I’m not one who goes in for the dark, smoky backroom conspiracies, where doughy white guys meet up to plot their evil plans and machinations to control every aspect of our lives. Tammany Hall’s a historic relic, smashed to bits by forces of reform and enlightenment. It’s the 21st-century, baby. Everything’s on the up-and-up. One person, one vote.
So you’ll have to excuse me if I gave short-shrift to this bit of backroom, doughy white guy display of sheer entitlement earlier this year in Calgary. As Lisa Geddes of Global News describes it, “Cal Wenzel, the founder of Shane Homes, presents developers and home builders with his plan to control city council by backing development-friendly candidates.” Damn you, liberal elite, nanny staters and your no-smoking laws! The ambiance demanded to be smoke-filled!
The secretly videoed speech caught people’s attention and subsequently mired the supposedly non-partisan Manning Institute in some icky political goo. But even the most cursory of glances at the news about next Monday’s municipal election in Calgary shows that the back room musings of a small group of men have become front-and-centre campaign issues despite the controversy. The man himself, Preston Manning, hasn’t exactly shied away from displaying how his bread got buttered.
From a non-Calgarian perspective, there are a couple real eye-poppers from this situation that we best pay attention to.
For starters, smaller council numbers are much more susceptible to capture by special interests, let’s call it. It’s just basic math. As Mr. Wenzel pointed out in the video, on a 15 member city council (including the mayor), you just need 8 votes to have your way. That’s a lot fewer campaigns you have to pitch in and help on, a much lighter stress on the pocket book.
Regardless of your political bent, picture Toronto, a city more than twice the size of Calgary, with 24 or 25 councillors. You’d need 13 to control the agenda. That’s basically the mayor’s Executive Committee. For those leaning right, David Miller’s Executive Committee. Those on the left? Rob Ford’s Executive Committee.
The future of 2.6 million people in the hands of 13 elected representatives and, perhaps, a shadowy group, organized enough with enough money to have put them in that position of power. It may seem all cleanly governable but hardly very accountable to the wider voting public.
While his interest in the subject might be for reasons diametrically opposite to mine, Cal Wenzel’s observations on the nature of municipal government I can certainly get behind, and it’s something I’ve been saying for a while now. Ultimately, the position of mayor doesn’t matter in terms of managing the policy direction council decides to follow. A mayor can set the table and write out place cards. A mayor can demand people sit where they’re supposed to sit. But a mayor can’t make anyone eat what’s been put in front of them.
The buck stops with council and whether or not a mayor gets behind the majority of his/her colleagues is inconsequential to the proper functioning of local government. It’s the key wards in any city that will determine the ultimate outcome of a municipal election. Piece together a working coalition and it will not matter who is wearing the chain of the mayor’s office. The blueprint has already been established.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Even easier with access to ready money and influential voices, especially those working around a singular, self-interested cause like pro-development. How do you unite around candidates representing a bigger, broader, more inclusive mandate?
Well, I would start by seeking out people who don’t use or respond well to this kind of language and thinking. “On our side or not…” “Done a really good job for us.” “There are some at city council who are totally out of control.” “As long as we have votes swinging our way…” “Unless we get somebody in there that’s on our side …”
It smacks of empire building not city building. A circling of the wagons and shrinking of consensus. Stunted democracy.
We need candidates not vetted in back rooms. Candidates who are well known in community centres and as part of tenants, residents, neighbourhood and business associations. We need candidates who represent communities not individuals or individual interests.
They’re out there. We have to start looking, and we have to start looking soon. Our election is just over a year away. Rest assured and rest uneasily that there’s already meetings like Cal Wenzel’s happening around the city. The 2014 election is being plotted and many of us remain on the sidelines.
— alarmedly submitted by Cityslikr