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CBC Ottawa

Meeting expectations

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.

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