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October 20, 2010

A mayor for Ottawa

Reuel S. Amdur

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Ottawa's municipal election takes place on Monday, October 25. Dr. Akbar Manoussi shared his thoughts on the subject with Canadian Charger. He is a retired professor, 24 years at the University of Ottawa's School of Business and five years at Carleton University. He has been a provincial and federal candidate for the Green Party and has served as vice-president of Ottawa's Central Mosque.

Manoussi helped mayoral candidate Jim Watson when he was mayor before the municipal consolidation, which incorporated surrounding municipalities.  He commented that, as mayor then, Watson was very much in contact with the community.  He held monthly breakfast meetings for local business leaders and other community leaders, with important guest speakers such as the Governor General and ambassadors.

Watson was a Tory, but he switched to the Liberals when he took a successful leap to the provincial scene.  There he held cabinet portfolios.

It is Manoussi’s opinion that Watson has returned to the municipal scene because there does not seem to be much chance at a shot at the top spot provincially.

Manoussi likes Watson, describing him as “a good communicator, outgoing, social, and experienced.”  “He knows the job.”  Manoussi points to his good connections with business and faith communities, including the Muslim community.

Manoussi supports Watson in this election, and in fact it would take a miracle for any other candidate to beat him, with opinion polls giving him a lead in excess of 20%.  Nevertheless, some of us have serious reservations.  Does he have the vision to promote the kind of municipal renewal needed in this new century?

Recently, City Council passed a motion asking the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to explore the idea of a municipal income tax. 

Currently, Ontario does not permit such a tax. Municipalities must rely on the property tax and whatever amounts that the province is willing to hand out.  Municipalities are also at the mercy of provincial government decisions around downloading responsibilities.  The property tax is grossly unfair, bearing little relationship to ability to pay, and serving as a constant challenge to elected officials. 

Saying that you want to increase the property tax rate is tantamount to political suicide.  When the motion on the municipal income tax came to a vote in City Council, outgoing Mayor Larry O’Brien voted in favor.  That may be one of the few good things to say about him.  Watson opposes the municipal income tax.

Watson also accused O’Brien of trying to form a municipal political party.  Watson is against political parties at the local level.  With each member of council functioning as an independent, getting consensus on issues is like herding cats.

The non-party system leads to the kind of back-and-forth decision-making that leaves the City in legal problems for breach of contract, as for example for rapid transit planning.  When everyone is equally responsible for decisions, no one is responsible.

Currently, Ottawa has what has been termed a weak mayor system of government, where the mayor needs to conduct a charm campaign to get any program accepted.  In the give-and-take of municipal politics in this kind of situation, who wins?  The developers.  The business of city government is all about who makes how much off of what piece of property.  Watson wants to keep the system like that.

Ideally, not only would city government have political parties; it would also be dissolved if the governing party lost in a vote of confidence.  Such a system would avoid the danger of lack of party discipline, exemplified by the American system.  We are not talking about some wild-eyed radical notion.  We already have such a system both provincially and federally.

In short, Watson may be a charmer, and he may well have some good planks in his platform, such as a focus on “green” development approaches. 

He may even be able to sell such ideas to members of Council.  However, he fails to appreciate the need for the kinds of changes necessary to make local government truly effective in the 21st Century.  Ottawa cannot even put in the sewer system upgrades needed and cannot repair the run-down social housing.

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