Braid: Official picks home of the Civil War over Calgary city hall. Smart guy.

As city official Tim Keane, flees for Civil War territory, Calgary council left with extreme muddle over zoning bylaw

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It’s not clear why Calgary’s six-week planning boss, Tim Keane, fled Calgary for Charleston, South Carolina, the cradle of America’s Civil War.

Whatever the reason, we can hardly blame him. It’s more peaceful down there. Fort Sumter, bombarded in 1861, is now a nice park.

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The Greater Charleston area, population 800,000, is in the middle of its own zoning reform. The debate seems much more tranquil.

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Our city hall, by contrast, is a dysfunctional mess with regular verbal eruptions and increasingly tangled jurisdictions.

Three councillors want an ethics inquiry into the zoning bylaw process. They even suggest a judicial review.

The question is, were officials being honest when they said federal money didn’t depend on ending detached single-family zoning?

The federal minister, Sean Fraser, had said the conditions must be met or no money will arrive. In Calgary’s case that amounts to $228 million.

But during the hearings, at least one city official was asked directly if the money depended on passing the bylaw.

“No,” he said.

It’s serious business if anyone misled council on basic facts.

Observers gather in the overflow area in the atrium at City Hall in Calgary on April 22 as council began hearing public speakers and submissions associated with the proposed rezoning bylaw.  Photo by Jim Wells /Jim Wells/Postmedia

Marc Henry, who was ex-Mayor Dave Bronconnier’s chief of staff, says: “You just can’t do that. It’s wrong. It’s lying.” Without trust in the information officials provide, chaos ensues.

The councillors who complain have a point. There should at least be an ethics probe.

But the issue itself is strangely unreal.

It involves money that may not arrive before the federal election expected in October next year.

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After that the Liberals will likely be gone and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre will be prime minister. With affordability his main issue, he may want to change housing policy entirely.

Usually, councillors are angry when they don’t get federal money. In this bizarre case, they’re upset because they will.

Without Ottawa’s help, local taxpayers would be on the hook for the whole cost of housing incentives.

And Calgary would be the only sizeable Canadian city to refuse this “housing accelerator” largesse.

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The UCP government could end the debate in a hurry. But they refuse to repeal this bylaw, despite being armed with two new bills that would allow them to do exactly that.

“I won’t,” Premier Danielle Smith said in a CBC interview. “That is up to Calgarians to decide if they’re upset.

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“Calgary has an election coming up in 18 months. It’ll be up to Calgarians to decide whether or not they believe their council made the right decision.”

Bill 18 requires that the province be involved in, and approve, any deal between an Alberta authority and Ottawa.

Smith’s office says the government was not consulted on any zoning deal between Calgary and the federal government.

But the premier isn’t annoyed enough about this case, it seems, to call off nearly a quarter billion dollars in federal money.

One excuse is that the UCP bills aren’t quite law yet. They would have to be applied retroactively, which isn’t beyond provincial power but would be dubious.

Bill 20 erodes municipal independence from a different angle, by giving the UCP power to rescind a local bylaw if it conflicts with any of several criteria.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver
Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver. DARREN MAKOWICHUK/Postmedia

Municipal leaders complained bitterly about both bills. On Thursday, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver brought in promised amendments to Bill 20.

It’s hard to see how they meet municipal concerns.

Bylaws must conform to the Municipal Government Act and other statutes, as well as the constitution. They must also align with provincial policy.

The last one gives the UCP unchecked power to repeal bylaws. Only they decide what their policies are, day by day.

So far, however, the scent of federal money seems to be equally powerful.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

X: @DonBraid

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