Viewpoint by Katherine Graham — It’s about more than puppy dogs, potholes and the occasional scandal

On August 5, at least one major media outlet in Ottawa suspended programming to make way for a special on the delivery of the verdict in Mayor Larry O’Brien’s influence peddling trial. In fact there was no shortage of interest, both locally and nationally, in the “he said-he said” case, involving covert meetings in Tim Hortons’ parking lots and other titillating tidbits.

But fast forward to next October’s municipal election. If history repeats itself, many eligible voters will hit the snooze alarm. This is more than unfortunate. The City of Ottawa is a complex place with a large and complex municipal government.

With 877,300 people, Ottawa has a population greater than three provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I.). Some speak of an urban-rural split, as the majority of the population is concentrated in only 20 per cent of the city’s 2,796 square kilometre landmass. The City of Ottawa has a 2009 operating budget of $2.2 billion, 46 per cent bigger than the P.E.I. provincial budget. This year’s tax increase was 4.9 per cent over 2008.

I raise these facts in the hopes of impressing you. We all have a stake in ensuring that our municipal government is responsive and accountable. Further, we all have a stake in having our city’s political and administrative structures geared toward the development of a strategic vision for the city and toward the efficient and effective implementation of that vision.

Like virtually all large Canadian municipalities, Ottawa has an official plan that deals with land use. It is an important building block for determining the future shape of the city. As befits good politics, the official plan is often the subject of intense debate at the city council table; between the city and developers; and among the city, developers and residents.

But, as important as the official plan is, it does not constitute the full vision. How is Ottawa going to position itself in the regional, national and international economy? How do we ensure that our city welcomes newcomers and has good social relations? How do we renew and build the city’s infrastructure in a way that makes the city work and, at the same time, is environmentally sustainable? These are just three of the big questions that Ottawa faces. Our municipal government can’t deal with these alone. It needs to work with the private and voluntary sectors and with residents. But it does need the capacity to play a thoughtful and active leadership role. It also needs to have the political capacity to be purposeful and responsible in financing our municipal future.

Earlier this year, an independent Task Force on Governance, established under the auspices of the mayor, made its report public. (Carleton was well represented on the nine-person task force. Professor Gerald Grant of the Sprott School of Business, President Emeritus Richard Van Loon and myself were members.) The task force identified three major problems with City of Ottawa governance: absence of the type of strategic thinking that is needed to guide the city; lack of a city-wide perspective among municipal councilors; and disengagement of most citizens from their municipal government.

The report was made public mid-morning on March 5 and by the noon newscast was deemed, at least by the CBC reporter who covered the release, “dead.” Why? I think there are several reasons. First, “governance” and “municipal structure” do not readily stir the hearts of many people. Second, the mayor himself was in a politically weak position to advocate for the recommended executive committee structure that would foster the strategic thinking and citywide view that we need. And finally, some members of council chose the moment to wrap themselves in their respective ward flags.

But I suggest that we all need to sit up, take notice and vote. Some of us may think that the main municipal issues are things like dog parks and the size of potholes. As a dog owner and a driver, I agree that both can be important. But take some time to inform yourself about the big issues and how our city operates. Talk to others. Vote.

The 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mill thought of local government as a training ground for the exercise of democratic life. We now have a rookie mayor who has learned from bitter experience that municipal government is really a complex, high stakes environment — not a training ground. We all need to realize this and act accordingly.

Professor Katherine A.H. Graham teaches in the School of Public Policy and Administration and is the Co-ordinator of the Carleton-Batawa Initiative

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