At city council on December 12, Jim Watson largely shut urban councillors out of key committees and committee leadership positions. Urban councillors across five wards – Rideau-Vanier, Rideau-Rockcliffe, Somerset, Kitchissippi and Capital – represent over one fifth of Ottawa’s roughly 1 million residents. These five councillors were prevented from joining committees that play a huge role on environmental files.
The next four years are critical to progress across a range of environmental issues, from light rail, to holding the line on sprawl, to taking action on climate change through transit and sustainable transportation options. City council cannot make decisions for the benefit of the city if it cuts out urban voices from key committees such as Planning, Finance and Transit.
Governance matters. We are urging the mayor: don’t cut out the core! We are calling on Jim Watson to change course and add more urban representation to committees with decision-making power over Ottawa's environment.
What happened on December 12?
On Wednesday, December 12, the mayor presented council with a hand-picked list of committee representatives, including proposed chairs and vice-chairs for a number of committees.
As Joanne Chianello writes, this process is “straightforward but secretive.” Councillors select the committees they are interested in, and then city staff work to match them while taking into account factors such as geographic and gender representation.
The final step is the most important, and the most political: the mayor receives the list and makes a decision on the composition and leadership of committees. The mayor’s final picks then go before council for a full vote.
Normally, this is a rubber-stamp process. But on December 12, the mayor’s picks rankled a number of councillors. The number of dissenting votes wasn’t sufficient to mayor’s slate, but the concerns of councillors were valid. They expressed alarm that the mayor was favouring political allies over effective governance, and stacking the deck on council in a way that does a profound disservice to local representative democracy.
Why do committees matter?
At city hall, committees play a large role in setting the agenda on the issues under their areas of responsibility. Committees handle many of the substantive debates and discussions around key files before they go to council. Committee chairs and vice-chairs can choose which issues get included for discussion, or how much attention gets focused on those issues as part of the deliberation process.
At city council, the environment is not covered solely by the Environment and Climate Protection Committee. While this committee manages critically important files such as climate change, waste, water and urban forestry, other committees also have substantive effects on Ottawa’s environment. Transit Commission manages buses, Planning Committee covers walkable and transit-friendly communities, and the Finance and Economic Development Committee (FEDCO) is responsible for managing large projects (e.g., light rail, LeBreton Flats) and overseeing Ottawa’s economic development, which has huge environmental implications.
Without urban representation at the committee table, the voices of a huge portion of our city are effectively ignored. If we want to succeed in making Ottawa a greener city over the next four years, it is critical that all committees impacting the environment incorporate more diverse voices.
How did the committee selection break down?
Not only were urban councillors shut out of a number of key committees, but some were prevented from joining even after they identified those committees as their first or second preference. The result is a number of committees where urban voices have been mostly or entirely cut out.
- Transit Commission (8 members): 1 urban councillor, no urban councillors in leadership positions;
- Planning Committee (11 members): 1 urban councillor, no urban councillors in leadership positions;
- FEDCO: 0 urban councillors.
This is unacceptable. We cannot make progress as a city if the voices of one fifth of the population are sidelined.
Fortunately, it is easy to fix this mistake. All of the committees above can include additional urban voices without compromising representation from inner-Greenbelt, suburban or rural areas. Adding urban councillors to these committees would be especially logical in cases where those councillors have already identified the committees as priorities.