Calgary city council newcomers will be hitting the deep end of the pool soon after election

·5 min read
Calgary's city council chambers will be filled with mostly new faces after the Oct. 18 election.  (Scott Dippel/CBC - image credit)
Calgary's city council chambers will be filled with mostly new faces after the Oct. 18 election. (Scott Dippel/CBC - image credit)

Voters have not yet weighed in but it's already guaranteed that Calgary's next city council will have at least 10 people who are not currently sitting in those chairs.

With Naheed Nenshi's departure, there will be a new mayor. That person may or may not be a current sitting councillor.

There will also be at least nine new councillors around the table who aren't there today. Whether that number goes higher will be for voters to decide on election day.

It's the biggest turnover on a Calgary city council in decades and the biggest since the 15-member council system debuted in the 1977 election.

The previous modern day record for turnover came out of the 1983 election when eight new councillors (then called aldermen) joined Mayor Ralph Klein at the council table.

Does the record turnover matter? And how might this impact council business?

A former chief of staff to Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the newcomers will immediately face a workload that any returning members of council will not.

Chima Nkemdirim said they'll have to hire staff members and figure out city hall logistics — from where things are located to who the key people are in administration.

But when the number of newcomers is well above the average, that can have other implications.

"I think the new council is going to rely heavily on administration to help guide them through the process and procedures in what they're doing and to educate them," said Nkemdirim.

"I'd say those first few council meetings and committee meetings are going to be very slow as people are learning the ropes."

(John Rieti/CBC)
(John Rieti/CBC)

Given that the last time every member of council was acclaimed was 1942, there is always a process for welcoming newcomers and getting them up to speed.

Nkemdirim said he expects adminstration has been preparing for months. The revised council orientation program will run during the first couple of months of the new term.

The briefings will cover a wide range of topics. From the city's corporate structures to municipal finances; corporate security to how to deal with the media; human resources to the Green Line project.

And, of course, there will be a new mayor. If that person is a current councillor, they will have a handle on the place but will be adjusting to their new role.

Nkemdirim said he knows new councillors will be excited and likely keen to get going on the things they promised during the election.

But their reality will be something different.

"No one should expect that any big changes are going to happen very quickly," he said.

"The thing about municipal government is that things don't happen that quickly. You have to get support, you have to get things through committees."

Budget talks will be the first big challenge

Besides orientation, the first big legislative challenge facing all those council newcomers will be a lengthy discussion in November on adjustments to the 2022 budget.

For next year, a property tax freeze is being prepared by administration for council's consideration. Last year, council approved a 1.7 per cent tax cut for Calgarians.

A departing member of council is predicting that having at least 10 people in new jobs around the table will present some challenges.

After three terms, Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating is leaving office this month.

He said a normal rule for any board of directors is what he describes as "a third, a third, a third."

That is, about one third are new to the organization, one third are well experienced members who have been around a longer period of time and one third can remember their recent arrival and are still picking up steam.

When at least two thirds are brand new members, Keating said it increases the reliance on the smaller number of people who have that institutional knowledge.

Bryan Labby/CBC
Bryan Labby/CBC

There will be less corporate memory after an election like this one, given how many council members are departing. But Keating points out the newbies will bring new ideas, energy and enthusiasm.

When there is a high turnover, there are other considerations.

Keating said that soon after the new council is sworn in, there will be an organizational day.

That's when councillors decide who will join specific council committees as well as be council representatives on various city-owned boards and commissions.

Once the members for the council committees are named, the members choose chairs and vice-chairs for those panels.

If there are five or less incumbent members of council, Keating said that means some committees could be composed entirely of newcomers and they could be led by rookie councillors as well.

The various city-owned organizations that include council representatives cover a wide range of operations.

For example, councillors sit on the boards of the Calgary Police Commission, the Calgary Stampede, Calgary Economic Development, Calgary Housing, the Calgary Planning Commission, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and Silvera for Seniors, among others.

"There's such a variety and an array of skill sets and knowledge that the group of 15 have to have, it's going to be difficult to fill all of those positions in the absolute best possible way when you're looking at nine-plus new members," said Keating.

Although there's training and administration officials on hand to assist, Keating said it will be a fairly unrelenting pace for the newcomers.

"I think you have to get on the treadmill unfortunately and maybe not full speed but certainly not on the slow speed."

But it will get done. Keating has watched the process up close three times.

It's just that now — in the middle of a pandemic and during tough economic times — he said the pressure to get up to speed as quickly as possible has probably never been higher.

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