The Secrets Within: Who’s to blame for city hall’s closed-door reputation?

September 22nd, 2001
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City hall has become a secretive, manipulative place where aldermen and the public are routinely kept in the dark, say several aldermen and candidates in the mayoral election. “Transparency could become the No. 1 issue in this election,” says Richard Magnus, a mayoral candidate and currently the MLA for Calgary-North Hill. “People are getting tired of having business done behind closed doors.”

“There have been quite a few big examples of secrecy in this term, but it goes back to previous terms,” says Ray Clark, a longtime alderman who lost to Mayor Al Duerr in the 1998 mayoral election and is running again this year. “The secrecy situation has gotten worse. It breeds like a virus.”

Some of the critics charge that senior administration officials work with the mayor’s office to develop policy and projects on their own, then present them to council as faits accompli. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with the balance between elected and non-elected people in city hall,” says Diane Colley-Urquhart, alderman for Ward 13.

“Theress layer upon layer upon layer of bureaucracy to insulate the taxpayer from the decisions that are being made behind closed doors and presented to council for mere ratification,” agrees Allan Hunter, the only major mayoral candidate with no connection to city hall. “Secrecy is rampant. City hall has to be returned to its rightful owners.”

Anyone deviating from the administration’s tightly scripted scenarios, the critics say, is shamed into compliance by being accused of wasting taxpayers’ money or exposing the city to costly lawsuits.

“Most of the aldermen are well-meaning people, but they haven’t dealt with the Machiavellian internal politics of a $1.5-billion organization,” says former alderman Jon Lord, now MLA for Calgary-Currie, who is not running for mayor. “If the city solicitor says, ‘I’ll determine whether you have legal protection for talking about this issue in public,’ they say, ‘Sure.’”

But there’s one mayoral candidate who thinks these comments go much too far–Ald. Bev Longstaff. “Some people make these secretiveness comments as if we’re the official opposition to the administration,” says Longstaff. “That’s a wrong perception. We’re the board of directors of this corporation. We’re the policy-makers. Every decision we take has to be taken in public, and we do that. I just don’t think it’s quite true, this claim that there’s too much secrecy.”

City hall’s reluctance to conduct major business in public has been central to several major issues in recent years, including:

- The Telus Convention Centre. The $70-million expansion of the downtown facility went $26 million over budget. Some aldermen complained city officials provided far too little information to monitor the project, then warned councillors that public discussion could expose the city to lawsuits. “In other words, if we raised the alarm about costs, it would be we who would cost the taxpayers of Calgary money,” says Lord. A former convention centre official later disclosed he’d been told to withhold information from council. Though planned as a moneymaker, insiders have told Hunter the centre is losing money. Says the 45-year-old operating engineer: “I believe it’ll soon be coming up for corporate welfare, and city hall is trying to decide how much–or how little–to tell the public.”

- The Centre Street Bridge renovation. This project was slated to cost $6.5 million, but critics charge the tab may hit $20 million. When disputes arose between contractors over escalating costs and changing scope, the city’s law department silenced aldermen by saying they would not be insured against any resulting lawsuits. “I didn’t even disagree with the substance of the city’s position,” says Lord. “What was outrageous was that they were simply trying to gag us.” Lord charges the threat itself was arguably illegal. In any case, the critics insist there isn’t a single example of a successful lawsuit arising out of an alderman’s comments.

- The calgarycity logo fiasco. The administration engaged a local advertising firm to design a new logo around a proposed re-naming of the City of Calgary to calgarycity. Although the scheme would eventually affect thousands of items from letterhead to signage to clothing, the public was excluded. The plan was presented to council in June for a vote. A cost estimate was not included. Officials told skeptical aldermen these matters were the administration’s exclusive domain. A wild public backlash ensued, and council eventually reversed its initial endorsement. “There’s simply no excuse for the logo fiasco,” says Clark. “There needs to be some corrective action. That’s what this election is for.” Longstaff differs. “We as council gave the city that instruction and it was public going in,” she says. “It got blown out of proportion. The criticisms are posturing.”

- The city’s replacement of the Calgary Economic Development Authority by something called Promoting Calgary Inc. Virtually every aspect of this has been secret–including a taxpayer-funded consultant’s report on the controversial new agency’s performance.

- The proposed privatization of Enmax, the city’s electric utility. This issue bears all the hallmarks of the operating style painted by the critics: the project was developed in secret, it was presented to city council in complete form in a closed meeting, aldermen were pressured to vote immediately, and they were warned they could be held personally liable for any drop in Enmax’s value resulting from public discussion. “They had 12 hours of closed-door meetings on Enmax and came out with a decision for which no-one understands the basis,” says Richard Magnus. “I find that disgraceful.”

Critics note that detailed information circulates in public concerning nearly every corporate takeover. Why should Enmax be any different? “That (warning about lawsuits) was nonsense,” agrees Dave Bronconnier, alderman for Ward 6 and a mayoral candidate. “The only item we couldn’t discuss was limited proprietary information.”

Aldermen who sit on Enmax’s board of directors, such as Longstaff, learned of the plan months earlier, but were told not to discuss it. More recently, board members had an exclusive look at Enmax’s still-secret strategic plan. Some critics say this creates a conflict of interest.

Longstaff, surprisingly, doesn’t dispute that claim. “We are required to wear many different hats (as aldermen),” she says. “I think it would be better not to have any members on the Enmax board, or on the development appeal board, or on the gas and power committee. They all create conflicts of interest. These issues are yet another reason for a municipality not to be in this kind of business.”

Edmonton, by contrast, conducted virtually all business surrounding the proposed sale of its electric utility, Epcor, in public. The sale didn’t go ahead.

In some cases, city hall appears more concerned about the fact that information gets out than about the issue at stake. Dr. Patricia Pitsel’s resignation from Calgary’s police commission last October exemplifies this.

Pitsel’s letter of resignation, which alleged the commission was being run like a “Family Compact,” was filed with the city clerk, and was leaked to Herald columnist Don Braid. Two respected former police commissioners supported Pitsel’s claims, and another commissioner resigned a few months later citing the same concerns.

But the city’s sole reaction was to launch an investigation under the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP) to find the source of the leak. The legal trigger was the thinnest imaginable: Pitsel’s letter contained her home address (which Braid didn’t reveal).

The source turned out to be Colley-Urquhart. Theoretically, she faced expulsion from council and a fine of up to $10,000 (she wasn’t fined). FOIPP, charges Braid, “has given the city leave to conduct a witch hunt into any leak, even if the information is of acute public interest.”

Why is the city being run this way?

First, critics charge, Duerr likes it this way.

“This is a man who craves consensus, who avoids open conflict at all costs,” says one longtime city hall observer. “He uses the administration to create this steamroller that whips the aldermen into line.”

“I can’t remember a single instance where (Duerr) wasn’t on the side of the administration when it came to issues of information and openness,” says Lord. “This mayor prides himself on the lack of dissension. But in my view, when dissension dies, so does democracy.”

Duerr was unavailable to comment for this story, said a media relations spokesperson.

Critics also note the close relationship between Duerr and the city’s highest bureaucrat, chief executive Dale Stanway. A former private-sector consultant, Stanway is considered brilliant but impatient with the give and take of political processes. He is a long-standing personal friend of Duerr’s.

“Dale Stanway told me he wants to do things differently,” says Colley-Urquhart. “But then he came out with the logo schmozzle. And then he tried to tell us what to do on Enmax.”

Stanway was too busy to be interviewed, said a city spokesman.

But Hunter says it’s unfair to blame only Duerr. “A lot of the mayoralty candidates have been part of the process for many years,” he says. “If they’d been yelling and screaming, some of this might have been blocked.”

“It’s a lack of leadership in general,” agrees Clark. “Council needs to read the feelings of the public, transform those feelings into policies and give clear direction to the administration.” And, he adds, the new mayor and aldermen need to have the courage to admit their mistakes.

Some say city hall’s secretiveness is more a symptom–though a major one–than the disease, which in their view is that senior officials have come to believe they, not the elected people, run the city.

“The aldermen need to remember they’re the boss,” says Magnus. “I think many of them have come to believe it’s the other way around.”

So what can be done to shift control back to the people’s elected representatives?

Magnus advocates an independent auditor-general function, quarterly reporting and Hansard-style recording and publishing of council and committee meetings. Though city officials tape council meetings, they withhold the tapes from the public and even aldermen. Yet city officials routinely provide important information verbally, making it impossible to hold them to their words later.

Winnipeg has Hansard-style recording, and Grande Prairie is about to introduce it. But when Calgary aldermen inquired about it, officials claimed it would be too expensive and create potential liability.

In response, Colley-Urquhart five months ago began recording and archiving council meetings on her own.

Magnus also wants to revive the city’s real estate registry, which required aldermen to disclose their holdings. Introduced by then-mayor Rod Sykes nearly 30 years ago, council disbanded the registry last year.

Hunter’s platform is focused on reforming operating procedures at the department level, such as breaking up the “mini-empires” built through devices like the Transportation Project Office. “This thing costs $750,000 per year, and what does it do, exactly, beyond make sure that all the usual players can get together?” says Hunter.

For Bronconnier, the solution lies less in concrete structural reforms than in the signals sent by the mayor’s operating style. “My style of leadership would be to set a tone and flavour in favour of transparency,” says Bronconnier. “The administration would have to understand these rules.”

Duerr’s successor–whoever he or she might be–faces a tough job. The administration shows no sign of altering its operating style on the Enmax issue, for example. “The Enmax process is a marketing process to pitch privatization, that’s all there is to it,” says Bronconnier. “We need to put the brakes on.”

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