Best of Calgary voters have pronounced Ald. Druh Farrell both the best and worst councillor in town. The paradox was not enough to jar her from the fabric of space and time, but it has allowed her a chance to reflect on her political style.
“I’m not afraid to make a decision that’s unpopular if I believe it’s in the best interests of the city for the long term. It’s very difficult as a politician to make long-term decisions. Political expediency is tempting, but I’ve never made a decision based on tomorrow’s headlines. I look at what I believe is the best for the city,” she says, taking an unusually long time to choose her words as she devotes her break from a council hearing to explain why she is the way she is. “Perhaps I’m on the vanguard for Calgary, but I don’t think for the world.”
Farrell has been a controversial councillor since she first took office in 2001. Her turf is Ward 7, a diverse mix of inner-city communities stretching from the north end of downtown to Dalhousie.
Unlike politicians notorious for their big mouths or misguided morals, Farrell’s fame comes mainly from her political decisions. It was she who pushed the city to adopt curbside recycling, who represented the annual closure of five kilometres of Memorial Drive for the Bow River Flow festival, and most recently became the aldermanic symbol of the immensely controversial Peace Bridge.
Farrell knows what her political image is in Calgary, both sides of it. For as many people who fume at the mention of her name, there are those who say she is the best alderman a community could ever want. Perhaps there are even more supporters than detractors, because Druh keeps winning elections. She says she wants to win one more (meaning she would voluntarily leave office in 2016, for those of you who want to know when you’ll escape this reign of terror). Yet she has no interest in running for mayor.
“I always like to assess if I’m still enjoying the job, if I’m still relevant, if I’m still accomplishing things. And I have a number of things that I want to accomplish in the next term,” she says.
Farrell wants to see the new central library completed. She is the director of the Calgary Public Library Board and says she doesn’t just want a renovated library building, but a revolutionary approach to what libraries are in Calgary’s future. She also believes the time is ripe for city administration to overhaul its planning process. The new attitude on council about how the city plans for the future is another reason she says she wants to stay on board.
“In a way we’re like a crazy dysfunctional family, but I really enjoy this new council and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve decided to run, because we don’t agree, nor should we. That tension’s very healthy. However, there’s a respect there and I like some of the things that we’re doing,” she says.
And now for the Peace Bridge.
“The decision to build three (pedestrian) bridges was made in council and passed unanimously in the Centre City Plan,” she says. “But then, with the downturn in the economy those became sort of flags for wasteful spending, especially because it was being spent on infrastructure we don’t normally spend much on — which is pedestrians and cyclists. So we spend (time) on this council discussing the few million dollars of the cycling strategy, but will spend $100 million or $60 million on an interchange without blinking,” she says.
Farrell also believes that political opportunists held the Peace Bridge up as a symbol, not just of the city’s wasteful spending in a time of heightened need, but of her own political inferiority.
The groundwork for the bridge was literally being laid as the 2010 municipal election approached. It was an election that saw nearly half of city council replaced, but Farrell made it through despite being targeted by those she says shall remain nameless.
“I believe that (the Peace Bridge) will be remembered as a point in time for Calgary. Could we have done it differently? Absolutely, and we changed the process. We did that almost immediately; we changed our procurement process to reflect the concerns that we’re hearing. So this St. Patrick’s Island Bridge is an example. It’s a completely different process and that was a conscious decision made right almost immediately,” she says.
Farrell also believes the bridge, which she argues is relatively minor, received such condemnation because it was a simple, visible target, whereas issues she says deserve attention are more complicated.
“I think people could focus on this one issue as a demonstration of a number of different things.”
Best of Calgary voters also awarded the $25-million Peace Bridge second place for best use of local tax dollars, and first for worst use of local tax dollars.