By Jason Markusoff, Calgary Herald
October 22, 2013
While the identity of Calgary’s 2013-2017 mayor was never much in doubt, a handful of newcomers appeared on the verge Monday of joining Naheed Nenshi on a council he had hoped wouldn’t change much.
But while Nenshi was pushing against a conservative mini-revolution of developer-friendly candidates sacking the inner city, the ward elections gave him something more surprising than that.
While conservative Sean Chu defeated Ward 4 progressive Gael MacLeod, downtown and southwest voters elected a more liberal challenger against John Mar in Ward 8 — Evan Woolley, who argued he would be more closely allied with the mayor.
“I think it’s ultimately a neutral effect,” said Paul Fairie, a University of Calgary political scientist.
Voters delivered re-election wins for all suburban councillors, including conservative Ward 14’s Peter Demong and Ward 12’s Shane Keating, as well as Ward 6’s Richard Pootmans, a moderate who fended off Joe Connelly, a fiscal hawk of a former alderman.
Nenshi did retain several allies in his oft-stated bid to hike developer levies and to justify using civic tax hikes to fill in provincial “tax room,” as he did with the $52-million increase this year.
Gian-Carlo Carra fended off two conservative challengers in Ward 9, and at deadline Ward 7’s Druh Farrell and Ward 11’s Brian Pincott were enjoying modest leads over the rivals who almost beat them in 2010.
“For people like Druh Farrell and Brian Pincott, the mayor was pushing issues they were also pushing, (and it) probably helped them.” Fairie said.
Ward 1 voters were choosing their first new councillor since Dale Hodges began his record reign in 1983. Ward Sutherland was ahead by a hair against Chris Harper, and likely headed for a recount. Nenshi may be comfortable with either of them — both got donations from union group and home builder alike.
In Ward 2, Joe Magliocca won in the seat vacated by Gord Lowe against a crowded field of less vocally conservative opponents. Magliocca and Chu were among the candidates that Nenshi spoke out against as being on a “slate” backed by the conservative Manning Centre and home builders, but now it appears he’ll have to try co-operating with them.
Ward 5’s Ray Jones, now the longest-serving councillor, expressed hope the sniping ends when council returns to work. “I hope we’re co-operative with each other and we’re not on each other’s back. There’s been a lot said in the heat of battle that sometimes it’s tough to take back,” he said.
Although all the incumbents benefited from the support of popular Mayor Naheed Nenshi — he even campaigned with a few of them — they’ve had some issues dogging them.
Along with the controversial $52-million “tax room” hike that Nenshi’s council has initially devoted to post-flood infrastructure recovery, there’s the ugly math that municipal property taxes went up 31 per cent during this three-year term.
Then, mid-campaign, a potent symbol for taxpayer rage emerged: a $470,000 giant blue ring erected as public art to complement a $47-million extension of 96th Avenue N.E. For some, it conjured up memories of downtown’s Peace Bridge — the political pinata from the 2010 election.
Morris Fisher, a retired bank manager who voted for change in Ward 7’s Parkdale, said overspending has become a major concern.
“They sort of go wild to catering to big projects in the core, and they spend less on the older communities,” he said.
However, a Herald-Leger poll suggested voter satisfaction: most Calgarians are happy the $52 million went to the flood. And a majority of residents are behind Nenshi’s push to hike developer levies. Many of his incumbent allies support eliminating the so-called “sprawl subsidies.”
“There’s no need to subsidize them to make other choices less appealing,” said Kevin Hynes, a university student who voted in Ward 7.
The makeup of council will prove vital on other policy fronts as well. Nenshi has been a couple votes shy of eradicating the zoning hurdles that have made legal secondary suites a near impossibility in many Calgary neighbourhoods.
Bonny Bradbury, after voting in Ward 4’s Thorncliffe, said suite legalization was a major issue influencing her vote.
“I’m a community nurse and I’ve been in a lot of basement suites. We need them to be safe,” she said.
Nenshi set the tone for the council battle to come in a speech to his $450-a-plate fundraiser in April, where he first spoke of deep-pocketed Calgarians looking to install a council that wouldn’t work with the mayor.
“Don’t buy proxy aldermen…. You don’t like me? Take me on,” Nenshi told his donor event, from which media were barred.
Weeks later, the now-infamous Cal Wenzel video surfaced — a surreptitious recording of the Shane Homes founder’s speech that divided council members into “our side” and the “dark side.”
He spoke of ambitions to promote developer-friendly councillors through direct donations and a $1.1-million injection into the conservative Manning Centre, Preston Manning’s political outfit which is dabbling in civic politics for the first time.
Nenshi seized on this as a conspiracy laid bare, while Wenzel and fellow home builders warned they were just trying to ensure their industry stayed vibrant and new suburban homes stayed affordable.
Both sides amped up their rhetoric during the four-week campaign.
On the same day the Wenzel tape hit the airwaves, council approved the $52-million tax hike by offsetting an effecting property tax cut on the provincial side of the bill.
The mayor led council and the public in a lengthy debate over how to spend annual funds — on transit, community upgrades, debt relief or returned as tax relief.
Public polls in June showed approval of giving back the money, but the flood prompted council to shift gears in July. They decided to devote the 2013 slice of $52 million to flood efforts, and will decide on the 2014 portion during budget debates in November.
With files from Calgary Herald staff