Ottawa Citizen

Is City of Ottawa ready for more responsibi­lity?

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

- 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Synopsis minutes of standing committees and council have been replaced by unsearchab­le audio and video recordings.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A staff proposal for a planning advisory committee was wisely withdrawn.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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