Braid: Mayor Gondek's in trouble but water crisis shows she doesn't run and hide

If the mayor is to recover, she has to drop the grand overarching plans and just make this city work

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Say one thing for Mayor Jyoti Gondek, or maybe more than one thing.

She isn’t hiding from the biggest crisis Calgary has faced under her tenure. The mayor is constantly out front as leader of the city’s response to the water main crisis.

It would be dead easy for Gondek to fade into the shadows of this weird and complex problem. She could leave the messaging to city officials and Susan Henry, the excellent head of emergency management.

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But, no, Gondek is standing up there, making herself the target of all the suspicions, annoyance and wild conspiracy theories that the pipe breach was somehow staged.

Gondek has apologized for vague messaging in the early stages after the rupture last Wednesday. This created widespread fear of the whole city going dry, without any backup detail.

Now we hear that because Calgarians are conserving water, the city has a surplus of more than 200 million litres every day.

Gondek said the extra water is essential for a firefighting crisis. That’s just obvious.

But the mention of surplus water may be backfiring. Some people took it as proof that the crisis is over, so it’s OK to open the taps.

Once again, the communication wasn’t strong on nuance. But Gondek was at least honest about the situation. She has not been duplicitous or secretive, just somewhat scattered.

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“If you’re not operating from a strong strategic communications plan from the start, you’re going to be shooting from the hip,” says Jim Stanton, president of Jim Stanton Associates, a crisis communications firm that worked for the city on the G-8 Summit in 2002, a business tax revolt in 2019 and several other issues.

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When the mayor spoke on Sunday, Stanton said, she seemed “confused and uncertain, and looked like she wanted to be anywhere else.”

She had been heavily criticized for trying to deflect blame to the province. Gondek deserved that. But as Stanton also pointed out, nearly every city in Canada is worried about aging underground infrastructure.

Cities can’t possibly handle this national problem without major cash infusions from Ottawa and their provinces. Gondek made the right point at the wrong moment.

She has been under immense pressure, much of it self-inflicted.

The menorah-lighting scandal. The paper bag bylaw. The huge property tax hike. The heated, extended debate over blanket zoning, an issue already resolved more peaceably in other cities.

There’s been one wounding issue after another for the past eight months. Consequently, Gondek is very unpopular in the polls.

But then, so is Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who hasn’t faced issues as emotional as Gondek’s.

Jyoti Gondek at the water main break
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek tours the scene of a water main break in Bowness in Calgary on Thursday, June 6, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Canadians everywhere are fed up with municipal overreach. Toronto’s decision to rename iconic Dundas Street, and Yonge-Dundas Square, was as blazing hot as anything that’s happened in Calgary.

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Gondek, like Sohi, also faces an extremely hostile, power-hungry provincial government. Her conservative opposition on council is close to a majority on every vote. By next year’s municipal election, this core group will likely form a civic political party with close links to the UCP government.

At no time in modern memory has the job of Calgary mayor been so difficult. Perhaps failing to grasp this for too long, Gondek finds herself in political trouble.

But the water crisis is both a problem and an opportunity. By taking the hard knocks and doing this job with honesty and clarity every day, she can start to rebuild her support.

If the mayor is to recover, though, she has to drop the grand overarching plans and just make this city work.

Fill the potholes. Empty the rotting trash from city bins. Make the streets safe for everyone, including the unhoused and those with addictions.

In short, be more a mayor for the streets, the communities and the people, less a dreamer for some utopian future.

Be the mayor a troubled city desperately needs right now.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Calgary Herald

X: @DonBraid

Bowness water main break

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