Secretive process leaves urban councillors on sidelines

How some councillors end up on important committees and others don't is a process mostly hidden from public view.

Mayor Watson's picks for committees and chairs excludes downtown

Mayor Jim Watson announced his picks for committee chairs at the nominating committee meeting on Tuesday. Those choices must be confirmed by full council. (CBC News)

You might think the nominating committee of Ottawa city council would be responsible for nominating people to various standing committees and boards, and helping to choose the chairs for these important bodies.

That's what Coun. Theresa Kavanagh thought. But like the new Bay ward councillor, you'd be wrong.

"I found it a little strange … that as a member of the nominating committee that I'm not part of the selection, I'm not part of the decision-making," Kavanagh said after being presented with a list of Mayor Jim Watson's choices.

"It's done in a different room, then it comes here at the very last minute I'm asked to approve something."

Welcome to Watsonville, Coun. Kavanagh.

Confusion over committee process

5 years ago
Duration 0:20
Coun. Theresa Kavanagh expresses her confusion at the process for nominating the chairs and members of Ottawa committees.

Mayor picks the chairs

The process for selecting committee members is straightforward but secretive.

Councillors are asked what committees and boards they are interested in.

The clerk's office organizes the entries by taking into account what people want, as well as geographic and gender diversity.

But it's Mayor Jim Watson who makes the final recommendation on the make-up — and chairs — of the committees and boards.

Before 2010, committee members used to choose their own chair at their first meetings, but Watson changed that when he was elected.

Ostensibly, the current process requires the nominations to be approved by all of council, so councillors who aren't happy with the mayor's choices could vote against them.

That has never happened.

Deans and Tierney winners

The big news from the nominating committee is Coun. Diane Deans being tapped as the new chair of the Ottawa Police Services board.

Amazingly, she will be the first woman ever to hold this role.

The mayor is automatically on the Ottawa Police Services board, but last term assigned his seat to another councillor. This term, he's giving his spot to Deans.

In theory, he could always choose to take that spot back from Deans, with whom he does not always get along.

Coun. Diane Deans is set to be the first chair of the Ottawa Police Services board. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Another winner? Coun. Tim Tierney.

The Beacon Hill-Cyrville councillor has been re-appointed as chair of the Ottawa Public Library board.

Watson hand-picked Tierney as the "councillor-at-large" member of the finance and economic development committee (FEDCO), a powerful body that deals with the city's biggest money issues and acts as Watson's de facto cabinet.

Tierney's also pegged to be the vice-chair of planning and to be Ottawa's representative on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

He is also the same councillor who's appearing in provincial court later this week to answer to OPP charges of bribery in the most recent municipal election.

Everyone has the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, but you might have expected Tierney to have a bit of a lower profile until his legal troubles were resolved.

The mayor has apparently made a different choice.

Beacon Hill-Cyrville Tim Tierney has been charged by the OPP for trying to induce an opponent to drop out of the recent municipal election.

Watson shuts out urban councillors

If there are losers among Watson's choices, it's the urban councillors who represent the five inner-city wards.

Not a single urban councillor is on the 12-member FEDCO — remember, it's council's most important committee — but all of the rural councillors are on it somehow. 

There are also only three women on it, two of whom are new councillors. And because Deans is now the police board chair, she's no longer on FEDco where she lent a critical voice.

In what way does this fairly represent the city's vast geography and diverse needs?

No urban councillors are on either the library or police boards. Only a single urban councillor — Somerset ward's Catherine McKenney — is on the transit commission.

The membership of the planning committee is truly eyebrow-raising.

Watson has tapped Coun. Jan Harder to be the chair for a second term, even though the same developers who come to her committee for rezoning approvals threw a campaign fundraiser for her this fall and every year raise tens of thousands of dollars for Harder's favourite charity at a golf tournament in Barrhaven.

And while there are massive planning issues in the suburbs, some of the most contentious files — the ones that bring out members of the public — are in the centre of the city.

And yet, Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper is the lone urban councillor named to the planning committee.

First-time Capital Coun. Shawn Menard, who made development one of his key election issues, ranked planning committee as his first priority.

He was shut out of the committee.

Urban councillors like Capital ward's Shawn Menard were shut out of the mayor's de facto cabinet and other important committees. (CBC)

Yet Coun. Laura Dudas, the new representative for Innes, was named to planning, even though she ranked the committee eighth on her priority list.

What was behind this and many other committee decisions? How did a councillor facing corruption charges get more opportunities than any of the councillors representing the downtown?

You'd have to ask the mayor.


  • Mayor Jim Watson relinquished his seat to another councillor in the last term of council. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
    Dec 12, 2018 2:38 PM ET


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello was CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst.