“There’s nothing whatsoever that’s urgent about this, except the need for some members of the council to look good to the provincial government,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the first council meeting back from summer break on Sept. 9.
Nenshi had been addressing a piece of “urgent business” – a late addition to the council’s agenda. The motion titled, “Modernization of Municipal Expense Disclosure,” which aimed to align the city’s expense reporting with recommendations made by the UCP sponsored Mackinnon report, failed to be added to the combined council meeting’s agenda after an eight to seven vote which followed an intense 20-minute debate. Nenshi never did mention the counselor who had brought up the motion by name.
“I would urge the mover to be much more thoughtful about how to get what he wants, which is presumably more than just getting his name in the paper,” Nenshi added.
The mover was Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas. The motion wasn’t the rookie councillor’s first attempt at raising transparency at City Hall as an issue. Nor was it the first time the rookie councillor had agitated his colleagues. Farkas has been a fierce advocate for fiscal responsibility and transparency ever since he was elected to Calgary’s city council. Though his activism has caused friction between him and his colleagues, it has also earned him some fans among his constituents. Farkas insists the city needs a change of direction. But what remains to be seen is whether Farkas’ activism will brighten his political future or darken it.
“I think there is a crisis — it’s a crisis of confidence,” says Farkas, who believes a lack of transparency at City Hall is threatening Calgarians’ faith in their local government. “I’ve always found it funny that despite City Hall being the local level of government, Calgarians tend to know little about what’s happening. Some of that is unfortunately by design.”
Farkas believes his longer-tenured colleagues use a lack of transparency to obscure past decisions which may now be negatively affecting the city.
“I think the refusal to acknowledge the issues and problems happening here at City Hall comes from a reluctance to examine their own record,” he says.
“I was sent to council to advocate certain positions particularly around transparency and spending restraint — I’m not going to back down from these things.” - Jeromy Farkas, Ward 11 Councillor
He also claims Calgarians have one of the most secretive city halls in North America, citing it as one reason city council’s approval rating dropped 18 per cent between June of 2018 and June 2019, per a July report by ThinkHQ Public Affairs.
While Farkas says secrecy is at the root of many of the council’s troubles, he has also taken aim at council’s pay cheques and pensions – something that has agitated his colleagues.
Earlier this year, Farkas opposed what he calls council’s “golden” pensions, often highlighting in public how he has refused to cash in on the lucrative retirement plan at the end of his tenure.
Last December, Farkas was unanimously ejected from council by his colleagues for refusing to apologize for an inaccurate social media post about council’s 2019 pay raises. Although Farkas' office has since said the social media post was not inaccurate but rather a misunderstanding arising from an apparent administrative error in the pay formula, he describes the move to eject him as “extreme.” He is unapologetic about the way he conducts himself.
“I was sent to council to advocate certain positions particularly around transparency and spending restraint,” says Farkas. “I’m not going to back down from these things.”
Despite his issues with fellow councillors, his brashness seems to be resonating with some Calgarians.
During a Ward 11 town hall meeting at the Royal Canadian Legion on Horton Road in September, a large portion of the crowd was collectively nodding their heads as Farkas lamented over city spending.
Farkas, 33, seems to have been half the age of the average person who attended that night but he had more than double the number of people listening to him speak than were playing bingo next door, and many of them seemed to like what he was saying. This admiration from his constituents will likely keep Farkas in his position long enough to help address what he sees as council’s biggest obstacle.
“I think there’s a huge difference in vision right now, and that difference is probably the greatest now than it’s ever been,” he says.
For Farkas, his vision is a desire for a transparent government with tight fiscal restraints.
“Look, if high spending and secrecy can get us the results that some people are saying it would, where are those results? I feel that the truth is that the high reliance on secrecy and having unrestrained spending has contributed to a lot of the problems the city is currently facing.”
Farkas believes what the city needs, in addition to more transparency, is a wake-up call around how the city spends its money.
“Calgarians have had to change practically everything about their family life and their business life as a result of the economic downturn. They’ve had to make needed changes in order to survive. I think for Calgary to survive and remain relevant we’re going to need to hit the ground hard on reforms around spending, around red tape.”
He’s concerned that if a change in direction isn’t made soon, Calgary’s competitiveness could be at stake.
“In my mind, Calgary’s always been a shining light for opportunity. That light still exists but I think it’s a little bit dimmer than it’s been in the past.”
Despite his desire for a change in direction, Farkas won’t commit to trying to lead a city council to make the changes he believes are needed.
“I didn’t run for council as a stepping stone for anything else,” says Farkas, who added he isn’t thinking about a mayoral run in 2021. However, the young councilor does seem to have high ambitions.
“I know that in the future when I think back to my council career, I don’t want it to be the title of my book...I don’t want my time on council to be even the title of a chapter in my book. I want it to be a footnote.”
Correction and Clarification: This story has been changed from its original version to add more information about the incident that led to Farkas being ejected from council. Also, a previous version of the story reported an incorrect age for Farkas, who is 33.
- By Brian Wells