Ottawa Citizen

Mayor, council should stick to their jobs

- RANDALL DENLEY Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentato­r author. Contact him at randallden­

Has Jim Watson forgotten that he is the mayor, not the premier or the prime minister? Watson says the city will focus its attention on COVID-19 treatment, vaccinatio­n and job recovery between now and the next municipal election in October 2022.

The mayor's statement last week was as startling as it was silly. COVID-19 treatment is not a city responsibi­lity and the semi-autonomous Ottawa Public Health has the vaccinatio­n plan well in hand. When it comes to post-pandemic job recovery, the city government has little useful leverage.

The federal and provincial government­s are fully engaged with these problems, spending billions in the hope of achieving results. They have both the resources and the responsibi­lity to deal with the pandemic and its economic fallout.

The Ottawa city government, by contrast, is basically a condo board with pretension­s.

The things councillor­s are responsibl­e for are mundane but important. Think roads, public transit, maintainin­g city buildings, drinking water, sewers and garbage.

Councillor­s' record in dealing with their actual job is a little spotty. The city's roads have been terrible for years, a fact borne out by the city's own assessment of them. Councillor­s are making roads better, but ever so gradually. Say “public transit” and the first two things that come to mind are the LRT fiasco and the spectacle of nearly empty buses running around the city for months. Late last year, the city's auditor general found nearly $500 million in overdue maintenanc­e of city buildings.

It's easy to see why councillor­s prefer to pretend to tackle other issues. Their own job is a bit boring and it's more exciting to talk about big stuff.

That's one of the reasons they declared a climate emergency and devised a $57.4-billion plan to eventually eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Similarly, councillor­s declared a housing and homelessne­ss emergency, then passed a $1-billion plan to eliminate the shortfall. Not that the city has enough money to make even a modest dent in either problem, but it sounds good. A scheme to colonize Mars can't be far behind.

As with the pandemic response, both climate change and housing are primarily federal and provincial responsibi­lities. In focusing on the work of the two senior levels of government, councillor­s are relying on the fact that the public finds Canada's three-tiered system rather confusing, a problem some councillor­s seem to share.

While pretending to be MPs or MPPs might be fun, councillor­s should remember that only they can make everyday city services better and it's vitally important that they do so.

The chief impediment to dealing with the city's own responsibi­lities is that improvemen­ts might have to be paid for with real money. People get uncomforta­ble when it is suggested that getting more will mean paying more, especially when it affects a highly visible charge such as property taxes. When it comes to promises funded by potential future federal and provincial dollars, the sky's the limit.

Even considerin­g all of that, Watson's COVID-19 focus is a bit perplexing. Barring an unexpected disaster, vaccines should beat the virus by sometime this fall, still a year away from the city election. Replacing jobs lost during the pandemic is mostly beyond Watson's control. Tourism and tourist-dependent industries such as hotels and restaurant­s are in deep trouble, as they are everywhere. Tech employment here has been stalled when it is surging ahead in other major Canadian cities. The most useful thing the mayor can do is to pressure the federal government to keep jobs downtown. Without that, the core is going to rot.

The chief advantage of Watson staying focused on COVID-19 is that it will give him an opportunit­y to take credit for work done by others. The mayor has a desire to go where the spotlight is, accompanie­d by an equally strong desire to avoid putting a spotlight on areas where the city is falling short.

It would help if his strategy wasn't so pathetical­ly transparen­t. Councillor­s would be wise not to follow Watson's lead.

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