Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is calling for an investigation after a local home builder was caught on video bragging about fundraising for pro-development councillors who could wield control at City Hall.
Cal Wenzel, founder of Calgary home builder Shane Homes, said in the video, obtained by Global News from an unnamed source, that he considered the popular mayor unbeatable and would instead focus his efforts on councillors.
He is shown telling an industry gathering that he has pulled together $1.1-million to funnel into the Manning Centre, a conservative think tank that is currently offering training for "market-oriented" candidates in advance of October's civic election.
The centre, which was created by Reform Party founder Preston Manning, isn't fielding a slate of candidates or trying to unseat the mayor, but its new "municipal governance project" being piloted in Calgary is aiming to "improve local government through free markets."
"In order to bring Preston on board, 11 of us put up $100,000, so a million-one," Mr. Wenzel said at the November meeting, which was surreptitiously recorded on a cellphone. "So it's not like we haven't put up our money, and we are going to be there to put up again, and we are also supporting candidates."
Mr. Wenzel also lists current city councillors whom he perceives as anti-development and those who are on side with industry. He also suggested that the mayor's support on any issue doesn't matter. He said, "as long as you have eight votes you can control whatever happens."
"Unless we get somebody in there that is, you know, really going to be on our side," Mr. Wenzel continued, "rather than the dark side, you know, we are talking another four years after next October."
It is not unusual for special-interest groups to financially back preferred candidates.
But Mr. Nenshi described the recorded comments as "extremely disappointing" and suggested possible violations of municipal elections financing laws, which limit individual donations to $5,000, as well as tax exemption rules for charitable organizations.
"People should raise money, give money to candidates that they believe in, volunteer and hang signs and all of that stuff," he said. "But if you do it, you have to do it in a way that is transparent, that is above board, that is ethical and that is above all legal. You see a lot of allegations in this video that none of those criteria are being met."
Mr. Wenzel didn't respond to requests for an interview. Mr. Manning, who is vacationing in Australia, could not be reached for comment.
But the Manning Centre's incoming chairman, former Conservative MP Chuck Strahl, said while he couldn't provide names and dollar amounts of every donor, the organization has raised about $30-million over the past few years for various initiatives. Despite what the video seems to imply, he added, there's nothing nefarious about the governance-training program or where the funding comes from.
"We've been trying to get some traction on this, why it's important and what it's about," Mr. Strahl said. "… Maybe this [the video] will spur people to come and down and see what it's all about."
The mayor was recently embroiled in a public dispute with the local Canadian Home Builders' Association chapter, which took issue with the city's growth policies citing a "suburban growth freeze." Mr. Nenshi temporarily suspended the group from city committees, until a truce was signed last month, in which both parties agreed that the city "is not imposing a suburban development freeze."
"We have members who are more politically active than others," said Charron Ungar, the organization's local president. Some of the group's members were at the event. "That's what we see on that tape. As an association, we are apolitical."
Some members of council expressed concern about an apparent attempt to control municipal decision-making, some denied anyone is in the back pockets of developers and others pointed out there are no obvious signs of voting blocs. But there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction brewing.
Calgary political organizer Donn Lovett said a group of individuals have come to him with $1-million to throw behind any candidate willing to challenge Mr. Nenshi, the only declared mayoral candidate so far.
"It's an expression of frustration," Mr. Lovett said. "I told them no. This is not a mayor that's defeatable."