Calgary's City Council must stop micro managing!

Sometimes I just shake my head, wondering what are they thinking?  Why is City Council spending so much time debating and making decision on things that obviously should never even come to Council in the first place?

I was reminded of this, this past Monday when two of the agenda items were perfect examples of things that should never come to Council. First was the ongoing decision by Council to make the decision to approve every secondary suite application in Calgary.  In this case, Council should approve policy for Secondary Suites in Calgary and then trust administration implement it – end of debate.  Worse case scenario let the Ward Councilor make the decision and others just rubber-stamp their decision.

The second was the debate on community and street names proposed for the Brookfield Residential’s new Livingston community.  In this case Council has approved policy and clear guidelines for Community and street names. Why are they debating the names of streets?

I think the naming of communities and streets is critical as part of celebrating Calgary’s history and fostering a sense of place.  Yes I think in the past we have made some poor choices, but there is no point lamenting over names like Coral Springs, Tuscany or Royal Oak - we need to move on.  We already have a “Community and Street Naming” policy and it is Council’s responsibility to review the policy if it is not working – end of discussion.

Calgary's City Council can't continue to govern the city like it did 30 or 40 years ago. 

Waste of everybody’s time

It is not only a waste of Council’s time, but also staff time as dozens of senior staff have to hang around the Council meeting waiting for their agenda item to come forward.  There is also the time it takes for other staff to gather and compile all of the information for Council meetings for the agenda items they shouldn’t be discussing in the first place. It would be enlightening after every Council (and Committee meeting for that matter) to add up the amount of staff time that has been invested vs. the value added.

Backstory: As I was writing this blog it turns out someone has estimated it costs $10,000 for every Council meeting that goes past per meeting in just over time.  It is probably the same cost for Planning Commission and other meetings that drag on.

Council Members vs. Corporate Board Members

This type of behaviour would never survive in the private world.  Can you imagine Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors having to deal with every customer or staff complaint in person or Suncor’s Board of Directors deciding on the naming of wells or who gets which corner office in the Suncor Centre?

Calgary’s sheer growth over the past 10 years should dictate Council has to be a governance Board and not a working committee.  The City’s current 2015 to 2018 plan calls for $22 billion in capital and operating expenses compared to the $10.2 billion in the 2005 to 2008 plan. 

Council has no time to get bogged down in minutiae of the implementation of policy at the expense of larger issues. As stewards of a multi-billion business Council members should be focused on setting direction, goals and policy, not day-to-day detail. 

Delegation Opportunities

One suggestion I have heard for Council to better manage the City is to create more City owned corporations like ENMAX.  For example, Water & Sewer Services could become a utility company with its own Board of Directors instead of being a department of the City.  Similarly, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has done a good job of developing the City’s land in East Village; perhaps it should be responsible for developing all City owned land. Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the City perhaps its mandate could be expanded to include the work being done by the Calgary Housing Company.   

Perhaps the City should be hiring a Governance Advisor rather than an Integrity Commissioner, who could help them manage their Board and Committee meetings more effectively.  Remember the old adage, “time is money.”  While almost all of the Councilors complain they are too busy, one has to wonder: Are they busy doing the right things?

Last Word

Council is often challenging others to do things differently, but in many ways it is still governing the City as if it was the ‘70s.  Today, Calgary is a complex corporation with over 12,000 employees and an annual budget of over $4 billion.  It needs to start managing its affairs as if was a corporation and not a working committee.


Before I posted this blog I shared it with 10 key informants asking for their input to make sure my comments were constructive and appropriate.  Collectively these individuals had over 125 years of experience in senior positions with the City and over 150 years of corporate experience. They all encouraged me to post the blog, saying change is needed immediately. 

By Richard White, February 11, 2015