Ottawa City Council: A primer

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This document provides basic information on how Ottawa City Council operates. It was compiled by Ecology Ottawa’s Council Watch. If you have any feedback to share, please contact the group’s current coordinator, William van Geest. Please also see the City of Ottawa’s resources, which are more extensive—particularly the Rules of Procedure, which we also cite below. These rules are governed by Ontario's Municipal Act.

 

City Council

What is City Council?

City Council is the governing body responsible for municipal decisions in Ottawa. It's composed of 24 councillors, each of which represents one of the city’s 24 wards, and one mayor, who represents the entire city. 

What ward am I in, and who's my councillor?

You can look up your ward, your councillor, and the mayor on the City’s website.

What does Ottawa City Council do?

According to Ontario’s Municipal Act, Council's job is to

  1. represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality
  2. develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality
  3. determine which services the municipality provides
  4. ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council
    • ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality
  5. maintain the financial integrity of the municipality, and
  6. carry out the duties of council under this or any other Act.

What is City Council’s term?

Municipal elections are held every four years on the fourth Monday of October.

How does City Council make decisions?

Most of the heavy lifting is done through Standing Committees, who discuss issues and recommendations in detail. Issues often come to committees through a motion—that is, a request to discuss a specific issue or recommendation and for a decision to be made. Motions must be in writing, must begin with the words “Be It Resolved that”, and must be moved and seconded (sec. 60). 

Motions are voted on by members of the Standing Committee. Motions are passed if they receive a majority vote in favour. If passed, a motion moves to City Council for further consideration.

City Council discusses motions brought forward by standing committees. Motions are passed if they receive a majority vote in favour. A motion passed by City Council takes effect as indicated in the motion.

What are councillors’ responsibilities?

Councillors can be thought of as having three roles:

  • Representatives: Councillors represent the views of the residents in their ward
  • Policy makers: Councillors provide direction for municipal operations
  • Stewards: Councillors help “ensure that the municipality’s financial and administrative resources are being used as efficiently as possible”

Councillors also sit on various committees (see below). 

What are the mayor’s responsibilities?

Ontario’s Municipal Act gives the mayor several responsibilities: 

  1. to act as chief executive officer of the municipality
  2. to preside over council meetings so that its business can be carried out efficiently and effectively
  3. to provide leadership to the council
    • to provide information and recommendations to the council with respect to the role of council
  4. to represent the municipality at official functions
  5. to carry out the duties of the head of council under this or any other Act

The City adds details to these duties in the Rules of Procedure.

  • The Mayor of the Council is an ex officio member of every Committee, Sub-Committee and Commission (sec. 75)
  • The Mayor of the Council may vote and otherwise participate in the business of the Committee/Commission without any restriction on the same basis as any other Committee/Commission member (sec. 75)
  • The Mayor of Council shall be the Chair of the Finance Corporate Services Committee (sec. 77)

In December 2022, the Ontario government gave additional (“strong”) powers to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa (Bill 39). These powers allow the mayor of Ottawa to:

  • hire key municipal staff
  • create new identified committees and appoint the chairs and vice-chairs of identified committees and local boards
  • veto council’s passing of a by-law if all or part of the by-law could potentially interfere with a provincial priority
  • propose the municipal budget for council consideration and veto changes to the proposed budget made by Council
  • direct items to Council that could advance a provincial priority and direct staff to bring proposals to council

 

Standing Committees

What is a Standing Committee?

Standing committees are bodies appointed by Council to consider issues within a specific mandate of municipal services. They are composed solely of councillors (exception: Built Heritage Committee). Their purpose, structure and mandate are set out in their Terms of Reference, which are established by Council (sec. 76). Chairs are determined by Council (sec. 77).

Standing committees discuss issues within their mandate in depth. Committees regularly call on City staff and subject experts to participate in these discussions, and members of the public may also participate (see below).

The membership of standing committees are designated by means of a vote by Council on nominations proposed by a Nominating Committee chaired by the mayor (sec. 93–95).

Only members of a standing committee may propose motions and vote on a motion before a committee. When a majority of committee members vote in favour of a motion, it will move to City Council for their consideration. Council typically votes in line with committees’ recommendations.

A motion defeated by a Standing Committee will not be considered by City Council and is therefore dead, unless Council adopts it specially (sec. 83).

How do Standing Committees function?

Standing committees study specific issues before bringing them to a meeting of Council. In most cases, a committee’s agenda is prepared by its chair (sec. 73).

Councillors not a member of a given committee may observe or ask questions during a committee meeting, but only members of a committee may participate in discussions, propose motions, and vote.

If a councillor who is not a member of a standing committee would like to propose a motion within the committee’s mandate, however, a councillor who does sit on that committee may move a motion on their behalf.

What are the responsibilities of a Committee Chair?

For meetings, the chair is responsible for:

  • setting the agenda—i.e., choosing which topics and/or motions will be discussed
  • introducing and framing topics of discussion
  • implementing and interpreting the Rules of Procedure for committees

Chairs also are liaisons to the mayor, City staff, and the City’s leadership team on matters relating to the committee’s mandate.

Finally, committee chairs are also members of Finance and Corporate Services Committee, the most powerful committee at Ottawa City Council.

What is the Finance and Corporate Services Committee?

The Finance and Corporate Services Committee (formerly FEDCO) is the most powerful standing committee in Council, as it makes the most important decisions.

This committee is composed of each standing committee chair and is chaired by the mayor.  Deputy mayors may also be appointed to this committee. 

Engaging with Council

May I attend City Council or committee meetings?

Yes! Meetings are held on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. In-person meetings are held in Andrew S. Haydon Hall at City Hall. All meetings, whether in-person or online, may be viewed via

Meetings are also archived on the Ottawa City Council YouTube Channel. Meetings are typically two to five hours long, but may in certain cases extend to multiple days.

How do I find out when a committee meets?

In most cases, notice of regular meetings of a committee is given on the City’s website no later than the Friday immediately prior to the meeting, but often much earlier (sec. 82).

Notice of a special meeting of a committee must be given, where time permits, on the City’s website at least three hours prior to the meeting by a public service announcement (sec. 82, 87).

You can also subscribe to the City’s Weekly E-Subscription Service for notices of upcoming meetings and summaries of major decisions.

May I address Council as a private citizen?

Private citizens may only address standing committees, not Council.

Oral presentations are called delegations (or deputations, or presentations).  To make a delegation, contact the committee coordinator (found on the agenda). If you attend the meeting in person, you may also  at the meeting (sec. 83). 

Delegates are allowed up to five minutes to speak. Electronic notes and visuals can be entered into the minutes and will be recorded permanently, although they must be submitted to the committee coordinator by 4 pm the business day before the meeting.

Written comments may also be submitted. They must be submitted to the Committee Coordinator before 4 pm the business day before the meeting unless instructions on the agenda state otherwise.

You may also contact the members of a standing committee directly (see the City’s website of committees for a list of members).

Where can I find minutes for past meetings?

Past meetings’ minutes are posted on the City’s website—but note that there is often a substantial delay between a meeting and when they are posted.

 

Compiled by Sarah Nugent and William van Geest.

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