How Watson Controls Council



Some Bulldog readers might not know exactly the methods Mayor Jim Watson uses to get his way on Ottawa City Council.

The great Ron Benn, Bulldog contributor extraordinaire, gives about as good an explanation for this as you will see.

Take it  away, Ron.

The challenge Councillor Jeff Leiper faces is one of convincing 12 of his colleagues to vote to protect existing neighbourhoods from disproportionately high buildings.

He is one of seven who voted against the rezoning of the Trailhead building site to allow for 22 storeys in a neighbourhood zoned for six storeys. He joined Councillors David Chernushenko, Catherine McKenney, Tobi Nussbaum (and others) in voting against a higher density retirement home on Bank Street earlier in the month.

Photo above: Ottawa City Council room … where some of the horse-trading occurs.

So, at least he is pointed in the right direction. However, regularly being on the losing side of a 17-7 vote is small consolation. Perhaps more time needs to be spent by each of these councillors to line up more support around the council chamber. There are challenges, though.

Jim Watson is very adept at trading favours. In exchange for his support in getting Councillor Mark Taylor elected in Bay ward (the same Mark Taylor who worked in Jim Watson’s MPP office), does Councillor Mark Taylor dare stray from the Watson party line, for fear that his tax-payer funded, embroidered leather deputy-mayor jacket gets locked away? Councillor Jan Harder lobbied hard to get the chair of the planning committee. She needed Mayor Jim Watson’s blessing to get that position. Does she dare step out of line? Councillor Keith Egli needed Watson’s support to win Knoxdale-Merivale a couple of elections ago when Gord Hunter retired. He is also chair of the Transportation Committee. Is he prepared to cast a vote on a matter of principle that is contrary to his “patrone”?

Failing to follow orders also has consequences. Is the well known animosity between Watson and Councillor Rick Chiarelli the reason why the long-standing councillor for College ward does not chair any meaningful committee?

Do the councillors for the suburbs outside the greenbelt care enough about the inner wards, and the destruction of the community fabric that follows the erection of disproportionately high buildings adjacent to one- and two-storey homes, to vote against  Watson? Do they follow his lead, for fear that they will not get his support, and that of his acolytes on council, on an issue near and dear to their community?

In short, there are too many councillors sitting in the chamber whose votes are already compromised by favours owed, or are willing to grant a favour today, to be held like a chit for a later date, when they need a favour in return. Now consider who is at the vortex of this favour trading.

I am not so naive as to think that this situation is unique to Ottawa. It is at the very heart of politics. It was one of the reasons why Larry O’Brien’s mayoralty was so underwhelming. He hadn’t built up a war chest of favours owed to him, and that made herding the cats much more difficult.

So, here we are oscillating between the extremes of dysfunction. Remember, the second part of your property taxes are due in a month-and-a-half.

Yours truly,

Ron Benn



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3 thoughts on “How Watson Controls Council

  1. Ron:

    You certainly are not naïve. Favours, back-scratching, party politics, social cliques, and ambition, these things all get in the way of good governance.

    That is the state of affairs. It is not a case of everybody listening to evidence and casting a vote yea or nay. The decisions are not made when the vote is taken. The decisions are all made in back rooms behind closed doors and often with lobbyists and financial donors in the room. Always been and always shall be – can I have an amen.

    Power blocs end up ruling.

    That’s why I feel sorry for Councillor Jeff Leiper and any other independent. If you join in the bloc, you must do what you are told to do. Stay outside the bloc and you get nothing done. Well nothing except proposing to paint the road and later finding out that that isn’t a priority for your ward’s residents anyway.

    And while we are looking at the way of politics, is there any logical reason for the council chamber to be furnished with a silly round circle and what appears to be a raised platform. Probably real leather on dem dar chairs, too.

    The symbolism of the raised platform dates back to olden days; it sets the ruling class up above the dirty plebs.

    The only possible change that matters is trying to find an intelligent and beholden-to-none head for the bloc. Good luck on that. Give me another amen. The French tried, the Russians tried, the Chinese tried, the Cubans tried, etc., etc. Sometime back around 1765 to 1783 even the Americans tried. Look south of our border to see how well that worked out for them. Talk about a bloc ( maybe blockhead). Only solution that might work is turning the decision-making process over to unbiased computers. Oops, that might not work either.

    Every one, have a great day and keep a stiff upper lip. It’s all transitory anyway.


    1. In the old days when that room and table were built, one reason for the raised platform was that the Chair could see everyone and record who had indicated they wanted to speak. They now have an electronic system where Councillors press a button and their names appear in order on a screen in front of the Mayor.
      There’s no reason why the Mayor’s desk couldn’t be taken off the platform so that he or she would be at floor level like the rest of Council. It would just take either a Mayor who didn’t enjoy lording it over the others or enough Councillors to pass a motion to renovate the Chamber.

  2. Ron, as you say yourself, there’s nothing new here, that’s the way it works and always has. Five to seven progressives on council who get nothing done? We’ve seen it before and so it will be forever, until (a) the progressive councillors make it as their priority to seek common ground with others — I had great hopes with the new faces after the 2014 election but I’ve seen no evidence of it happening; and (b) progressive community members work harder to vote better people in.
    With Watson running again there is little hope for real change around the council table (or, as Chaz correctly notes, the back rooms where the real decisions are taken) but it is not too early to start on (a) and certainly not on (b). If we could knock off a few dinosaurs and yes-men at the next opportunity (2018) and then break through in 2022, we’d be going somewhere.
    I know, meanwhile hundreds of millions of dollars are going for waste through incompetence and inertia but I don’t see a solution to that except shining a light on it.


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