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Mayor Jyoti Gondek: Staying positive about Calgary’s future

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
April, 2023

It seems all politicians have faced an increased level of abuse in recent years. This has been true for Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek as well.

Even though she has found herself square in the middle of some particularly personal attacks, Gondek said she remains committed to helping push forward an inclusive and prosperous city. Still, she has been somewhat shocked at the vitriol she has often seen.

“We are in a very strange time where I had expected that the polarization we saw during the really tough part of the pandemic would have subsided a bit. But it seems like the polarization continues and it’s starting to get a little bit ugly – intense – in some situations,” she said. “The thing that has been the most surprising for me is that the level of polarization continues to be at high intensity.”

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The flip side of that negativity has been Gondek’s work with Calgary council for the past 16 months. Gondek said she has been “excited” to work with this council. This was especially true after working through a tricky four-year budget process. Members, she said, agreed to a process, stuck to it, and deliberated in a civil and respectful manner.

Gondek said her experience working with her council colleagues has been a positive one. That positivity harkens back to her mayoral campaign. She repeatedly told people she wants to make sure that those doing good work can shine.

Gondek said she does not need to be the one in front of the media scrum every time. She also doe not need to be the one standing at the mic.

“I’m very willing to give credit where it’s due. I invite people to come in and chat with me about items that they wish to bring forward. Whether I agree with them or not, I will help them shape the motion or the amendment in the best possible way to bring it forward for debate,” she said. “That’s not always easy. As the chair, I could be kind of bossy and say ‘no, we’re not bringing that.’ But I do because that’s democracy. This is a nonpartisan council. And every voice deserves to be heard.”

This approach might seem naive to some people, but Gondek said she believes it is important to let people be seen and heard. This allows people to get things not only out of their system, but also brings them forward to the public. As a result, the people of Calgary know where someone sits on a particular perspective or a position.

Gondek said she found council’s last term, her first as a member of council, “a little bit stifling.” She said she would often hear people say, “That’s not how we do things. That’s not how this works.” This approach is one she grew tired of rather quickly.

This council, Gondek said, has as a result spent more time throughout the year talking about things like strategy and the budget. As such, budget season is not a big reveal and then a week-long debate. Rather it is a fulsome process over the course of the year where councillors are interacting back and forth.

As a result, things that get embedded for decision at budget time will not be a surprise. She said it is a different method of moving forward that requires collaboration.

Local Government Perspective

That collaborative approach reflects Gondek’s experiences in the mayor’s chair. They have also helped amplify her perspectives on local government.

“I have always believed that local government was probably the most significant in someone’s life and I continue to believe that. We are significant because we are the voice of the people, we are closest to the people,” Gondek said. “And by not being tied to a party, we can be unafraid to ask for the things that Calgarians need. And I believe that with all my heart and even more than I did before.”

During her mayoral campaign, Gondek spoke about her sense of optimism around Calgary’s future. That optimism, she said, gives people something to strive for. After all, if residents are only looking backward and lamenting what used to be, they are not going to move forward.

Gondek said her policy has been to build on the successes the city has already enjoyed. Calgary’s economy, as everyone knows, has a very strong foundation in the energy sector. This continues to be true today, albeit just looking a little bit different. Calgary is a leader in energy transformation, Gondek said. That is the kind of thing that puts the city on the global map.

Gondek also points to the success Calgary has enjoyed when it comes to film and TV production and give full credit to the provincial government for bringing back the film and television credit.

Gondek also continues to push the province on bringing out a digital media credit. The credit would support what she sees as the city’s strong future in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gaming.

“To get those people here, we need our provincial partners to offer that type of an incentive,” Gondek said. “We have a very bright future, and it is my job to get out there and explain to people why Calgary is future-proofed. To talk about the things that we are doing to make this a great place to live and work.”

Wicked Problems, Co-operative Solutions

Despite all her optimism, Gondek is not one to ignore so called “wicked problems” facing other major cities.

Homelessness, opioid addictions, and pandemic recovery are all big problems to be dealt with. Gondek’s approach to succeeding with these issues is co-operation.

This includes working together with her fellow mayors as part of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Big City Mayors’ Caucus. The collective voice of the caucus, Gondek said, gives mayors the weight of many voices calling out for more help from their partners in Ottawa.

It also helps to break though the silos that she said have proven ineffectual in solving these problems.

“You can’t have housing being separated from mental health, being separated from transit, being separated from poverty reduction. You have to look at the citizen as a whole entity and the things that they need for a good quality of life,” Gondek said. “Our united voice is probably going to be the only thing that gets us to solving these problems that are quite intense and very intersectional.”

Essentials of Personal Inspiration

Co-operation between orders of government is not the sole solution to fixing these problems. What fuels Gondek and her hopes that change is possible? Where does she get her inspiration from?

Gondek said that inspiration comes from giving people a reason to stay in Calgary. This includes young people who have graduated with a certificate, or a degree, or a trade, and are actively working in the city. It also includes students in elementary school, junior high, or high school, who are trying to decide whether they should stay in Calgary or seek their fortunes elsewhere.

What will keep the next generation in Calgary? Gondek said the city needs to stay invested in downtown revitalization. It needs to invest in housing for everyone. It must also have a thriving arts and culture sector so that people can have interactions with beautiful things in their city.

“What inspires me is to give them a reason to stay here. I mean, go out and travel. Go experience another city. But then come back here because we all know it’s better here,” Gondek said. “It’s not always just about the jobs that people can get. They need a life around that job, and that’s what we need to deliver on.”

As much as she strives to create a good quality of life for Calgarians, Gondek said it can be difficult to do the same for herself. Her philosophy is that trying to achieve balance is not possible in a job like hers, but is important to find a little bit of joy at least once a day.

“There is always a moment in every day where you can capture a little bit of laughter. Where you can celebrate something that’s gone well. Where you can boost somebody up and say, ‘Good job. Thanks for being with me on this ride’,” she said. “There’s always an opportunity to find some joy and that’s what I try to do.”  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Richard Tindal’s article: Limitations on municipal government 50 years later.

Sean Meyer is Senior Editor for Municipal World.

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