Citizens’ group calls Nenshi a ‘bully’ after Calgary mayor accuses them of assaulting city employees

Calgary police confirmed Thursday they are investigating allegations city employees were harassed, physically assaulted and threatened at recent public meetings on the southwest transitway project.

But the citizens’ group accused by Mayor of inciting or being directly involved in those supposed incidents are now demanding a public apology from city hall’s top elected official.

“Bully is the man who has the pulpit and uses it to smear citizens without any facts,” Rick Donkers, spokesman for Ready to Engage, said in a news release.

The loosely-knit group of southwest residents dubious of the city’s $40-million southwest transitway project was targeted by Nenshi earlier this week when he unexpectedly cancelled all future face-to-face consultations into the project over allegations city staff were verbally and physically assaulted at recent events.

When I hear someone saying about one of my colleagues, ‘Where is that bitch? I want to strangle her.’ This is not acceptable.

Nenshi said civil servants were subjected to yelling, swearing, pushing, shoving, threats of violence and a death threat at a meeting Tuesday and at a previous meeting in October — actions he blamed on Ready to Engage.

He accused the group Thursday of “riling people up” outside meetings, taking protest signs into events, and duping unsuspecting residents into signing a petition falsely billed as a city sign- up sheet.

Jim Wells/PostmediaJim Wells/PostmediaCalgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks as NDP Minister Brian Mason (R) looks on during a press conference for Green TRIP initiative annoucement in Calgary, Alta. on Thursday February 25, 2016.

“It is very clear that this stuff happened,” Nenshi told reporters. “When I hear someone saying about one of my colleagues, ‘Where is that bitch? I want to strangle her.’ This is not acceptable.

“People have to take responsibility for their actions and if the Ready to Engage group is not willing to take responsibility for their actions, well, this then is the result,” he said.

Donkers maintains it’s the mayor who needs to take responsibility for levelling serious accusations without providing evidence anyone from Ready to Engage was involved in the alleged disturbances.

While media outlets and hundreds of residents, many with smartphones, attended Tuesday’s meeting no one has produced any video or audio to support the mayor’s claims, said Donkers.

A spokeswoman for the said officers were looking into the allegations but could not provide further details.

This is a bully tactic on behalf of the mayor.

“It’s very easy for the mayor to blame Ready to Engage when he’s not criticizing specific individuals that he can connect to the group,” he said in an interview.

“This is a bully tactic on behalf of the mayor.

“We are going to encourage people to continue asking questions and seek answers as is their democratic right,” Donkers said. “If there’s anyway we can facilitate we will work towards it.”

Council approved the southwest transitway project in 2011. It includes a new underpass at 90th Avenue S.W., 36 BRT stations and the addition of two dedicated bus lanes on the west side of 14th Street within the existing right of way.

The plan plodded along until last fall when the NDP government allocated $26.7 million in GreenTRIP funding to the project, at which point the city kicked into high gear to consult residents on a final design in hopes of breaking ground this summer.

The city was forced to ramp up its public relations efforts to counter those of Ready to Engage by hosting various engagement sessions and spending thousands of dollars on information mail-outs to residents in some of the 16 communities along the transitway’s route.

While the face-to-face meetings were cancelled, Nenshi says consultations will continue, now online and via a “virtual townhall.”

Several city workers — including one who was allegedly physically assaulted in October — took to social media praising the mayor’s decision and recounting similar disturbing experiences at other city open house events.

“Not all citizens demonstrate the respect that my colleagues and I deserve, not just as city staff trying to do a job, but as human beings,” Emma Stevens, a city communications strategist, wrote on Facebook. “I have been berated, demeaned, physically assaulted and disrespected by complete strangers on too many occasions.”

Jim Wells/PostmediaJim Wells/PostmediaCalgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks at a press conference for Green TRIP initiative annoucement in Calgary, Alta. on Wednesday February 24, 2016.

Political observers and residents question Nenshi’s decision to cancel upcoming public meetings, saying he may be well-intentioned but there are better ways to handle the situation.

“It’s just a bit of a knee jerk reaction,” said , associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University. “They just need to conduct better planned and prepared hearings.”

Williams said the city should host meetings in larger venues, with better security and clear rules of engagement, and anyone found abusing staff can be escorted out.

Further, the mayor’s plan to host a “virtual townhall” poses a couple problems: it excludes many people who don’t have internet access or don’t understand the technology, and it’s much easier to ignore critics, she said.

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“The bigger problem is that it’s not reciprocal,” Willams said. “Meetings are held for a reason so that there can be an exchange of ideas. If it’s online it’s possible for some comments to be ignored or even deleted for all people know.”

Jack Foster, a 27-year resident of Woodlands, attended Tuesday’s session and blamed city officials for hosting a poorly orchestrated “dog and pony show” in which many attendees were often given conflicting information by staffers.

He said many residents were angry, but disputes claims city workers were insulted or assaulted.

“All these allegations are nothing more than BS,” Foster said. “None of this happened. There was not yelling, swearing, pushing, physical assault or even a ‘death threat.’”

About Trevor Howell, Postmedia News