THERE ARE WAYS TO MAKE COUNCIL WORSE
Little to recommend ‘strong mayor’ system or municipal party
Just because Ottawa city council functions poorly, that doesn’t mean it can’t be made worse. Mayor Larry O’Brien and an anonymous group hoping to form a municipal political party both have ideas that could do just that.
The mayor has appointed a highly qualified group to advise him on how to make council function better. That’s a good idea, and he should let them do their work. Instead, the mayor chose this week to advocate a plan similar to what Toronto city council is already struggling with. It would concentrate most political power in the hands of the mayor and his handpicked cronies. The plan is generally referred to as a “strong mayor” system. That sounds so much more polite than “dictatorship.”
The anonymous people who want to form the Ottawa Party believe that a political party is just what’s needed to give some direction to city council. The idea has a shred of merit but, like the mayor’s plan, it’s another that leaves some councillors with enhanced power and others with none.
O’Brien would like to see a councillor with the title of “budget chief” to take over staff’s job of shaping the budget, as well as an executive committee, and a full-time deputy mayor.
This kind of structure would leave councillors with two choices: they could kiss butt to get into the inner circle, or they could be excluded from the group, meaning that you and your representative would have less influence than now.
That was Thursday. By yesterday, the mayor said he would actually be happier with a board of control, where councillors with enhanced executive powers would be directly elected by the public. That’s a less-bad idea.
The mayor said he was proposing the Toronto system just to be provocative.
City council is suffering from a leadership deficit, but that’s not a structural problem. There are two main factors contributing to council’s ineffectiveness, Councillor Rick Chiarelli says. One is the way the mayor has handled his job, the other the fact that O’Brien is facing criminal charges of attempted bribery and purported influence-peddling.
O’Brien has gamely tried to act as if his legal problems aren’t affecting things on city council, but that’s not the way his colleagues see it. Our system of government relies almost entirely on having a mayor who is able to use his position to push the agenda that he was elected on. Inexperience and legal troubles have hampered O’Brien.
Councillors are an independent lot. If they are going to follow a mayor, they need to know he’s going to be around for a while. The fact that O’Brien is going to court next year makes that uncertain. It’s as if he has been a lame duck almost from the beginning of his term.
Various anonymous people quoted by my colleague Ken Gray say the solution would be a municipal political party. The fledgling party even has a generic platform. Good luck to them, but the inglorious record of political parties at the senior levels of government ought to make people exceedingly cautious.
The problem isn’t the system, it’s the people working in it. Or not working, in the case of some councillors. It’s embarrassing how ill-prepared some of them are, wasting council’s time asking questions that are already answered in the reports in front of them, or could easily have been explored before decision day.
In an interview, O’Brien rightly complained about this kind of timewasting behaviour, but he doesn’t have to allow it. Council’s procedural bylaws actually don’t provide for ques- tion periods. That’s something the mayor himself has been allowing as chair of the meetings.
Whatever O’Brien’s expert panel comes up with, it will be a tough sell with Ottawa councillors. They were openly scoffing at O’Brien’s ideas yesterday. Once again, the mayor has launched a plan without council buy-in.
Still, O’Brien is right when he says that council can and should work better. As a group, councillors do perform below their individual capabilities. That suggests there is something wrong with the way their jobs are structured. That’s why the work of the expert panel the mayor has appointed will provide useful fodder for debate.
Whatever the system, the best way to improve council is to elect better councillors. The public has been curiously unwilling to throw out even the worst performers. We seem to be afraid of electing people without experience, preferring people who are experienced at doing their jobs badly.
What the public should be looking for is people with a track record of leadership in the community or in their professional lives. Political experience isn’t especially important. Leaders will lead in any situation, and we need more of them.