The City/Province relationship: We can do better

Post Date: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Naheed Nenshi - formalI write a regular column in the Calgary Herald. Here is the full text of my February story: 

I often speak of the relationship that the City of Calgary has with the provincial government, which tends to work pretty well.

But we can do better.

We are currently working on two important files to improve our relationship. I know that when I start talking about the creation of city charters for Calgary and Edmonton and the ratification of the Calgary Metropolitan Plan, people start nodding off.

But both issues are vital to the future of our city and our region. Both deserve strong political leadership from the province.

On the charters, the cities of Calgary and Edmonton signed an agreement with the province last June, agreeing to work together on legislation to re-draft the relationship between the province and our two largest cities. Since then, our respective civil servants have been working well on negotiating the details and moving this file forward.

Despite the agreement talking about the equality of the three governments and the need for collaboration, the Premier and her Minister of Municipal Affairs, Doug Griffiths, have made many statements to the media and in the legislature about what will and will not be in the charters, somewhat surprising those of us who thought we were still negotiating.

Most recently, the Minister made a speech to a group of local land developers in which he told them what would be in the charters. News to me, since he hasn't mentioned any of this to any of the parties actually in the discussion.

Nonetheless, when the political drama is stripped away, the work seems to be going well, and I think Calgarians will be pleased with the results. I'm looking forward to sitting down with the Premier and the Mayor of Edmonton soon in order to move this forward.

The bigger issue is the complete lack of action on the Calgary Metropolitan Plan. Briefly, the municipalities in the region have been working together for many years to craft a master plan for the region to help guide decisions around future roads, transit, and, critically, water throughout the region.

In essence, the plan calls for development to occur in a logical manner so that infrastructure, particularly water infrastructure, is not built in a haphazard and needlessly expensive fashion.

The vast majority of the region (some 14 municipalities representing 94 per cent of the population) endorsed a plan before I was elected, and forwarded it to the province (who were the ones who asked for it in the first place). The province, concerned about the remaining six per cent, asked for some amendments, which were done and filed last June.

Calgary City Council, at that time, reaffirmed its commitment to that Plan, and that we would not provide water servicing to areas that did not sign on. Remember that the City is an excellent steward of water, recognized internationally, but that this system has cost Calgarians more than a billion dollars in the last decade.

Since then, the province has done nothing.

Instead, we have received mixed messages at best and outright abuse at worst.

Calgary has been accused of being a "bully" for trying to actually enforce our policies (based on the province's own Water for Life strategy) for responsible water development.

The best example of this occurred in 2011 when the City was asked to provide water and water servicing for a large industrial development outside the city, in Rocky View County. This is precisely the kind of development the Plan envisions, but since the County has not signed onto the Plan, the City's policy doesn't allow for it.

But the province, without telling anyone, decided to pay for the water connection itself. The details are unclear, as the province has never publicly released them, but it's almost certainly true that their solution cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than if they had legislated the Plan, and it's not at all certain they will ever be able to recoup the cost.

Last week, the Premier met with the council of the Municipal District of Foothills (another of the holdouts), and was quoted in the local paper saying that she would not "force" the MD into the Plan (meaning she would not legislate the plan). She also implied that she is not sure the Plan is needed at all. The same day, her Minister backpedalled furiously, saying the Premier's words did not represent government policy, that the decision was his to make, and that he would continue working to a resolution.

You might forgive me for being a little confused.

What I am not confused about is that the future prosperity of this city is the future prosperity of this province.

Treating the City government as the farm team in this relationship and managing important files as cavalierly as this is not good for Calgary, and it's certainly not good for Alberta.

- Mayor Naheed K. Nenshi

You can visit the Calgary Herald online version of this story here.