By David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen.
OTTAWA — The number of high-powered candidates setting out to take city council seats away from sitting councillors is a sign that Ottawa is growing into a more mature city, one expert says.
Nominations opened for the Oct. 27 civic election Thursday and a list of credible candidates unprecedented since amalgamation have signed up to run or declared they plan to do so.
The University of Ottawa’s Gilles Paquet, an emeritus professor and former president of the Royal Society of Canada, founded the university’s Centre on Governance. He was among those behind a city-organized summit in 2001 that was supposed to define what the newly amalgamated Ottawa would look like and how it would run.“We have had a large, large number of people developing a civic-mindedness in the past. I don’t know any other city that has gone through that 20/20 summit. And yet nothing came out of it,” Paquet lamented.
The city government got bogged down in territorial fights over whether things should be done the Nepean way or the old Ottawa way or the Cumberland way. Then-mayor Bob Chiarelli lost his re-election bid in 2006 and his ideas for knitting Ottawa together into one city — which he had trouble articulating in public, Paquet said — were thrown out “like bad meat loaf.”
Rookie mayor Larry O’Brien presided over divisive debates on light rail and particularly the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park. Those pulled Ottawans into civic affairs but mostly out of anger, according to Paquet, who said that either dissipates or turns into weary cynicism.
“Some of those things in the past have mobilized people against something. You can’t be inspired for a long, long time simply fighting X or Y or Z,” Paquet said. “It always was an episode, then another episode.”
But maybe something else happened along the way, as people across the city debated projects and plans that directly affected others more than themselves. “What we may have missed was that there has been a maturing of civic society and it was not to no avail,” he said.
“I think it’s great. It’s wonderful,” said Katherine Graham, who teaches local government at Carleton University.
She said serious people might be more attracted to city office here thanks to the relative calm of Jim Watson’s three years in the mayor’s chair so far.
“This council has been not characterized by the free-for-all of its immediate predecessor. So people who are watching in a knowledgeable way are really able to assess the performance of council members from their own perspective rather than as a spectacle, and saying, ‘Oh, it’s a passing show and I don’t want to be part of it.’”
City government matters, she said, and it’s increasingly clear how it affects residents’ daily lives. “We’re seeing it in issues like intensification and around transit and in the services we want for the city.”
Even Rob Ford’s travails in Toronto are a factor, since they draw attention to how a city can struggle to run itself.
Some unlikely challengers beat incumbents in 2010 and proved it could be done: City lifeguard Mathieu Fleury’s defeat of veteran Georges Bédard in Rideau-Vanier was especially surprising and golf retailer Scott Moffatt’s unseating of longtime Rideau politician Glenn Brooks almost as much so.
Take the downtown Somerset ward. The list of candidates, all of them ready to go up against 30-year veteran Diane Holmes, is extraordinary:
- Denis Schryburt, a senior public servant and prominent gay activist with experience on numerous city advisory groups;
- Thomas McVeigh, a restaurateur recently elected president of the Centretown Citizens Community Association;
- Lili Weemen, who ran in Kanata North in 2010; and
- Jeff Morrison, the president of the Centretown Community Health Centre (who promises to formally file his papers at the end of the month).
Holmes has routinely won 65 per cent of the vote against so-so challengers. This group looks more like the sort that contests a seat opened by a councillor’s retirement.
“I think probably there’s more people who are living in the core who are seeing things happening elsewhere and want to see that happening in the core,” said Christine Leadman, the director of the Bank Street merchants’ association and a former councillor for Kitchissippi. Recreation facilities, new libraries, spruced-up parks. “These are the types of things I’m hearing constantly: the downtown area needs to be cleaned up.”
Holmes is an excellent councillor, she says, but it’s good to see credible alternatives. “I think it’s exciting that there are strong candidates who are interested in running,” Leadman said. “I think when people have a choice, it’s great. If there are good, viable candidates who have put their time in the community, that’s important as well.”
Being a city councillor isn’t as much fun as it looks, she said. Having good ideas is one thing; having the wherewithal to push them through a bureaucracy and city council votes is another. It’s an asset to any ward to have would-be councillors who understand what they’re in for if they win, Leadman said.
“There’s no money in it. There is an immense amount of aggravation,” Paquet agreed. (Well, there’s some money — about $93,000 a year. But the hours are terrible.)
Veteran Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson faces two experienced challengers — Jeff Seeton and Matt Muirhead, both of whom are or have been community-association presidents and who have run for council before. Incumbent Katherine Hobbs faces a formidable challenger in longtime Hintonburg activist Jeff Leiper.
One race that hasn’t yet attracted much competition is the one for mayor, where Watson says he’s running again and his only declared challenger so far is Mike Maguire, a conservative who ran and came fifth in 2010. He lacked a campaign organization and will need one to mount a serious threat to Watson this time.
To Graham, Watson’s likely a shoo-in. “He has brought some sense of order to things. There have been accomplishments,” she said. Also missteps — the botched attempt to land a new casino, in particular — but nothing that would cause a big segment of the community to rally around an alternative.
“He’s skating pretty well and maybe he’s had to skate pretty fast over some patches of thin ice, but he’s done it and I think he’s heading for the goalposts,” Graham said.
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