Is City of Ottawa ready for more responsibility?
Council must be more cooperative and transparent, writes Erwin Dreessen.
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Synopsis minutes of standing committees and council have been replaced by unsearchable audio and video recordings.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A staff proposal for a planning advisory committee was wisely withdrawn.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