Denley: Mayor Jim Watson should stick to City of Ottawa priorities, not pretend to do the work of the province or feds

Vaccination policy, job creation, even climate change: These issues fall to other levels of government. The municipality, by contrast, is basically a condo board with pretensions.

Transit IS his business: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson (centre), along with Nepean MP Chandra Arya (right) and Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, unveil a milestone event in the construction of the Stage 2 O-Train South Extension in late 2020.

Has Jim Watson forgotten that he is the mayor, not the premier or the prime minister? Watson says the city will focus its attention on COVID-19 treatment, vaccination and jobs recovery between now and the next municipal election in October, 2022.

The mayor’s statement last week was as startling as it was silly. COVID-19 treatment is not a city responsibility and the semi-autonomous Ottawa Public Health has the vaccination plan well in hand. When it comes to post-pandemic job recovery, the city government has little useful leverage.

The federal and provincial governments are fully engaged with these problems, spending billions in the hope of achieving results. They have both the resources and the responsibility to deal with the pandemic and its economic fallout.

The Ottawa city government, by contrast, is basically a condo board with pretensions. The things councillors are responsible for are mundane but important. Think roads, public transit, maintaining city buildings, drinking water, sewers and garbage.

Councillors’ record in dealing with their actual job is a little spotty. The city’s roads have been terrible for years, a fact borne out by the city’s own assessment of them. Councillors are making roads better, but ever so gradually. Say “public transit” and the first two things that come to mind are the LRT fiasco and the spectacle of nearly empty buses running around the city for months. Late last year, the city’s auditor general found nearly $500 million in overdue maintenance of city buildings.

It’s easy to see why councillors prefer to pretend to tackle other issues. Their own job is a bit boring and it’s more exciting to talk about big stuff.

It’s easy to see why councillors prefer to pretend to tackle other issues. Their own job is a bit boring and it’s more exciting to talk about big stuff.

That’s one of the reasons they declared a climate emergency and devised a $57.4-billion plan to eventually eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Similarly, councillors declared a housing and homelessness emergency, then passed a $1-billion plan to eliminate the shortfall. Not that the city has enough money to make even a modest dent in either problem, but it sounds good. A scheme to colonize Mars can’t be far behind.

As with the pandemic response, both climate change and housing are primarily federal and provincial responsibilities. In focusing on the work of the two senior levels of government, councillors are relying on the fact that the public finds Canada’s three-tiered system rather confusing, a problem some councillors seem to share.

While pretending to be MPs or MPPs might be fun, councillors should remember that only they can make everyday city services better and it’s vitally important that they do so.

The chief impediment to dealing with the city’s own responsibilities is that improvements might have to be paid for with real money. People get uncomfortable when it is suggested that getting more will mean paying more, especially when it affects a highly visible charge such as property taxes. When it comes to promises funded by potential future federal and provincial dollars, the sky’s the limit.

Even considering all of that, Watson’s COVID-19 focus is a bit perplexing. Barring an unexpected disaster, vaccines should beat the virus by sometime this fall, still a year away from the city election. Replacing jobs lost during the pandemic is mostly beyond Watson’s control. Tourism and tourist-dependent industries such as hotels and restaurants are in deep trouble, as they are everywhere. Tech employment here has been stalled when it is surging ahead in other major Canadian cities. The most useful thing the mayor can do is to pressure the federal government to keep jobs downtown. Without that, the core is going to rot.

The chief advantage of Watson staying focused on COVID-19 is that it will give him an opportunity take credit for work done by others. The mayor has a desire to go where the spotlight is, accompanied by an equally strong desire to avoid putting a spotlight on areas where the city is falling short.

It would help if his strategy wasn’t so pathetically transparent. Councillors would be wise not to follow Watson’s lead.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at

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