Ottawa City Hall year in review
The CBC's Alistair Steele looks back on the ups and downs as Election 2014 approaches
2013 was a year of bold vision and spectacular failure. It was also the last full year of this council’s term, setting the stage for another election.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights — and low points — of the year that was at Ottawa City Hall.
LRT: the mayor’s bold vision
This was the first year those of us unfamiliar with heavy tunnelling equipment first heard the term “Roadheader.”
That’s the enormous, orange machine — three machines, actually — that are now burrowing through the bedrock under our feet to complete the $2.1-billion Confederation Line in time for 2018.
At a public ceremony marking the beginning of the project, Mayor Jim Watson was moved to tears … a first, as far as anyone covering the mayor can recall.
But the real earth-shattering news came two days earlier when Watson unveiled a far more ambitious transit plan, with light rail tendrils stretching east, west and south, all by 2023.
At another $3 billion, the plan practically empties the piggy bank for the decade beyond. It also requires equal one-third contributions from the federal and provincial governments.
And while the early signals from Watson’s friends at Queen’s Park have been positive, Conservative MP Royal Galipeau quipped his government is no “Santa Claus.”
Still, this is clearly Jim Watson’s legacy project and one he plans to at least get started before he cedes the mayor’s chair.
Watson doubles down
2013 will also go down as the year the mayor gambled, and lost. Badly.
Last fall Jim Watson was betting everything on a downtown casino. Without any meaningful public consultation, and without properly studying the potential social or economic impact, city council barrelled ahead and asked the OLG to get the bidding process rolling.
But Watson badly underestimated the support for keeping the slots at the Rideau Carleton Raceway, so in June he asked the OLG to grant the city two casino “zones”.
The province declined, and council pulled the plug, voting for an expanded gambling facility at the Raceway.
That enraged Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who’d been working on a bid of his own for a casino complex at the Canadian Tire Centre.
The very public feud culminated with Melnyk telling a Toronto radio station that Watson “acts like he’s flown in from another planet.”
Offering what may be a candidate for Understatement of the Year, a sombre Watson admitted, “I don’t think it’s been a particularly smooth process, and I’ll take the blame for that.”
A bridge so far
It sounded simple enough: Build a footbridge over the Ottawa Airport Parkway, connecting two pedestrian paths and giving residents west of the busy roadway safe access to shops and transit stations on the east side.
But the problems began almost as soon as construction commenced in the summer of 2011.
First faulty concrete halted the project for months and forced the contractor to demolish and rebuild the structure, then a city engineer began questioning the unusual design of the bridge’s support system.
Independent engineering studies concurred, culminating with Delcan’s report earlier this month that concluded failure of any one structural element “would almost certainly result in the collapse of the bridge.”
The debacle has brought about significant changes to the way the city oversees infrastructure projects, particularly bridges. And the city is vowing to go after the designer, Genivar, for every penny.
But in the end council voted to spend another $4.65 million to fix the embarrassing mistake, and a "simple" job that was originally supposed to take three months will take three years.
Out with the old…
This was the last full year of this council’s term. Just two days into 2014, candidates can begin filing their nomination papers, marking the start of “silly season:” that special time when a politician’s every word takes on special significance, and every flub earns extra scrutiny.
Jim Watson will seek re-election. If there’s a real contender out there, he or she is keeping very quiet in a town where secrets don’t keep too well.
Some councillors might not get off so lightly. It’s too early to say whether Election 2014 will see as thorough a house-cleaning as Election 2010, when six incumbents with decades of political experience among them lost their bids for re-election, and 10 new nameplates appeared on Councillors’ Row.
Already some strong challengers are expressing their intentions, like community activist Jeff Lieper, who will give Katherine Hobbs a fight in Kitchissippi Ward. Expect similar battles to emerge across the electoral map.
Also, expect Jim Watson to keep his friends close. Loyalty to the mayor can pay off at election time, and while Watson denied backing a slate of candidates in the last election, that won’t stop some of them from calling in favours if and when the going gets tough.