Calgary, Alberta

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Calgary has some serious swagger.

It’s more than the stereotypical cowboy-conquering- the-wild-west image that comes to mind. And it runs deeper than being a city that is young, hip, wealthy, entrepreneurial and diverse. To me, swagger is all about confidence. And Calgary has it in spades.

You can see it everywhere. It’s the pride taken to maintain perfectly manicured parks. It’s the stories the city tells about itself through public art. It’s the extra investment in design features in everything from street lights to fountains to park benches. It’s building a public library over 150 metres of LRT line because — well, because you can. It’s meeting the challenge of cold winters head on, by building the most extensive pedestrian skywalk system (the ‘Plus 15s’) in the world. Together, these things communicate a clear message: we’re Calgary, and we’re worth it.

Calgary home to 1.2 million people and is the largest of the 354 municipalities in Alberta. The second largest is the Edmonton, Alberta’s capital. Approximately 75% of the province’s population lives in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, making it one of Canada’s most urbanized regions.

Calgary is the 3rd largest city in the country (and the third largest in this study). For my purposes, the most distinctive feature of Calgary’s local political system is its beautiful simplicity. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a political structure which includes a 45-member council, 4 deputy mayors, 4 community councils, an executive committee, and 11 other committees reporting to council. Canada’s second largest city, Montreal, wins the prize for most complicated structure with at least three levels of local government, a 65-member city council (and more than 100 locally elected officials, when the boroughs are included), and additional institutions such as political parties and a powerful cabinet-like executive.

In contrast, Calgary’s political structure is simple. Council is comprised of one mayor and 14 councillors. There are four standing committees. The deputy mayor role rotates on a monthly basis. That’s it.

Now, that’s not to say that Calgary’s politics are simple – far from it. The City of Calgary manages a $4 billion annual budget and a municipal workforce of more than 15 thousand. The plunge in oil prices has put the city and province into a serious recession, with all of the challenges that comes with it. I attended a committee meeting while in Calgary. It was a déjà vu moment for me, listening as council grappled with options to make cuts in their budget while continuing to invest in and support a struggling community. I’ve seen a version of this movie before. It was called Southwestern Ontario 2008-2011.

There are two major processes worth paying attention to with respect to local government in Alberta. The first is the ongoing review of the Municipal Government Act. Initiated in 2012, this extensive review is nearing completion and envisions several important governance, funding and regulatory changes. The review website provides an excellent overview of the changes being contemplated, all of which are subject to a final round of community consultation this summer.

The second important process is the development of charters for Calgary and Edmonton. In June 2012, the City of Calgary, City of Edmonton and Province of Alberta entered into an agreement to explore new legislative framework in recognition of the special position, capacity and responsibility of the province’s two largest cities. The new charters are expected to be in effect before the next municipal election in 2017. During my interviews, I heard repeated mention of how important and positive a charter will be for Calgary, although academics are far less optimistic.

Interestingly, neither the Municipal Government Act review or the city charter documents available to date pay much attention to the role of the mayor. Alberta’s legislation describes the mayor as the “chief elected official” (see what they did there – it’s still CEO but without the executive bit). It is on the low end among municipal legislation in Canada in the degree to which the role of the mayor is differentiated from that of a councillor. Calgary’s procedure bylaw provides little additional power to the mayor other than things like serving on committees, calling special meetings and approving the use of council chambers.

And yet it would be hard to say that the role of the mayor in Calgary is one with little power. In a survey of more than 12,000 Canadians, perceptions of mayoral power in Calgary were among the highest in Canada – likely a reflection of the prolific popularity of the incumbent, who has more Twitter followers than any premier and is likely Canada’s most well known mayor.

The Calgary case raises interesting questions about how we conceive of the role and power of mayors. In a city where the formal power of the mayor is among the lowest in the country, but where the incumbent is perceived to be one of the most powerful power, it raises the big questions. Where does power come from? What kinds of power are we talking about? How is mayoral power used, measured, and understood? These are core questions of this study. I’ve already argued that the term ‘weak mayor’ doesn’t fit Canada’s context. It refers to the formal or legal power of the mayor, as prescribed in provincial legislation, which in my view is only one piece of the puzzle. Mayoral power is a lot more complicated (spoiler alert: lots more to come on this!).

I like Calgary for its interesting mayoral politics, and I love it for its swagger. There’s a lot to learn here.

 

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View from above of Calgary’s LRT. Very easy to use.

 

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Entrance to Calgary’s council chambers.

 

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Meeting underway.

 

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An example of the Plus 15 skywalk system.

 

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Public art is EVERYWHERE. <3

 

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Okay Calgary, I get it. Now you’re just showing off.