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Watson stands his ground

Posted by Alistair Steele

It looks like Jim Watson has passed yet another leadership test. On Tuesday he emerged from an in-camera meeting with members of the city's Planning Committee and lawyers advising them. His message to developers was clear: The urban boundary won't budge a centimetre from the 230-hectare expansion approved by council in 2009.

That vote two years ago was a tight one. It was pointed out yesterday that of the 12 councillors who voted for the 230-hectare restriction, only three survived last fall's election. Ten of the 11 councillors who voted against the move are still around. Many of those councillors voted to re-open the debate last year (that attempt failed.) Add to the mix a new crop of suburban and rural councillors (Moffatt, Blais, Hubley), and it looked like the city could have veered back toward that 851-hectare expansion favoured by staff. Indeed, the Planning Committee heard yesterday that while such a move wouldn't erase the prospect of a trip to the OMB, it might lighten the burden.

Somehow, Watson has them all on the same page, vowing to "vigorously" defend the boundary, as he promised during the election campaign.

A councillor gets his hands dirty

Posted by Alistair Steele

Rideau-Goulbourn councillor Scott Moffat was on a trip to Montreal when he started getting the e-mails. Some residents had heard the city is toying with the idea of bi-weekly garbage pickup. They were not amused.

That's when Moffatt's wife Jill had a novel idea. Why not try it out at home, to see if a young family of four (soon to be five), with all its dirty diapers and other non-recyclables, really can get by on less frequent curbside collection?

The Moffatts got militant about recycling. Their green bin filled up fast. Their garbage can didn't. It's only been two weeks, but it's working. Bi-weekly collection won't be a problem for the Moffatts.

Something else is working: The councillor is finding it's a lot easier to speak to people about the merits of waste diversion. Maybe it's his retail experience shining through, but he's smart enough to know he can't sell an idea to constituents if he doesn't believe in it himself. Not everyone will agree with him, especially in a rural ward like his. But at least Moffatt can say he knows what he's talking about.

Friends and foes: The Lansdowne file grows

Posted by Alistair Steele

Another week, another scathing review of the Lansdowne deal. This one courtesy of Rosen & Associates, which bills itself as "the premier independent litigation and investigative accounting firm in Canada."

Rosen & Associates prepared the 37-page report for Friends of Lansdowne Park and the two individuals fighting the redevelopment plan in court. It's a response to material filed by the City and OSEG, which has intervenor status in the case. The firm's findings are a startling check on the claim that we'll break even on the Lansdowne deal.

The report points out the overlooked fact that the city has no obvious plan to set aside property tax from the redevelopment to finance its project-related debt. As far as the Rosen & Associates (and anyone elses who's analyzed the plan) can figure out, tax revenue derived from a redeveloped Lansdowne Park will end up in the general pool, and Lansdowne debt will be serviced from the same pool of money. It is therefore "misleading," concludes the firm, to claim the redevelopment will pay for itself. Rosen & Associates says removing tax revenue from the equation will in fact result in a deficit of between $111-million and $208-million. That's a long way from revenue neutrality. That claim, says Rosen, tends to "grossly overstate the city's probable financial benefit" from the plan. Furthermore, the financial terms "raise serious financial concerns," and "an analysis of the overall project cash flow clearly shows an imbalance of risks and benefits." An imbalance that favours OSEG every time.

There's a body of evidence piling up here. Add this report to last week's affidavit by municipal tax expert Harry Kitchen and various submissions from lawyer Steven Shrybman and other experts, and there should be enough to cast doubt in the mind of even the most ardent Lansdowne booster. But will it? Earlier today city councillors Rick Chiarelli and Rainer Bloess dismissed the Rosen report without having read it. Supporters have so far gotten a lot of mileage out of dismissing opponents as spoiled Glebites and anti-development NIMBY's. Carleton business prof (and Friends of Lansdowne ally) Ian Lee says the city can still move ahead with the Lansdowne plan, but it can no longer pretend it's a good deal for taxpayers.

Meeting expectations

Posted by Alistair Steele

First it was coffee and cookies at their inauguration, now this. Some Ottawa city councillors are growing tired of the mayor's austerity measures, and whispering "small town cheap" behind his back.

At a special meeting of the city's Finance and Economic Development Committee, Jim Watson and six other members out-voted three of their colleagues to trim attendance at two important out-of-town conferences. Just three councillors will attend June's Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention and expo in Halifax; another trio will travel to London in August to attend the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference. Originally six names were put forward for the FCM gathering, and nine for AMO event.

"At the end of the day we all have to show a little restraint. If we could save $21,000 as we did today and still have a couple of our members go to these conferences, we get the best of both worlds," says Watson. He also suggests the more desireable the venue - say, Whistler B.C. (FCM '09) - the greater the interest among councillors in attending. You don't have to be a travel agent to see the corelation, says Watson. 

Some veteran councillors weren't buying it. Diane Deans, who has attended many of these conferences, calls the decision to send only three representatives "penny wise and pound foolish." At the FCM, delegates vote for a national board of directors. That board sets FCM policy. Reps from the 905, for example, tend to vote as a bloc. Councillors from poorly-represented regions tend to sit on the sidelines. Deans says the FCM conference also provides an excellent opportunity to network with other municipal leaders, and to learn best practices (and hard lessons) through the experiences of other cities. Councillor Maria McRae says the conferences give councillors unique access to provincial and federal ministers. She recalls valuable meetings with Jim Bradley about light rail and the Hunt Club extension. Those meetings bore fruit.

The key, according to all councillors, is that whoever goes to the conferences must share whatever information they glean. Currently councillors are under no obligation to submit reports or brief their colleagues. That must change.

It costs taxpayers $101,816 a year just to belong to the FCM (that's based on population). The city needs to make sure it's getting its money's worth. If it's not, then that $21,000 Watson is saving isn't worth much.

Welcome to @CityHall

Posted by Alistair Steele

Welcome to @CityHall, CBC's municipal affairs blog. This is where you'll find the story behind the story you hear on CBC Radio, see on CBC Television and read online at cbc.ca. I'm planning to post regularly, and on a variety of subjects. Please help me keep the conversation going by commenting on whatever you see here. Please keep it clean and respectful. Enjoy!