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Aldermanic Candidates Shouldn’t be Beholden to Developers, Manning OR the Mayor

Posted August 28th, 2013 in Calgary, Calgary City Council, Municipal Election 2013, News by Marc Henry

Saw the oddest thing on Twitter the other night, and while I hope its not an omen of things to come for the municipal campaign, I suspect it may be.


The Mayor, his sister and a member of his office staff (on leave for the campaign) all pressed an aldermanic candidate from Ward 1 to give a “yes” or “no” answer to their question: “Do you support the Manning Centre vision for Calgary?”  And they were less than impressed that this candidate, Chris Harper, wouldn’t give them an answer in under 4 letters.


This exchange was unusual for several of reasons.  First and foremost, what’s the mayor doing engaging in ward politics?  It’s peculiar – Calgary doesn’t have party politics at the local level (nor should it), and generally mayoral and aldermanic candidates run campaigns in simultaneous but mutually exclusive pools.


Odd also was the demand of the mayor and his surrogates for a one-word answer.  What happened to “politics in full sentences” one may wonder?


But the most puzzling thing was this reference to the “Manning Centre Vision”, based on a research paper released earlier in the week.


Read Naomi Lakritz’s August 22nd column on the Manning Centre report; It’s a scathing critique, suggesting that following this think tank’s direction would put our city on a dark path towards Dickens-esque misery.


My first thought was, “Wow, this Manning thing must be incendiary – an election defining issue – particularly if it would prompt the mayor to wade into ward races.  I need to read this report.”


You know when you go to a movie but leave half way through because the dialogue, plot or acting was bad?  Reading this report was kind of like that.  I went into it expecting “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but it ended up with, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”.  If this is indicative of the Manning Centre’s contribution to the upcoming election, then it’s far from substantive.

The report has an almost forced-academic feel about it; it strives to demonstrate evidence for its conclusions, but is thick with generalities and scant on local data or context.  Replace the word “Calgary” with any other Canadian big city and 75% of the report would still sound coherent.


That lack of context contributes to its greatest failing: the author(s) appear to have precious little experience with or understanding of Alberta municipal government and how it works.


An example.  It rails against some of the goals outlined in Imagine Calgary, without noting (or perhaps recognizing) what Imagine Calgary was – a public engagement exercise.  Imagine Calgary engaged nearly 20,000 Calgarians in answering the question, “What do you want your city to look like in 50 or 100 years?”


It was designed to get input for amendments to the Municipal Development Plan (MDP), which is a statutory document; it’s basically the broad guidelines for development of the city.  The MDP provides guidance for future Area Structure Plans, Area Re-development Plans, land-uses and alike.


Cherry-picking unattainable goals from a “blue-skying” exercise like Imagine Calgary is either intellectually dishonest or demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about how municipal governments work in Alberta.


The report isn’t even ideologically consistent.  It complains about some of Council’s flights of fancy (e.g. shark fin) and recommends strict new constitutional means to limit City Council’s authority (which by default would vest these decisions with the Provincial Legislature).


Pardon?  Isn’t the Manning Centre a “conservative” think-tank?  Conservative, as in “small government – local decision making” conservative?  My political philosophy may be a bit rusty, but advocating more centralized authority that moves decisions farther away from the people isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect from the mouths of those claiming to be conservative.


Natural Person Powers, that is the legal construct allowing municipal councils to govern with flexibility provided that they do not contradict federal or provincial laws, was actually introduced in 1994 by Premier Ralph Klein.  Ralph was a pretty conservative guy who certainly understood the need for agile municipal governance.  Ralph – 1, Preston – 0 in this case.


That’s not to say that the entirety of the Manning Centre report is devoid of something useful for Council or voters.  Philosophically, it is a reminder that municipal councils should continually be looking at the services they provide and ask whether or not these need to be delivered or are best delivered by the public sector.


It also points out that from a regulatory perspective, there is considerable room for streamlining in Calgary.  Despite a few “big scissor” photo-ops, the “Cutting Red Tape Committee” hasn’t really delivered any significant results (putting aside food trucks of course).


So is this recent output from the Manning Centre a municipal conservative manifesto; the revolutionary horse on which a slate of candidates will charge into Calgary City Hall?  Hardly – “Contract with America” this ain’t.


It is by no means the catalyst for Calgary to abandon its non-aligned Councilor tradition.  Any ward candidates who to-date have been affiliated with the Manning Centre should read the report and think long and hard about whether or not they wish to continue to be linked to it – not for ideological reasons, but for the lack of intellectual quality.


Nor is the Manning Centre’s initiative an electoral “boogie-man” requiring a ward-by-ward “purple antidote” from the Mayor’s Office.


Back to Chris Harper from Ward 1.  He refused to bite on the Twitter goading, preferring to wait a day and put out a press release saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’m not taking sides between Manning and Nenshi. I’m knocking on doors, talking to voters about what they want and what I believe and if I win, I’ll represent them.”


Right answer Chris.


Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., an Alberta-based government and public relations strategy and public opinion research firm. 

The Calgary Herald, 2013 August 28