Ottawa Needs A Better City Council: Benn

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What do we need in the next city council?

Recent columns have stressed leadership, vision, integrity, priority setting, managing complex projects. The general tenor of these columns has been about how poorly Ottawa’s city council and senior administration have fared in these areas.

The next municipal election is five-and-a-half months away. Candidates were permitted to submit their names at the beginning of May and can do so through mid-to-late July. The real municipal election campaign won’t start until after the June 7 provincial election and it won’t heat up until after Labour Day. Still it’s not too early to talk about what characteristics are needed on the next city council.

It starts with vision. It is not just the mayor who needs a vision. Individual councillors should know what they want to accomplish during the next term and they should be able to articulate that vision in a manner that inspires support from the voting public. This is important not just in getting elected, but in aligning votes from fellow members around the council chamber. If a councillor cannot inspire support from his or her colleagues, then what passes for their vision is just an academic exercise.

Integrity. With integrity comes transparency, openness and accountability. Will the candidate acknowledge that some of the decisions they made were, in the fullness of time, questionable? Will the candidate acknowledge they are responsible for the votes that they make. If they support a motion that is fundamentally flawed, they are responsible for that decision, and any efforts to shirk that responsibility is a reflection of their integrity. If they vote against a motion that is fundamentally flawed, will they point out publicly, in the media, (because precious few people will read the transcript – if such a thing actually exists) why they voted against it?

Do they understand what services the city must provide? Must, as in is obligated by statute? This would certainly help when setting priorities. Are they capable of discerning between must have, want to have and nice to have? This will certainly help not just during the budget-setting process, but in evaluating the proposals pitched by lobbyists, developers and other special interest groups.

The city enters into myriad contracts every year and funds a number of complex projects. Will the candidate understand that the objective of the contract is vital, as are the metrics to be used to measure progress? With no clearly stated objectives, how will they know whether the contract or project will achieve that objective? With no clear set of metrics, how will they know whether the contract has achieved that objective? Will they point out, prior to the motion to accept being voted on, that the objective is not clear, and that the metrics either don’t exist or that they won’t actually measure progress towards the objective?

Does the candidate understand that while it is not their responsibility to manage projects, it is their responsibility to ensure that the project is being properly managed. This involves reading (sorry Councillor Mark Taylor, but scanning is not the same as reading) staff reports, and asking questions of staff. This involves ensuring that staff reports are provide meaningful information in a clear and easy-to-understand format. It involves ensuring that staff reports clearly articulate the important assumptions that underly their analyses, and that the possible, less than favourable outcomes are described, and what might lead to those less-than-favourable outcomes.

Will this candidate demand that every report that a councillor should get, will be delivered to those councillors on a timely basis? Will this candidate stand up for his/her colleagues when it becomes clear that some councillors get reports much sooner than others?

So, how can we evaluate candidates for these characteristics? It can be as simple as asking them why they think we should vote for them, when they come knocking on your door. Same thing at all candidates’ meetings. Then listen. If they can’t articulate a vision of what they want to accomplish, if they won’t answer the question that is asked, as contrasted with regurgitating the answer that they memorized, ask yourself, why should I vote for this person?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to that I think the current batch of elected officials leave much to be desired. There are six to eight who appear to understand what their responsibilities are and appear to take those responsibilities seriously. Of that six to eight, precious few are actually effective, effective as in getting things done inside the council chamber. There is little to be said for regularly being on the short end of a 16-8 vote. Being effective is convincing five colleagues of the need to vote with you, to shift the vote to 11-13.

Mayor Jim Watson’s anemic YouTube video of earlier this week, where he asked us to support him so that he could stay the course on fiscal responsibility, public safety, protection of the environment, and completion of Phase 1 and the start of Phase 2 of the LRT was underwhelming. Vision? To accomplish a number of mom-and-apple-pie topics? Inspiring? I almost nodded off, and the video wasn’t even a minute long.

We need better candidates. We need people with vision and integrity. People who can bring fresh ideas, and better ways of doing things. We need candidates who don’t owe existing members of council favours as they walk through the front door. We need competition for the incumbents who have not impressed during their term in office.

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.

 

 And we thought Ottawa City Hall was dysfunctional.

 

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6 thoughts on “Ottawa Needs A Better City Council: Benn

  1. Ron,
    Well stated but therein lies the rub; the qualities you outline are above the reach of many.
    Might I add a couple of things.
    – EPIC – Ethical Prioritized Intelligent Control
    – Functional literacy

    On the first, I find that many people do not have the ability to be ethical, to prioritize,to be intelligent and to control.
    On the latter, I recognize that most people that can read can only do so at a level that allows them to function within the confined space of the daily situations that they are comfortable in. That is: most people can not read and comprehend a report. They are afraid to admit that and they are afraid to seek help.
    skoal,
    Chaz

    1+

    1. In defence of the councillors the volume of information city staff dumps on their desk to pour through is enormous. Our new city manager needs to teach his staff how to be concise and get to the point they’re trying to convey in their reports. Intelligent decisions are hindered when reports aren’t read. As a friend once said, “less is more”.

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      1. Sisco, every board of directors I have sat on or reported to has set the standard and style of reports they want. City council is a hybrid between a board of directors and management board, but the point remains. They have the authority to tell staff what types of reports they want, including the format, length, inclusion of appendices, etc. They can tell staff what they want in the executive summary.

        As you pointed out, often less is more. A well-crafted executive summary (two to three pages) should convey everything that a councillor needs to know to decide whether they want to read further to get a better understanding of the data behind the information. If the councillor wants to delve more deeply, they should be able to find the relevant sections quickly, by referring to the index, or by having staff point to the reference material with a footnote in the executive summary.

        In short, city council has a lot of authority as it relates to what its members get from staff. What they appear to lack is an understanding of how and when to use it … or perhaps the will to do so.

        1+

        1. Ron. You’re absolutely correct with regards to executive summaries. I noted that in a previous post but forgot to do so this time. The executive summaries should relay facts with references, not opinions that try to sway a councillor’s ultimate decision.

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  2. Bulls eye. Ron, I came to the same conclusion as you. Integrity is critical. And it must be difficult for the 6 to 8 strong councillors at city hall who have to put up with Jim Watson and his band of sycophants.
    Specifically, when the stormwater tax was an issue last year, George Darouze spoke to a group of over 250 residents at a town hall meeting in Metcalfe, where I live, and at other small assemblages within the ward. He knew people were unhappy with the proposed tax. In fact, at the meeting in Metcalfe, he wore a t-shirt with a raindrop inside a circle with a line through it. When asked how he would vote on the issue in council, he noted he would vote against the tax. The day the vote took place he voted in favour of it. Whether it was a foregone conclusion that the motion would pass or not, the point is he boldface lied to the people he is supposed to represent at city hall. What do we have to look forward to on future issues that will impact residents in Osgoode ward? Can we believe what he says?
    The beauty of municipal politics is it is, or should be, representative rather than partisan as federal and provincial politics have become. I want the person who represents me at Laurier Avenue to respect the wishes of the majority of residents who live in my ward. I want someone who has the skills to lobby and work with other councillors to rethink their position, rather than always taking the easy way out and doing what Jim Watson wants.
    Doing a good job as a politician is hard work and all Darouze is doing is cruizin’.

    3+

  3. I’d like to expand on the topic of EPIC.

    While these, merely, reflect my personal professional standards. I’ll put them forward for your edification.

    E – Does taking freebie (expensive) tickets or buying fluffy blue blankets using your office funds breach an ethical standard? I think where there is an attitude that allows these, then there may be darker breaches.

    P – Are bike lanes, lovely architecture for train stations and a library really priority items? I am sure that other things should come first. Pandering for special-interest groups is never a priority. The nice to have comes long after the need to have.

    I – Can a councillor make an intelligent, informed decision if they aren’t supplied all the facts in a timely manner? The Xmas Miracle is an example.

    C- Can any control be exercised if a councillor doesn’t ask questions and seek all the facts before there’s trouble. Here is an area where I see more holes than solid ground in and around: LRT contract, compost disposal contract, park building, baseball-stadium operations, purchasing standards (asphalt), depositing cash and even the running of nursing homes.

    Some things just plainly indicate a situation whereby smoke does mean fire.

    skoal,
    Chaz

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