How to fix Ottawa
A strong mayor and term limits, some say
BY MOHAMMED ADAM, THE OTTAWA CITIZENNOVEMBER 14, 2009
Nearly 10 years after municipal amalgamation in Ottawa, a string of experts say the city is not working. They argue that the system should be retooled once more to improve governance.
Three former mayors, a former regional councillor and three academics say amalgamation was built on a weak governance structure that has left
serious cracks in how the city works. Fundamentally, they say, council has become hostage to narrow ward politics, with little or no room to develop a broad vision for the city. While the experts disagree on the fix, they are united on one thing: At the very least, changes should be made to allow more councillors to be elected across the city.
"I would say that every single citizen in the greater City of Ottawa thinks the system is broke. I supported amalgamation but the governance structure doesn't serve the needs of the 850,000 people," says former Ottawa mayor Jacquelin Holzman.
Former Nepean mayor Mary Pitt opposed amalgamation, and says changes have to be made for the good of the city.
Among the proposals:
- a "strong mayor" system;
- a board of control;
- an executive committee;
- political parties;
- term limits;
- expansion of wards;
- the election of more
councillors at large.
The experts acknowledge that nothing can happen without the backing of the Ontario government, and are looking to Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson to take up the fight. But a spokesman says it would be inappropriate for the minister to comment on issues that may cross his desk.
The most controversial change is the executive or "strong mayor" system, similar to what's in place in New York or London, England. Its strongest advocate is Ian Lee, the MBA director at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business. He says the real problem plaguing the city is the absence of strong and strategic leadership to effect change.
For all the dysfunction, inspiring leadership from a strong mayor with significant independent authority can unite people around a compelling vision. But because the Ottawa governance structure is flawed, it produces an inherently weak mayor at the mercy of a divided council. The strong-mayor model would invest considerable power in the mayor to lead, not follow, Lee says.
Indeed, mayors like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg of New York and Ken Livingstone of London left marks on their cities because they weren't subject to the whims of a fractious or inward-looking council. With appropriate checks and balances to ensure both mayor and council don't overreach, cities with such systems have thrived.
Lee says the same could happen in Ottawa. Elections would become a contest of ideas and vision, and people would be energized to participate because their votes make a distinct difference to the direction of the city. And because people would see a real chance to make a difference, talented candidates with fresh ideas would be inspired to run.
"The fundamental flaw in the current model is that it doesn't allow city-wide or strategic thinking," Lee says. "If we had a strong-mayor model, it would change the dynamics of municipal campaigns. We will get a different type of leader, a more informed leader, and we will debate the big, strategic issues in the elections. We will become a better city."
No city in Canada has such a system and it would require a leap of faith for the Ontario government to embrace it. Pitt and Carleton University urban historian John Taylor say it could be a recipe for disaster. The mayor could become too strong for the city's good, and if the city gets the wrong candidate, it could spell big trouble.
"You have to be concerned about the concentration of power in one person," says Taylor. "You could very well get a strong mayor who believes just in basic services and reducing taxes, and that could be deadly for the city."
Pitt says some structural retooling is imperative but the city doesn't need a strongman -- or woman -- to thrive.
"Ottawa isn't big enough for the strong-mayor model," Pitt says. "Three-quarters of the city is rural and I don't think that's the way to go."
Instead, she prefers a system similar to a board of control that would allow a number of councillors to be elected across the city to give it a sense of direction.
Boards of control have their appeal and Andrew Sancton, a municipal-government expert at the University of Western Ontario, believes that properly constituted, they help large cities focus on the big picture.
"It is good to have some people on council who look at things from a city-wide point of view," he says.
But critics say boards of control tend to create two classes of councillors and often conflict, because inevitably one group feels more important than the other.
Several years ago Ottawa had a board of control but got rid of it, and in Ontario today, London has the only one. However it will die after the 2010 municipal election, after the council approved a task-force report calling for its elimination. Taylor says a board of control is "fundamentally undemocratic" and has no place in Ottawa.
Bob Chiarelli, the first mayor of the amalgamated city, says Ottawa is not living up to its potential because the structure of government is skewed in favour of ward councillors. And despite the criticism, he says the principles of a board of control can be adapted to benefit the city. Candidates can still be elected at-large but instead of being constituted into a formal superbody like a board of control, they could become committee chairs who would lead debates.
"We have a ward-driven council and often the mayor is the only person speaking to a city-wide agenda. It is extremely challenging," Chiarelli says. "If we have five of six councillors elected at-large, it will give more balance on council on the larger issues."
Holzman supports the election of more city-wide councillors and says while we are at it, we should shrink the size of council. She wants wards to be larger, and suggests using the seven federal and provincial ridings in the city as the basis for council wards. Two councillors would be elected from each of the seven new wards for a total of 14. In addition, four people would be elected at-large, but there would be no official board of control. The new council would be made of 18 councillors, plus a mayor. The current council has 23 members and a mayor.
Term limits should also be introduced, Holzman says, and Pitt agrees. With councillors now serving four-year terms between elections, the former mayors say two terms should be enough.
"If it is good enough for the president of the United States, it should be good enough for any councillor in the City of Ottawa. It will make things happen," says Holzman.
Chiarelli opposes term limits. He says any restructuring should be limited to improving governance, which is the fundamental problem. The final word on who represents whom and for how long should rest with voters "who decided my term limit in 2006," he says.
University of Ottawa governance expert Caroline Andrew says whatever is decided, a new governance structure should rein in ward politics and free up the city to be the best it can be.
"We don't have a governance structure for producing citywide leaders or direction. We need to restructure so there is a better organization of city-wide priorities," says Andrew.
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