Mayor Gondek faces recall petition as citizens express disappointment with her performance in office

Doug Firby: Mayor Gondek faces recall petition as citizens express disappointment with her performance in officeThe daily commute to work for Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek must be pretty miserable these days. Everywhere you look – from downtown intersections to the suburbs – you’ll find those Recall Mayor Gondek signs. Through generations of mayors both popular and perturbing, Calgary hasn’t seen anything quite like this.

It’s enough to give even the most thick-skinned politician a complex.

Alberta’s Recall Act, which came into effect in April 2022, creates a process for citizens to remove a municipal councillor, a member of the Legislative Assembly or a school board trustee. It’s a key piece of the UCP government’s push to give voters a way to hold politicians more accountable if one of them goes rogue between elections.

I’m not sure this will make Calgary’s mayor feel any better, but there are several other recall petitions going on in Alberta, including in the City of Wetaskiwin, where a group of unhappy residents are going after Mayor Tyler Gandam.

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Alberta is not breaking new ground by giving voters the right to try a recall; British Columbia implemented its Recall and Initiative Act in 1996, enabling registered voters to use petitions to propose new laws, change existing laws, or remove a sitting MLA from office.

Since then, there have been 30 recall petitions in that province, and seven of those were returned to Elections BC for verification. Six of the seven petitions did not have enough valid signatures, and the seventh was halted during the verification process because the MLA in question resigned.

If you count the MLA who fell on his own sword, that’s one eviction in 30 tries. Wins are hard to come by.

Recalling a politician is serious business with far-reaching implications. What, you may ask, would happen if Gondek were evicted from office? One could imagine short-term chaos on council, and if no election is imminent, city residents would be asked to cast their ballots in a by-election. This could drag voter turnout figures down to new depths.

For those reasons, it’s good to see a high bar to achieve a recall – 40 percent of any Alberta jurisdiction’s population (about 514,284 people in Calgary) would need to sign the recall petition in person within 60 days. In other words, voters would have to be deeply, deeply enraged by a politician for a petition to succeed.

Which brings us back to Gondek. It’s fair to say that a lot of voters are disappointed in her performance since she took over from the much more popular Naheed Nenshi in 2021. She’s smart but lacks the charisma and finesse of her predecessor. Sometimes, she is astonishingly tone-deaf. There have been some painfully boneheaded moves, including her ill-considered decision not to attend the 15th annual lighting of the menorah at city hall because, she later lamely explained, she felt the event had become “political.”

Even her former chief of staff, Stephen Carter, condemned that move as an “abdication of leadership” that would result in hurtful impacts within the community. “I think that it was a massive mistake for her to do so,” he said.

Meanwhile, council infuriated citizens when it tried to implement a watered-down Canada Day celebration with no fireworks. Is it any surprise that Calgarians feel they have awakened to a “woke” nightmare?

There’s more. Let’s not forget council’s decision to declare a climate emergency in this, the home of Canada’s oil and gas industry, fumbling the event centre-arena deal and implementing a property tax increase rate of 7.8 percent in 2024. If voters have a problem with municipal leadership, it’s not just with Gondek but with the majority of councillors.

Much has been made of the connection Landon Johnston, the businessman who started the campaign, has to Alberta’s Take Back Alberta set. Too much, I’d say. Is this, as some contend, a right-wing conspiracy to advance conservative values at the municipal level? I can’t rule that out, especially when you ask who put up the money to pay for a website and all those ads and signs. But my gut tells me this rebellion is mainly driven by one guy who feels our municipal politicians have lost touch with the people who put them in office. Take Back Alberta just jumped at the opportunity to join the ride.

There is plenty of blame to pass around for this mess, and a lot of it lies at the feet of the people who didn’t care enough to get out and vote in the last election. Of the 847,556 eligible voters, just 393,090 actually exercised their mandate. All those too-lazy-to-vote folks need to realize that when you don’t pay attention, chances are you won’t get the council you want.

If the goal of the recall is to push Gondek from office, then Johnston’s campaign is almost certainly doomed to fail. (Unless Gondek tires of the bad juju and resigns.) But the fact that it gained some steam serves notice that a significant number of Calgarians feel this council and mayor have lost their way. If everyone who signs the petition is now woke (if you’ll forgive the pun) to the harm a bad council can bring and is prepared to express their disapproval in the 2025 election, then the recall effort will not have been in vain.

A substantial vote turnout would be the best outcome of all.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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