From chaos to chaos, mayor leaves behind a fractured council

Jim Watson was elected in 2010 with a mandate to fix the chaos of the previous four years. But somewhere in the last decade, he created a different sort of dysfunction, a council where the mayor was able to skew the system to almost guarantee his view would win the day, despite having just one vote on council.

Jim Watson came into power to bring discipline after 4 years of turmoil, but may have gone too far

In 2010, Mayor Jim Watson surrounded himself with a leadership team of mostly veteran councillors that was generally balanced in terms of gender and geography. At some point, that changed. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

One day in mid-December 2010, a newly minted Mayor Jim Watson could be seen walking through City Hall carrying pots of poinsettias.

He was delivering the festive flowers from Scrims on Elgin Street — he assured reporters he had paid for the poinsettias himself — to each of the 23 councillors who had also been recently sworn in.

Watson's gesture of the season and of collegiality in the first weeks of a new term of office was a welcome change to the fractiousness of the preceding term of council, not just for council but for the city writ large.

Under his predecessor Larry O'Brien, OC Transpo drivers went on a 51-day strike, the mayor himself stood trial for corruption charges (he was found not guilty), reserve funds were depleted and council cancelled a signed light-rail contract — costing tens of millions of tax dollars — and battled over Lansdowne seemingly without end.

Despite meetings that lasted well into the night, that council seemed incapable of making a single concrete decision under O'Brien's controversial and undisciplined leadership.

So when Watson came into office 11 years ago this month, he came in with a mandate to fix the chaos of the previous four years.

But somewhere in the last decade, he created a different sort of dysfunction, a council where the mayor was able to skew the system to almost guarantee his view would win the day, despite having just one vote on council.

Jim Watson was re-elected in 2014 and again in 2018 with massive majorities. As his mandate grew, his willingness for pushback in the council leadership team seemed to diminish. (CBC)

Equity missing from city committees 

It didn't start that way.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the choosing of committee chairs.

Committee members used to choose their own chairs, but that changed under Watson. Instead, a list of "nominees" approved by the mayor's office goes to council. Although council technically appoints the heads of committees and boards, nothing happens without Watson's approval.

Still, in 2010, the Watson-approved chairs of committees and boards had geographic balance between urban and suburban councillors. Although there were only six women elected to council, five were given leadership roles on committees and boards. And all but one of the chairs were veteran councillors.

That equity no longer exists.

Not a single inner-city councillor leads a committee or board. Although a third of council are not men, men hold all of the leadership roles on committees save for Diane Deans serving as chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board. Deans, who says she'll run to replace Watson, said as recently as last week that she believes the mayor put her in the position hoping she'd fail.

The term did begin with two more women chairs. Jan Harder stepped down as planning chair following an integrity commissioner's report which found she was paying a planning consultant for advice, while the consultant represented private clients at the committee Harder chaired. Newbie Jenna Sudds chaired the community and protective services committee before stepping down after two years. She later left council altogether after winning a federal seat for the Liberals.

Sudds was replaced by another first-time councillor, Matthew Luloff, who also continued to chair the library board.

Coun. Glen Gower, who was appointed co-chair of planning after Jan Harder had to step down, moved a motion that he worked on with the mayor's office that initially stifled debate on having a judicial review on the LRT. (Laurie Fagan/CBC )

Committee chairs filled by newbies

In fact, it's hard to recall another time when so many novices were given committee chairs. When Harder had to leave the planning committee, first-timer Glen Gower, who represents a suburban ward, was appointed to join rural representative Scott Moffatt to co-chair planning, instead of, say, an inner-area councillor like Jeff Leiper, who has experience on planning files and is thought well of by the planning staff.

This may seem like inside baseball. But having councillors with little to no experience chairing committees means they will need more help — and that help often comes from the mayor's office.

It's also hard not to see how some councillors Watson has bestowed with chairs are in debt to him. 

Tim Tierney was made a "member at large" of the powerful finance and economic development committee just weeks after the OPP charged him with corruption after trying to bribe an opponent to drop out of the 2018 race. (The charges were dropped after a plea deal where Tierney admitted he made a "mistake.")

The mayor named Tim Tierney, right, a member of the finance committee weeks after he was charged by the OPP of trying to bribe Michael Schurter, left, to drop out of the 2018 race. The charges were eventually dropped. (Kate Porter/CBC)

He was later made the chair of the transportation committee, and stayed there even after confessing to mistakenly sending a reporter a confidential memo about the city's LRT legal proceedings.

George Darouze remains a deputy mayor after the integrity commissioner found he bullied and intimidated a constituent and her police-officer husband. And he's kept that title even after he was caught driving and texting live on the council's YouTube channel. (In addition to texting while behind the wheel, Darouze was also participating in the audit committee meeting on Zoom via a laptop on the passenger seat.)

Ottawa city councillor seen using mobile phone while driving during virtual meeting

3 years ago
Duration 1:39
Featured VideoOsgoode Coun. George Darouze, bottom centre, appeared to attend a virtual meeting partly from his car Tuesday morning and was seen using his mobile phone and a second device while driving.

It says something that these are the — mostly — men with whom the mayor chooses to surround himself now — the inexperienced, the compromised, the dutiful.

Debate stifled at council

And he uses them not just to win votes on council — a number of councillors have said privately they'd have liked to have voted differently on the Chateau Laurier addition — but to stifle debate.

The most egregious example is the most recent, where he used a procedural sleight of hand, delivered through Gower, to avoid a debate on a judicial inquiry into the LRT. He even had Deans' microphone cut off, for which he apologized the next day.

Procedural disagreement leads to virtual scuffle at Ottawa city council

2 years ago
Duration 4:11
Featured VideoSeveral councillors argued with Mayor Jim Watson over procedural rules at Wednesday’s council meeting over Zoom, culminating in confusion and at least one councillor walking off screen.

In a way, it's impressive that as a council member with only a single vote, Watson has been able to wield this much power over so many years. He didn't do it alone — a majority of councillors let him.

Watson was first elected to bring in order; to get things done. And he did that on a number of files in his first few years — the LRT, Lansdowne, the central library, a budget that hits his election promise every time. And many were pleased, after years of endless talk, to see some action.

But a decade on, we are again left with a fractured council. Into chaos Watson entered, and in chaos he departs.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello was CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst.