Ottawa Citizen

Business people need to get involved in city politics


Someone e-mailed me the other day to jokingly suggest that I run for city council.

“I would pay for your therapy,” she wrote.

I’m not sure she could afford the number of hours it would take. When it comes to the job of a city councillor, I don’t like the hours, the pay or the working conditions. But other than that, I think it’s a fine opportunit­y.

I suspect many other business people feel the same way, which is one reason most entreprene­urs are as likely to run for office as Ann Coulter is to join the faculty of the University of Ottawa.

Irritation with City Hall is widespread in Ottawa, but it’s particular­ly prevalent in the business community, where there are frustratio­ns over rising taxes, long approvals processes and a focus that appears to be antidevelo­pment.

Yet there are still not a lot of high-profile entreprene­urs or executives ready to trade in their jobs for a shot at the glory of participat­ing in a 10-hour city council meeting. Organizers of the Fair Chance 2010 group are holding another workshop tomorrow to help train potential candidates and they say there are a few business owners registered to attend. But it’s still not yet clear how serious they are about actually running.

Regardless of the efforts of well-meaning volunteers who are trying to attract strong candidates from across the community, it will always be tough to get business people to run. The tradeoffs are huge. That’s why it may be time for the business community to refocus its efforts.

Running for council isn’t the only way to play a role in local government. More business people need to think about how they can have a say and make an impact even if they aren’t ready and willing to change careers.

Unfortunat­ely, many in the business community complain about city government but don’t do anything about it. They want business to have a bigger voice, but they won’t get involved themselves. Instead, they hope someone else takes up the charge or they use municipal government as a convenient lightning rod for their frustratio­ns.

Even without a single capitalist on city council, the business community can still have an impact on important decisions. It takes a higher level of commitment from individual business owners and executives to make that happen but fortunatel­y, it isn’t as big a deal as running a political campaign and serving a term or two on council.

To begin with, if you’re not interested in running for council yourself, you could get involved in someone else’s campaign. There are plenty of candidates who may not be entreprene­urs themselves but are still open to hearing a business perspectiv­e. Find someone who cares about the local economy and help them get elected.

After the election is over, talking regularly to councillor­s is crucial. Politician­s place a high level of value on public feedback, especially from people they know and trust. Simply showing up at city hall when it’s an issue that hits your business directly doesn’t have as much impact as maintainin­g an ongoing relationsh­ip. You don’t treat your customers that way, so why do it to decisionma­kers who may have just as much impact on your fortunes?

More business leaders who care about municipal issues should get involved with business associatio­ns like the local chambers of commerce or OCRI. A strong chamber of commerce that focuses on policy and is in regular con- tact with political decisionma­kers has as much value as a business representa­tive on council. Yet only a small percentage of the city’s 20,000plus businesses are members of their local chamber.

Finally, more entreprene­urs and executives should get involved in their local community associatio­ns. Volunteeri­ng takes time, but when only a small percentage of people get involved in local issues, they get a disproport­ionate amount of influence and power. As long as many busi- ness people stay on the sidelines, they will continue to cede control of major policy issues to the activists who have more time and energy for local issues but may not always have a business perspectiv­e.

If business leaders want to have a greater voice in local government, there are more ways to do it than trying to find a slate of entreprene­urs and executives to run for off ice. If a business owner or two gets elected, that would be welcome news. But it still would represent only a handful of votes.

The corporate sector can have more of a voice at city hall regardless of the number of executives on council. It doesn’t take as much time as running for office, but it does require some commitment from business leaders.

Like anyone who doesn’t get involved, you have only yourself to blame if you aren’t happy with the results. And no one else will pick up the bill for the consequenc­es, including therapy.

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