Is City of Ot­tawa ready for more re­spon­si­bil­ity?

Coun­cil must be more co­op­er­a­tive and trans­par­ent, writes Er­win Dreessen.

Ottawa Citizen - - OPINION - Er­win Dreessen is a mem­ber of the Greenspace Alliance and a long­time com­mu­nity ac­tivist in Ot­tawa.

The provin­cial govern­ment is herald­ing a new era in the way land-use plan­ning is to be done in On­tario.

Bills 73 and 139 mean lan­duse plan­ning de­ci­sions will be made at the mu­nic­i­pal/ re­gional level by lo­cally elected of­fi­cials. With what are hoped to be few ex­cep­tions, no longer will the On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board have the last word on what makes for “good plan­ning.” That is a wel­come change, long de­manded by many mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers and com­mu­ni­ties.

Let’s as­sume the up­com­ing reg­u­la­tions will en­able th­ese re­forms to take ef­fect. Is the City of Ot­tawa in a state where th­ese land-use de­ci­sions will be dis­cussed in an open and in­clu­sive man­ner, al­low­ing an op­ti­mal con­sen­sus to emerge and negat­ing the urge to ap­peal?

There is room for deep skep­ti­cism. Since 2008, city hall has be­come in­creas­ingly opaque in its de­ci­sion­mak­ing and has closed it­self off from mean­ing­ful in­put by cit­i­zens. For in­stance:

Synop­sis min­utes of stand­ing com­mit­tees and coun­cil have been re­placed by un­search­able au­dio and video record­ings.

Most cit­i­zen ad­vi­sory com­mit­tees were abol­ished in 2012.

A staff pro­posal for a plan­ning ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee was wisely with­drawn. An ad hoc group of ex­pe­ri­enced com­mu­nity lead­ers, drawn from the Fed­er­a­tion of Cit­i­zens’ As­so­ci­a­tions and the Greenspace Alliance, sub­mit­ted a counter pro­posal, ex­pect­ing a di­a­logue would en­sue. In­stead, the pro­posal has been met with si­lence. Now coun­cil is said to be ready to ac­cept a re­vised pro­posal; the public will not have an op­por­tu­nity to have its say, even if only for five min­utes at a com­mit­tee.

The re­cent, ex­tra­or­di­nary three-day meet­ing of Plan­ning Com­mit­tee to hear from 147 del­e­ga­tions on the Sal­va­tion Army pro­posal, while show­ing com­mend­able flex­i­bil­ity, demon­strated that the con­sul­ta­tion be­fore the mat­ter com­ing to com­mit­tee was ex­tremely in­ad­e­quate. As Coun. Diane Deans said dur­ing the coun­cil dis­cus­sion: “Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here.”

The last round of of­fi­cial plan review has gone off the rails. The city split its con­sul­ta­tion ef­fort be­tween a “com­mu­nity” and a “de­vel­op­ment in­dus­try” panel. Such balka­niza­tion most cer­tainly was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the de­ba­cle.

A cul­ture shift at city hall is nec­es­sary if we are to see con­sen­sus de­ci­sion­mak­ing ma­te­ri­al­ized here. The city has sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties to show it wants to do bet­ter:

Bill 73 stip­u­lates that mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties must give public in­put to its plan­ning de­ci­sions a high pro­file. The city was chal­lenged at its first ap­pli­ca­tion of this re­quire­ment. It has now agreed to con­sult with the Greenspace Alliance and others on how to bet­ter im­ple­ment the obli­ga­tion. It must ex­plain the ef­fect writ­ten and oral sub­mis­sions have had on a coun­cil de­ci­sion. How will the city han­dle this con­sul­ta­tion and come up with an ac­cept­able prac­tice?

The first steps are be­ing taken to­ward the next of­fi­cial plan, now ex­pected to be due in 2022. What will the city do to avoid the fi­as­cos of the pre­vi­ous two rounds? Will it gen­uinely reach out to civil so­ci­ety, en­cour­age a di­a­logue, lis­ten to the public, avoid bias in on­line sur­veys and take the time to get it right?

Per­haps above all, the city’s plan­ning func­tion has to re­dis­cover its pri­mary mis­sion, namely to work in the public in­ter­est. That re­quires an open process, en­sur­ing all stake­hold­ers are heard and com­mon un­der­stand­ing is achieved.

Un­der Bill 139, if the tribunal finds a coun­cil de­ci­sion does not con­form to its own or provin­cial poli­cies, a mu­nic­i­pal­ity is given a sec­ond chance to achieve a con­sen­sus. It is in ev­ery­body’s in­ter­est to get it right the first time.

A cul­ture shift at city hall is nec­es­sary if we are to see con­sen­sus de­ci­sion-mak­ing ma­te­ri­al­ized here

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