Friday, February 13, 2009

Deamalgamation, or politics as usual?

According to the Citizen, Capital ward Councillor Clive Doucet is calling for de-amalgamation. According to the article, this is "the first time an elected leader from inside the Greenbelt has publicly voiced such an opinion." Which I find odd, because I've shared this view with Doucet on many occasions.

As someone who lives and works in Centretown, I've always had difficulty trying to understand what I would have in common with someone from North Gower, Fitzroy Harbour, Manotick, Greely, Carp, Kars, Vars, or Mars. (Sorry, that last one isn't on the list.)

In his blog post titled A council that can't make up its mind, ostensibly on the transit strike, Citizen editor David Reevely writes: (my emphasis)
And once again, [Doucet is] getting right to the point:

“This is foolocracy, not democracy,” said Mr. Doucet. “The council is fundamentally divided. It’s not capable of having consensus. It’s unbelievable.”

He said the rancourous debate was a small taste of the bitter divisions on council during the in camera meetings that lasted entire days during the transit strike.

He said the divide is proof that the city is too big and that the interests of rural, suburban, and urban voters cannot be brought together.
My first instinct was to post a comment on Reevely's blog that this isn't really "getting to the point." I mean, it doesn't really help the discussion on transit strike recovery measures to open up a side discussion on governance structure.

But Reevely--like Doucet--is right.

At the recent public meeting on SCAN, the point was raised that you can't just create legislation to evict addicts (for example) without first addressing the root problems that cause the addiction. You evict addicts from one place, and they move to another one. Or they turn to a life of crime. Either way, it's going to be society's problem. But when the debate is framed in terms of eviction, this underlying problem never goes away.

Similarly, you can't really have a discussion on transit issues in this City, period. City Council has demonstrated this many times in recent memory. And I'm not just lamenting the cancellation of the North-South Light Rail Transit (N-S LRT) project, as Doucet often does. In fact, I don't lament its cancellation at all. The chaos led that project so far down the wrong track is the same chaos that is behind the governance void we see today. And that was with a Mayor who knew what he was doing.

But maybe some good will come from this Pyrrhic bus strike. The anger, tension, and polarization it has caused among councillors may be the catalyst that is needed to overhaul our municipal governance structure.

Now, I'm not sure if returning to Ottawa's pre-amalgamation structure would be a good idea, or even possible--a lot has changed since then. On the other hand, the borough system that Glen Brooks suggests in the article (albeit only for his ward!), which sounds like the proposal by Alex Munter in the 2006 election campaign, may not do enough to fix the problems that we are currently facing.

In the above-linked blog post, David Reevely makes another suggestion:
One mayor elected in a split race can represent too narrow a constituency, but if we took the top handful of vote-getters in a citywide election and added them to a council of ward representatives, we might find ourselves with a built-in bloc of centrists around whom productive coalitions could be built in the broad civic interest.
I'm doubtful that this would significantly smooth out the balance of power.

Frankly, the thing that's wrong in this city is that "solutions" spill out from all directions before the problem is ever adequately defined. We have to properly describe where amalgamation has gone wrong, and agree on that definition, before we look for solutions that address those problems. And it has to be done together, not yelled from opposite sides of the room.

This isn't something that can be done overnight with a single blog post; it's something that takes lots of time, energy, and input from all affected parties. It's something that wasn't done during the transit strike and hasn't been done (collectively) by those who want and oppose SCAN.

Under the big top, City Council has a tendency to take one solution and run with it--frequently flaunting its benefits and occasionally acknowledging its flaws. The City's solution is often rammed down our throats without resolving the concerns of those opposed, and is at other times scrapped and sent back to square one, leaving us with nothing.

Unfortunately for us, City Council will likely do the same thing when it comes to governance reform. They won't look at the problems that amalgamation has created for different citizens, and then find a consensus solution to bring to the province and the electorate. Instead, they will focus on Doucet's proposal, and Brooks' proposal, and Joe the Plumber's proposal, and they will bicker and infight, and one of these incomplete proposals will go to "public consultations" and will not improve for having done so, leaving us with no viable option to vote for in a 2010 referendum.

Or as Doucet calls it, "Politics as usual."

- RG>


Anonymous said...

To me, it would make sense to make everything within the Greenbelt the City of Ottawa. So Ottawa, Vanier, Gloucester, Nepean, etc. and then have each major suburb set up its own local government. Perhaps from there, something like the old Metro Toronto could be established to deal with regional issues, like running a transit commission, for instance. I think that might go a long way towards making municipal government more effective.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in a lot of cities and I don't think I've ever experienced a city council this dysfunctional. I think the first thing we need is some smart, visionary leadership. Then some real work can begin.

Anonymous said...

Urban, suburban and rural wards in Ottawa some suggest is the basis for too much divisiveness between our 'for-life" Councillors, some of them, former mayors.

I agree, we need to properly define the problem before offering solutions.

And what we seem to agree on is that what we have doesn't work for us.

But is it because of the urban-suburban-rural "differences" or is it because of our "for life" slate of Councillors, or both or something altogether different?

RealGrouchy said...

Klaus, whether or not the are social differences between urbans, suburbans and rurals, the fact is that each pays into the property tax pie at disproportionate rates from what they get out of it. One property tax to rule them all just doesn't work.

As for Councillors-for-life, at one level it's a problem, but it's impossible to tell if someone is re-elected because they did a good job or simply because there's no momentum to replace them. In 2003, Shawn Little was re-elected, but only because four other candidates split the vote--he won with 30%. In 2006, Georges Bedard narrowly squeaked by his re-election.

And lots of councillors do do a good job--at least, as the job is defined in our mega-city: representing the interests of their little corner of the City. Can you blame voters for re-electing someone who represented their interests, even if it's to the detriment of the greater City?

We simply have too few politicians for the variety of people they represent, and the power is too closely consolidated into a body that stretches too far. Distribute the power (from a purely theoretical point of view), and one person being in office for 25 or 30 years doesn't do the same damage to the city at large.

- RG>

Anonymous said...


Are you defining the problem in terms of differences in tax rates for urban, suburban and rural vs what they get out of it?

If so, I need to understand this better, and perhaps you can help.

My understanding is that everyone pays the same mill rate and everyone pays "user fees" and levies based on services provided. Hence, if you live within the urban area (includes suburbia) you pay for water and sewer services and you pay the full transit levy; if you are in the rural area you pay for water and sewer if they are provided, otherwise you don't (if you are on private well and septic), and you pay one of two rural transit levies depending on whether your area gets OC Transpo rural peak bus service into town or no OC Transpo service outside Paratranspo. Recently Council decreed that all rural ward residents also pay for Park and Ride facilities.

The mill rate is based on the property's assessed value which has very little to do with the amount of municipal services consumed and everything to do with the value of the property - hence the "expected" ability to pay. Some people say that it would be better to base the mill rate on family income, that being a better measure to overcome the main deficiency in the present system of forcing elderly people on fixed incomes out of their houses. (But this problem has been fixed to some degree by measures to reduce taxes for the elderly and to "capture" the tax owed upon sale of the house by the estate.

So, when you say that people are not getting services in proportion to what they pay....are you arguing that high-valued properties should pay less and low-valued properties should pay more in taxes?

Or are you also arguing the disproportional costs to the City to deliver the same services to different parts of the city, based on age of infrastructure, and distance from the servicing depot etc?

Again, I may not be understanding your argument and I would ask you to further explain.

RealGrouchy said...

I'm arguing largely the problem that is confirmed by this report. It has been illustrated in the past by property tax rates skyrocketing (in line with assessments) in the core and falling in the suburban areas.

The problem has little to do with property values--I don't have a problem with property values being the standard by which municipal taxes are measured, to a point--but more about property density.

In theory, it makes sense that more expensive properties cost more to service, and thus should be paying more property tax. However, this theory breaks down when property values increase not because the property is luxurious--or even because it's in a luxurious part of town--but simply because it's popular.

Lots of people are moving downtown and to other areas that are more compact, more walkable and bikeable, and these types of communities are more efficient for the city to service, simply because they are closer together: fewer kilometres of roadway to plow and repave per resident, more water users per hundred metres of water main, etc.

Municipal tax policy should be encouraging this kind of development, but it ends up punishing it instead.

Going to an income-based model wouldn't fix anything, and definitely not increasing taxes for lower-valued properties.

What we need is the ability to vary the property tax rate on a regional basis, so that we don't get the crazy situation that we saw this year where urban and rural tax rates go up on average, while suburban tax rates actually went down. When we asked the province for such powers

This is not to mention the fact that inner-city wards are affected by problems of drugs and crime, and want to deal with it effectively through such measures as harm reduction programs. Suburban councillors, whose residents aren't even affected by this, outnumber our councillors and make crazy, ideological excuses to prevent these measures. In short: in a de-amalgamated Ottawa, downtown residents could have gotten the Alex Munter we wanted for mayor, and suburbanites could have gotten the Larry O'Brien they wanted. Instead, everyone's unhappy.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the clarification and I am ending up completely agreeing with you with respect to regional tax rates for municipal services and on the question of who should have been Ottawa's mayor. For the record, I and many others voted for Munter and we were all flabbergasted how quickly people were taken in by promises they must have known could never be delivered. And that's what we ended up with....a big zero (but I digress).

Part of the reason for the higher costs to provide city services to suburbia and rural villages is that all services are being delivered following a central service delivery model and with the highest unionized labour rates for everything.

Take the former rural townships for example. Many township services would be delivered through volunteers and non-unionized labour. If a community centre or arena was needed, residents raised funds and did a lot of the building themselves. The townships had no use for planing paralysis and had a very small planning staff. DOING was the operative word.

Building parks was the same story. The mayor got some farmers together to use their tractors and backhoes to put in drainage and build the park. Grass seed was used instead of sod etc. None of this cost the arm and leg building a park does now.

As for water and sewer services; only if we have the possibility to implement alternative community based systems would the servicing costs go down. It is unreasonable to expect water and sewer pipes to travel over 50km from central plants out across the greenbelt to Stittsville or Riverside South or Barrhaven South or Manotick. This is crazy. Nowhere else do they do this. Even Kingston has 3 sewage treatment plants, not one humongous big one as in Ottawa.

The same goes for all city infrastructure and services - everything is centrally planned and operated....and those in charge keep getting more money and resources to run their big central empires.

Distributed services would not cost as much and would have the benefit of more involvement of local residents.

So, that is why I agree with Clive that the amalgamation model does not (yet) work for us, and the study you referred me to confirms it.

By the way, do you have a link to the actual study, not just the newspaper account?

Thanks, Klaus

I would even go further

RealGrouchy said...

No, I haven't seen the report myself.

- RG>