Ottawa

3 ideas councillors should consider at their 1st meeting

The new council will attend a ceremonial inauguration with friends and family Monday night at the Shaw Centre. But the real work starts Wednesday, when council debates the hundreds-pages long "Council Governance Review," an important report that sets the rules for how council will operate for the rest of the term.

Council should avoid a firm budget cap and question role of deputy mayors

Ottawa's new city council meets for the first time on Wednesday, when it will decide on the rules that it must follow for the next four years. (Jean Cloutier/Twitter)

The new Ottawa city council term officially started on the weekend with a number of newbies moving into their freshly painted offices.

On Monday night, they'll be publicly inducted into this special club, joined by family and friends at a ceremonial inauguration at the Shaw Centre.

The settling-in period is short-lived, however. On Wednesday, councillors will attend their first meeting where, among other things, they and the public will get their initial glimpse of a much-anticipated report on cannabis retailing.

Before any other agenda item, though, council will need to digest, debate and vote on the hundreds-pages long "Council Governance Review." It's about as exciting as it sounds, but it's important as it sets the procedures for how council will operate for the rest of the term.

This roadmap is key, because if you care about the outcome, you have to care about the process.

So here are three recommendations, inspired by that report, that Ottawa's new city council should consider closely.

Mayor Jim Watson with the 2018 draft budget. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Resist setting a firm property tax increase cap

In past years, Mayor Jim Watson has asked council to vote to limit the property tax increase. During the municipal election, he promised tax increases of no more than three per cent.

This seems like a good idea, and some sort of target does need to be set in order for a draft budget to be, well, drafted.

But what sounds like a self-disciplinary tool can turn into handcuffs. In the last few years, when council has kept the tax increase to about two per cent, councillors and many residents felt the city wasn't spending enough on basic services like pothole repairs and road maintenance.

Related to this is the practice of making committees find offsetting cuts for anything they want to add to their department's budgets — which has almost always proved impossible. 

That inflexibility is one reason why, for example, the 2018 transportation budget left 15 intersections that warranted a crossing guard unfunded, even though it would have cost less than $200,000 to do it.

Of course, councillors are always allowed to try to add something in one city department budget  — say transit — and reduce an expense of a equal value in another department when council debates the entire budget as a whole. But in the past eight years, this has rarely happened.

This process allows for almost no give-and-take, and the draft budget — the one formulated by the mayor's office —  is approved virtually unchanged weeks later.

Council must spend our money responsibly, but it should also have leeway to handle issues that arise over the next four years.

Former councillor Mark Taylor was one of two deputy mayors last term, and sat on the powerful finance committee. He spent $600 of taxpayer money on 'embroidery' for a deputy mayor jacket. (CBC)

Ask if deputies need to be on the finance committee

Under Watson, council has moved from rotating the deputy mayor role among councillors to making it a permanent position.

In the last term, there were two deputies. Now, Watson would like three to "ensure greater representation across the city's large geographical footprint," according to the governance report.

And that's fair. The mayor's office receives hundreds of requests for his attendance, and not even Jim Watson can attend them all. The deputies can help with those ceremonial duties, and be on hand to sign any documents in a pinch.

But why do they need to sit on the finance and economic development committee? Comprised largely of the mayor and chairs of council's committees, fedco — as it's known colloquially — operates like council's de facto cabinet.

Watson will undoubtedly be choosing councillors who support his ideas as deputies, and by including them in this key committee, the mayor conveniently has three backers on it.

The deputy mayor is not an elected position and is not imbued with any power from the people. There appears to be little reason to include them on the committee — other than a political one.

Four of the 12 members that sat most recently on Ottawa's transit commission were appointed members of the public. They are, from left to right: Blair Crew, Graham Milner, François Malo and Todd Mattila-Hartman. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Make committees with public members meet in the evening

Likely not a super popular idea with members of council (or the media, for that matter), council should ensure committees that include members of the public meet in the evening.

If the city seriously wants participation from a wide range of residents, it's eliminating a huge swath of the population by holding meetings during work hours.

To be fair, some boards do meet late in the afternoon. The Ottawa Board of Health and the Ottawa Public Library board usually convene at 5 p.m., which still cuts it pretty close for people with day jobs.

The Ottawa Police Services board meets at 4 p.m., however, and its subcommittees as early as 1 p.m.

Transit commission is perhaps the most egregious. For the last eight years, the group that oversees OC Transpo and its $500-million budget has included members of the public with the same powers as councillors. Not everyone supports that idea, and the governance report notes that some councillors believe the commission should be comprised solely of elected officials.

But if we're going to include members-at-large, then we shouldn't have the meetings at 10 a.m. on a weekday.

Ostensibly, one goal of having public members is to better reflect the city's diversity. With all due respect to the most recent members — who aren't paid for this time-consuming role — they were able-bodied white men whose lives allowed them the flexibility to attend meetings during business hours.

It's unclear whether we'll see more diversity on the commission, however, given that the governance report suggests looking for commissioners with a background in public transit, planning and governance. That's already narrowing the pool considerably. It's also a strategy that didn't work in 2010, as many applicants with transit backgrounds were found to have potential conflicts.

Surely, however, it's obvious that we're mightily limiting the pool regardless by holding these meetings during the day.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.