guidance councillors

IMGSo what does one do for fun in this town? Perhaps the most effective way to answer that eternal question is through process of elimination. Determine what is not fun, and the rest writes itself. And not being in the mood for a colonoscopy at the moment, I decided this week the logical place to start was with two days of observing Ottawa City Council in action.

In light of the snail’s pace of progress in our city, I have at times wondered what exactly goes on at council meetings. Surely, proposals are made and discussed, in the hope of in some way moving Ottawa forward. For all we know, council meetings may well be knock-down-drag-out affairs where only the strong survive. Or not. The public is welcome to attend such meetings; few do. Fortunately, dear reader, I am here for you.

Tuesday, the City of Ottawa Planning Committee met at City Hall for a session of strategizing. And, uh… pardon? Yes, I was as surprised as you are to learn that Ottawa has a planning committee. Certainly, little since the completion of the Rideau Canal has suggested as much. But then, if you think about it, Ottawa has long been big on plans. Plans to connect neighbourhoods via light rail. Plans to reinvent Lansdowne Park as a hub for locally-owned independent businesses. Plans to reduce refuse by collecting the same amount less often. Plans to use what refuse it does collect to provide electricity to our homes and businesses. Plans to bring Le Breton Flats back to life. Plans to convert our public-transit fleet to hybrid buses. Plans to convert hybrid buses to diesel. Plans to build a new library. Plans for a better existing library. Plans to build a concert hall across the street from our concert hall. Plans to bring international sporting tournaments to town. Plans to put an end to automobiles damaging our major roads by falling through them.

You want plans? The committee is on it. What we need, it seems, is an execution committee. In that, we could take a page from Montreal’s playbook. Allowing organized crime to run the city may have its downside, but things get done, dammit! You want execution? Talk to friends and “family” of the late Joe Di Maulo.

But if things are more sedate here in Capital City, this Planning Committee is at least non-threatening. And, as the surprisingly-strong turnout Tuesday discovered, councillors are also willing to listen. They listened to a string of vocal opponents to a proposed nine-storey Beaverbrook high-rise. They listened to developers, who now propose a more modest seven-storey structure. Councillor Marianne Wilkinson (Kanata North Ward) surmised “there’s rather a lack of trust in the community” before demanding developers Morley Hoppner Group put in writing that they’ll scrap the nine-storey idea if their amended proposal is accepted by council. “My response to the committee,” the developers’ representative Miguel Tremblay replied, “is that we are prepared to build a seven-storey if approved.”

“I just want it in writing,” Wilkinson shot back, providing the hour-long meeting with its lone highlight. Mr. Tremblay stated, “The answer to your request is yes.” Ultimately, a motion to defer was carried, as Planning Committee members felt they may not have sufficient time to study the revised proposal before the next meeting, in mid-December.

And with that, Wilkinson departed, leaving on a high note, George Costanza-style. City Hall reporters followed suit, having caught up on Twitter and Facebook developments. They would return for a discussion of sustainability. “Supply exceeds demand to 2031 for all housing types,” the committee was told. But Jean Lachance of local big-players Walton Development and Management asserted the report is “premature” and insisted, “We cannot plan sustainable communities based on a 20-year supply of land.”

The result? Presumably, the committee will demand an update around 2030. But that’s enough planning for now.

And on to Wednesday, when City Council met for the all-important Budget 2013 vote. Attendance was expected to be high. In the event, fewer people turned out than had been at the Planning Committee meeting. But then, council wasn’t taking questions Wednesday.

A few surprises, again. For one, it turns out council meetings begin with a prayer. Who knew? I mean, other than God, obviously. A piper then played O Canada, following an introduction by Maria McRae (River) that pointed to a lengthy meeting. Another nice touch: a few words in French beyond the token mesdames et messieurs” and “bonjour salutations heard at the Planning Committee’s get-together. True, the only full sentences spoken in French at Wednesday’s meeting would be uttered by Mayor Jim Watson, but councillors were happy to chip in the odd “oui” and even a well-received “Bien sûr!” So rest assured, francophones, you have not been forgotten.

Those in attendance were kept in the loop courtesy of what appeared to be an old-school overhead projector. And while the budget’s passage was a foregone conclusion, a few councillors made their presence felt. David Chernushenko (Capital) requested the city find $100,000 to hire a park planner. (Note to self: apply to be a city park planner.) He also correctly observed: “The process has become very bogged down.” No better time, then, to hire another planner. Councillor Peter Clark (Rideau-Rockcliffe) and Steve Desroches (Gloucester South-Nepean) also decried delays, Desroches offering by far the most effective opening to an argument heard on this day: “As a hockey dad…”

Well played, Councillor Desroches.

Further discussion concentrated on “integrated street furniture” in addition to cycling and bridges. Rainer Bloess (Innes) also asked what happened to an additional $600,000 the city received in advertising revenue last year. “It’s probably cost-neutral,” he was told. Yes. Probably.

But if Councillor Wilkinson stole the show Tuesday, Wednesday would belong to a fiery Diane Holmes (Somerset), who did us proud by raging against the system. “We do not have the staff to do this work,” she said of the demands to do more with less. “You don’t need to hire staff? That’s absolute nonsense!” Minutes later, she would join her colleagues in supporting the budget, as is. Let the record show, though, Councillor Holmes provided excellent soundbites.

“I have, as you can imagine, a few comments,” Mayor Watson said with a smile immediately before the vote. That attempt at a joke fell as flat as his subsequent groaner about how the city is “about to embark” on a light-rail project. (That one’s getting old, Mr. Mayor.) Our tax increase, Watson stated with pride, is considerably lower than that of Calgary. So there. No mention, though, of the fact that property-tax average in Ottawa is twice that of Calgary. Besides, as Mayor Watson added, the 2013 tax increase promises to be our “lowest tax change in six years.” Sorry, did I say increase? I of course meant tax change. It’s like how burgers are sandwiches now.

And, give or take a brief sinkhole discussion, that was about it. Meeting adjourned. Citizenry once again able to sleep soundly — unlike those overtaxed Calgarians.

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