Options for Ottawa city council include shedding 6 seats, adding 2

Is the current Ottawa city council too big, too small, or just right? That's what elected officials and voters will be asked to judge in coming months, with preliminary consultation suggesting a preference for a slightly larger council.

Ottawans prefer a larger city council, early consultation suggests

Ottawa's city council chambers. (City of Ottawa)

Is the current Ottawa city council too big, too small, or just right?

That's what elected officials and voters will be asked to judge in the coming months, starting with five new options from a team of consultants.

Whatever the decision, the council chosen in the next municipal election will likely be different than the one we have now — even if the number around the table stays at the current total of 23 seats, plus the mayor.

Generally speaking there are now 12 urban, seven suburban and four rural wards (which includes vacant Cumberland).

Most of the five options released late Thursday change this mix:

  1. 25 wards, which would include 13 urban wards, nine suburban wards and three rural wards. It adds one urban and two suburban seats, while removing a rural seat.
  2. 24 wards, which has the fewest boundary changes of any option. It adds a suburban seat by making the suburban part of Cumberland a separate ward. 
  3. 23 wards, which would include 11 urban wards, nine suburban wards and three rural wards. While it maintains the size of council, it requires major changes to virtually all ward boundaries. Two suburban seats would be added, while one urban and one rural seat would be removed.
  4. 23 wards, similar to the previous option in distribution of urban, suburban and rural seats, but individual ward boundaries are different. 
  5. 17 wards, which would include nine urban wards, six suburban wards and two rural wards. It represents a major departure from the current situation as it reduces the number of wards significantly.

Boundary review overdue

This would be only the second time that the ward boundaries would be redrawn since amalgamation in 2001.

The 23 wards as we know them were set in 2005, although there was a tweak in 2009 that saw some rural land added to two suburban wards.

In 2010, Mayor Jim Watson had campaigned on making council slightly smaller, but he and the rest of council abandoned that idea in 2012, with the understanding that council would look at the issue in 2015.

But 2015 came and went, and again, council did nothing.

Ottawa elected 23 councillors, and one mayor, in the fall of 2018. The size of council could change after the ward boundary review, starting in earnest next month. (Supplied)

Now, many wards are wildly different when it comes to population size — Barrhaven has more than twice the residents than either West Carleton-March or Osgoode, for example.

While the average population was 43,106 in 2018, 10 wards strayed at least 15 per cent from that average.

That means Ottawa's "voter parity" is out of whack.

"The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees citizens the 'right to vote,'" according to the report by the city's consultant team, led by Beate Bowran Etcetera Inc.

"Part and parcel of this right is the assurance that votes are of equal weight."

Balance of values

But it isn't only population equity considered by the consulting team when redrawing the ward lines.

Deciding on the size of a ward should also incorporate the principle of "capacity to represent" — or the workload in each ward, they said

Urban Kitchissippi, for example, may see more contentious planning files than others.

Ward boundaries should ideally follow natural or built borders, such as rivers and highways, but also keep communities intact.

Ottawa city council put out a call for a consultant to do an independent review of its ward boundaries and present options last year. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Then there's the issue of the city's massive physical size.

If rural wards were to have the same number of residents as other wards, there'd only likely be one or two councillors representing the countryside.

"Ottawa's geographically large rural area and its communities need to be respected and will have larger voter parity variances," according to the report. 

Early preference for larger council

Almost 500 individuals and groups participated in the first round of consultations on the boundaries, though only two of the nine in-person consultations went ahead because of the pandemic.

A little more than half indicated they'd like a larger council, although how large ranged considerably: from a few more seats, to more than 30, to calls for a return of a two-tier system.

There's a sentiment among many respondents that "as Ottawa is growing, more wards are needed." Ottawa has grown from just over 806,000 residents in 2001 to a million.

Ottawa celebrated hitting a million residents last year. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The finance and economic development committee (FEDCO) and council will consider the options next month and decide whether to consult on all five possibilities, or simply cherry-pick the ones they like. 

More consultation will happen in the fall in time for council to make a final decision this December.

The decision has to be made well ahead of the 2022 election to leave enough time for any appeals, which are usually filed in ward-boundary reviews across Ontario.

Any appeals to the provincial tribunal must be finished by the end of 2021 for the new ward make-up to be in effect.

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