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Few gains for downtown Ottawa city councillors in latest committee shuffle

Despite pleas from downtown area Ottawa city councillors for better urban representation on the city’s powerful finance and economic development committee (FEDCO), a mini municipal shuffle saw none of them nominated for available leadership roles on FEDCO and another standing committee on Friday.

FEDCO, chaired by Mayor Jim Watson, deals with high-level fiscal and policy items and is widely seen as the committee that acts as council’s “cabinet.” The city’s deputy mayors and any councillor who chairs a standing committee automatically get seats on FEDCO, as well as the chair of the transit commission.

No councillors representing wards in Ottawa’s urban core have served on FEDCO since the current council was elected in late 2018, a fact criticized by some as an effort by the mayor to fill key positions with councillors who tend to support his direction and aren’t as openly critical of his policies.

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The downtown councillors have argued the lack of urban representation on FEDCO has created a “democratic deficit” at city hall.

In a letter the councillors sent to the city clerk and shared on social media earlier this week, they called on Watson, the nominating committee and city council to “correct this matter” and put forward their names for some available leadership roles.

On Friday, FEDCO held a joint meeting with the city’s nominating committee to vote on candidates for six vacancies: vice-chair of FEDCO, member-at-large on FEDCO, vice-chair of the planning committee, chair of the Ottawa Public Library board of trustees, chair of the built-heritage subcommittee and the council member on the Shaw Centre’s board of directors.

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Of the urban councillors, only Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King was nominated for one of the vacant positions: leading the built-heritage subcommittee.

“And once again, the urban core is shut out,” Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney tweeted during the meeting.

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While he supported King’s subcommittee bid, Watson didn’t support any other urban councillor’s crack at a standing committee or board position. The mayor insisted afterwards that the makeup of FEDCO doesn’t affect how Ottawa’s different regions are represented at city hall.

“Not everyone can be a chair, not everyone can be a vice-chair,” Watson told reporters during a scrum.

“I think what we have to do is remind everyone who says that their part of the city was shut out or don’t have enough representation … [that] every single decision that we take here at a committee automatically goes to council, where every member of council has a full vote.”

Typically, however, the lion’s share of the work on a particular file is debated and dissected at the committee level and council more often than not defers to the committees’ recommendations.

Pressed about this, Watson agreed but argued that every councillor is invited to attend committee meetings and say their piece.

“No one loses their voice at committee,” he said. “Whoever pushes the [microphone] button, whether they’re on the committee or not on the committee, they’re allowed to come to the committee and speak, ask questions, grill staff and then vote on it at the council meeting.”

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Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper — who lost his bid for planning vice-chair to Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower on Friday — doesn’t see it the same way. He argued that getting to vote at committee is “a much more important role to play than just being able to come, participate [and] be allowed to ask questions.”

“It’s the difference between having a vote that is a meaningful vote and not,” said Leiper, who was first elected to city council in 2014.

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Leiper, who serves as vice-chair of the transportation committee, sought a promotion on that committee but lost out to Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney earlier this month.

Asked whether he thinks the mayor has a grudge against urban councillors, Leiper said: “It’s difficult to escape that conclusion.”

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper speaks to reporters at city hall on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. Leiper made an unsuccessful bid for the vice-chair position on the city’s planning committee.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper speaks to reporters at city hall on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. Leiper made an unsuccessful bid for the vice-chair position on the city’s planning committee.

As for the other vacant positions, Innes Coun. Laura Dudas, one of Ottawa’s three deputy mayors who already sits on FEDCO, was nominated as vice-chair of the powerful finance committee.

Orléans Coun. Matt Luloff was nominated as chair of the Ottawa Public Library board and Osgoode Coun. George Darouze was nominated for the spot on the Shaw Centre board of directors, over Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury.

Some councillors pointed out Friday that the Shaw Centre is located in Fleury’s ward.

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Full city council still has to confirm the nominations made Friday. Leiper said he and his colleagues plan to table motions to put forward the urban councillors’ bids once again.

Moving forward, Leiper said he thinks council should explore “structural changes” to ensure that the city’s committees have “a balance between rural, suburban and urban voices.”

“At mid-term, we will take a look at many of the rules on how the city governs itself and this is going to have to be a discussion then.”

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The leadership musical chairs at city hall was triggered by Coun. Stephen Blais’ recent resignation from transportation committee chair and the Hydro Ottawa board so he could focus on campaigning in a provincial byelection.

Tierney replaced him on transportation, which triggered further movement and new vacancies.