearly 107,000 residents in the most populous Ward, Ward 7 had the least with 80,645. The majority of wards are within 10 per cent of the mean average population per ward, which is 93,346.

Editor’s Note: The original story incorrectly stated that prior to 2010, Edmonton has six councillors, then going to 12. They did have 12 councillors prior, but only six wards (2 couns. per ward). The article has been amended to include the correct information.