Councillor wants Ottawa to opt out of pot vote

As Ottawa's new city council prepares to vote on whether or not to allow cannabis retailers next month, one councillor has another strategy: opt out of voting altogether.

Council to vote next month on cannabis retailers, but city can't dictate location or number

The city is conducting a quick consultation on whether to allow cannabis retailers in Ottawa. Ontario municipalities will have no control over where the shops go, or how many can open. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

As Ottawa's new city council prepares to vote on whether or not to allow cannabis retailers next month, one councillor has another strategy: opt out of voting altogether.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury wants to send a political message to Queen's Park that the city does not support the province's plan to roll out cannabis retail shops across the province without giving municipalities any say on where they'll go.

"I would prefer not voting for it, not as a cop out, but really as an opportunity to say, 'Look, the province is tricking us into voting on this,'" Fleury said. "By not voting, the province of Ontario will own the problems relating to them not giving municipalities the right authorities."

Fleury isn't opposed to the "individual retail outlet," but he's concerned there are areas of the city where pot shops will dominate the streetscape, much like pay day loan outlets have in parts of his ward. 

"I'm worried about a concentration and the impacts that could have on main streets," he said.

Not voting would be purely symbolic: if council does nothing, Ottawa will automatically be open for cannabis retail business.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury wants city council to take a political stand by not voting on the opt-out question. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

But Fleury believes that if council actually votes, it is implicitly giving its stamp of approval to the province's policy.

It's unclear where Mayor Jim Watson stands on Fleury's idea, although the mayor is also against the province's current plan. 

At least three councillors — Eli El-Chantiry, Tim Tierney and newbie Carol Anne Meehan — are on record as wanting to opt out of cannabis retail shops, and Coun. Keith Egli wants to look at the option of opting out temporarily. 

Short consultation, 'confusing' survey

The city is spending just two weeks consulting the public about the issue, including an online survey, but residents only have until Nov. 7 to answer it. The city is conducting a telephone survey, but there won't be any town hall-style meetings because there isn't time, city officials say.

City staff need time to analyze the data and put together a comprehensive report that will be made public on Dec. 5. Council is expected to vote on the issue Dec. 12, at the new council's second meeting, to meet the province's deadline of Jan. 22 for a response.

Anthony Di Monte, GM of emergency and protective services, said he recognizes the timelines for the public consultations are short. (CBC)

"We think that this model gives us good input in the short timeline that we have," said Anthony Di Monte, the city's GM of of emergency and protective services. "And we just came out of an election, so we're sure [councillors] heard it a lot at the doors too."

The survey was compiled with only one objective in mind: helping council decide whether to opt out, Di Monte said.

The questionnaire touched on a number of issues meant to ascertain people's worries or biases when it comes to cannabis. But the survey doesn't explain that the city won't have any authority over where pot shops go because, as Di Monte put it, the city "didn't want to muddy the waters".

So it may be that some respondents will indicate they're in favour of allowing cannabis retailers in Ottawa, under the mistaken impression that the city will have some sort of say on how it all rolls out.

"I think the survey is confusing relating to that," Fleury said. "It gives a sense that we have way more power than we really do. The province has not given us the right tools to deal with this issues and to actually engage with the public on it. So let's not vote on it."