Mark Taylor, Deputy Mayor of Awesomeness

Years ago, I had a colleague who wore many hats. He was a marketing specialist, but he was also a writer and occasionally a trainer. Consequently, he had a number of different email signatures. Just for fun, he had one email signature that read “Vice President of Awesome”. He wanted to see if anyone would ever notice (no one ever did).

I thought about my buddy when I read this story about Mark Taylor and his fondness for the Deputy Mayor title:

Mark Taylor has used taxpayers’ money to buy embroidered jackets, pewter lapel pins and a special seal for embossing certificates in order to brand himself as Ottawa’s deputy mayor — a largely ceremonial post that requires him to attend events Jim Watson can’t.

The second-term city councillor for Bay ward has spent more than $3,500 since being appointed to the job last year — almost four times what the other deputy mayor, Orléans Coun. Bob Monette, has spent on letterhead, business cards and magnets, according to documents obtained by the Citizen through a freedom-of-information request.

Now, I’m not going to say that Deputy Mayor is a fake title…but it is made up. Watson has basically designated two mini-mes to show up at breakfasts and church bazaars when Watson decides to break a pelvis. It’s a useful enough job (Watson can’t be everywhere, though he really does try), but it’s pretty meaningless.

So it’s really gross that he has spent so much money stroking his ego. It’s like he made us all buy him jackets that read, “Jim Watson is my BFF”, because that’s about the gist of it (except for the existence of Bob Monette).

It’s wasteful, it’s narcissistic and it’s contemptuous of the public.

Worse, still, is Taylor seems to think this is an actual leadership position, all the while showing zero leadership.

Pay attention to council and the goings-on of the city. Who are the councillors who are out in front of city and ward issues? Catherine McKenney, Tobi Nussbaum, Mathieu Fleury, Jeff Leiper, Diane Deans, Riley Brockington…hell, even Jan Harder (with whom I tend to disagree) shows much more leadership than Mark Taylor.

In fact, there are few councillors who are less present than Mark Taylor. If I was to list the councillors who seem to have the lowest profile, I would actually list both Deputy Mayors, Monette and Taylor.

There was some chatter that Taylor was chosen for the role because Watson was grooming him. Taylor has a lot of political experience, so it was reasonable to think he might be eyeing bigger things (at the local level, or at the provincial or federal level). But, more and more, I’m thinking Watson has chosen dutiful lieutenants who will never outshine him.

Very shrewd.

Taxis, politics and the time for Jim Watson to fight

Ottawa’s taxi disputes are ramping up. The cabbies’ union, Unifor, are fighting battles on multiple fronts, while trying to maintain cohesion between multiple factions within the taxi union. Cabbies are “taking” fares* from each other. Some drivers are calling others scabs. And drivers are attacking each other. During all this infighting, the union still has a labour dispute with Coventry Connections (or is the airport authority? or the city? or the mayor? The messaging isn’t particularly coherent), and they’re still going after Uber.

This week, though, they’ve stepped things up. Unifor honcho Jerry Dias led a demonstration against Uber downtown yesterday. He seems displeased with Mayor Watson’s actions on the matter, and threatens that cabbies will “take back City Hall” if they don’t get what they want. It’s the petulant whining of a rent-seeking cartel when faced with the fact that their favoured status can’t continue forever. It’s also absolutely ridiculous.

Jim Watson has been many things during his most recent tenure as mayor, but hostile to the taxi cartel, he is not. He has repeatedly defended their privileged status and lashed out against Uber. It is only when some of the cabbies have revealed their true nature through repeated acts of violence and unreasonable demands of the city that the shine has come off the official relationship between Watson and the taxi drivers.

Further, this and last council has been especially protective of the taxi status quo. Current deputy mayor found himself in a bit of controversy a few years ago. As The Citizen‘s Joanne Chianello wrote:

At the time, council fought to make those plates non-tradeable, arguing that it was the first, albeit minuscule, step to one day phasing out those tradeable plates. The city would steadily, if slowly, issue new, non-tradable plates over the years and eventually the tradeable plates would lose their value.

Except that in 2012, Coun. Mark Taylor — with the full support of Watson, but not of veteran councillors — moved to make these newer plates tradeable. It’s worth noting that the city’s taxi union gave Taylor a $750 campaign donation after he became chair of the committee that presides over the city’s taxi bylaw. (Taylor has called taking the donation “a rookie mistake” during this campaign season.)

Now, there’s nothing to say that Taylor was on the take. I fully believe that he wasn’t. This seems a situation of people who are inclined to collaborate collaborating. But even if money doesn’t buy council, it does buy access; it is a manifestation of power and power coalesces. A politician doesn’t have to be dirty to be corrupted, and money has a tendency to corrupt.

So if the union is looking for a taxi cartel-friendly council, there’s no reason to think they don’t already have it. At least for now.

One of the mayor’s faults is his inability to take criticism (it’s a fault that most of us share, to one degree or another). A critique of a city initiative is taken as an attack on the city and council and him. The reaction is (to borrow a word from the opening paragraphs) petulant.

But you know what, it’s time for this flaw to finally do some good for the city. Mayor Watson, the taxi union is calling you out. They’re lying about you. They’re threatening you. You would not suffer such an offensive from anyone else; it’s time to stick up for the city and end the power of the taxi cartel.

Council has a taxi review going on. It’ll be useful to hear the results and determine how to transition out of the current messed up system, but, Mr. Mayor, here’s what needs to happen:

  • Uber is here to stay (until a new competitor comes in and knocks them off their perch). Embrace it. It’s a dispatch service that works and that your citizens seem to love.
  • Get rid of the plate system. I know some cabbies have put a lot of money into their plates, and that’s rough, but the city can’t protect everyone from poor business decisions. Uber has been around for a year, now. Notify cabbies that existing Uber drivers are allowed to keep operating and give the cabbies about six months before we take all limits off the number of taxis, Ubers or whatever are on the road. Anyone who wants to be a cabbie, can…in six months. This gives plate holders close to two years from the introduction of Uber into the Ottawa market to wring whatever inflated profits they can out of their black market plates.
  • License all cabbies, using an expansive definition. This means that all Uber drivers have to have the proper safety checks and emissions tests completed (and don’t give any driver or company a lower standard than the rest of us; if anything, give them a higher standard). Drivers need to be cleared for safety and must have proper insurance.
  • Get out of the pricing game. Cabbies can charge what they want or need.
  • Get rid of airport plates.
  • Have the airport sell access to individual drivers or on a per-fare basis. No more friggin’ cartels. At all. Ensure the airport understands that they rely on the benevolence of the city to operate.
  • Get protests off the Airport Parkway. Job action is valid. That’s not what that was.
  • Run more buses to the airport and give all priority to transit.
  • Get LRT out to the airport.

(We shouldn’t expand the Airport Parkway, either, but that’s a different discussion.)

Mr. Watson, this is your challenge. You need drag us into a modern and thoughtful transit system. Unifor threw down the glove. Make them regret it.

 

*The use of the terms “fares” instead of customers is pretty revealing, no?

Ottawa’s $41M deficit is bad news for Mayor Watson

Jim Watson’s selling point was always competence. We voted him in for his managerial prowess, and we rewarded him with another four years after he’d cleared that not-so-lofty height. He was never the visionary; he was the steward, taking care of the city as it went through some major changes.

And, make no mistake, we’re seeing major changes throughout Watson’s tenure. The rejuvenation of Lansdowne and the building of the LRT are two of the most significant projects the city has seen in the last few decades, and it has been Watson’s job to see the come to fruition. Neither was his idea. He never offered this grand vision of a transformed city. Both projects were conceived before 2010, but it was his competence that has seen them succeed (to whatever degree we consider them succeeding).

This is why the $41M deficit that Ottawa is on the way to incurring during 2015 is such a blow to the mayor’s reign. This is competence. This isn’t the trusty steward. This is a fiscal and managerial screw up.

Prior to Watson’s term, we had the lovable/embarrassing Larry O’Brien. We had fiscal mismanagement (zero meant zero until zero meant a huge tax hike) and a splintered council. Watson has kept tax increases in line and built consensus and congeniality at council (though that’s starting to crack). He kept the city running, and kept service levels reasonably reasonable.

But thanks to the convoluted method of municipal tax gathering, Watson’s small 2% hikes are actually tax cuts. Tax rates aren’t staying in line with property values (which are trending up), and the 2% increase in tax revenue (which is actually a pretty slim increase to the rate of taxation…again, municipal tax policy is a mess) is lower than inflation, meaning the increased revenue isn’t enough to keep up with increased costs. Throw in a lot of snow clearing and some water pipe issues, and the budget has been shot to hell.

And, this is all with ever-so-slightly under-performing service levels. Yes, I just called them reasonably reasonable (and the mayor tends to be quick with a some-people-are-never-satisfied quip when a resident complains), but that’s because we generally meet the core needs, occasionally fall short, often cut corners, but never let things get too bad. The city is running just well enough to stave off all complaints.

Until it’s not, and that’s where we’re at now. The mayor decided to lowball our tax rate, coming in at a 2% increase rather than the 2.5% increase spoken of during the election campaign. It’s great to under-promise and over-deliver; it’s not so great to undercut your capacity to deliver. That .5% would be a great help right now. An extra .5% over the last five years and we’d likely be golden, still praising Watson’s capabilities.

Now, we’re talking about wringing out more dollars from parks and recreation (ignoring the fact that we have too few parks and rec services). Apparently, we have ample excess capacity that we begin renting out to bring in some money. If that doesn’t work, we can probably just cut some programs or shutter some facilities to save on maintenance costs.

Don’t worry, we’ll keep building the Hospital Link, more road-planning folly that’ll just put back any meaningful change for another five or ten years (or more). We’re still going to widen and extend more roads (and still pay for all the maintenance that goes with it).

Currently, the city can’t properly maintain its sidewalks or bike routes during winter. It can’t keep beaches staffed or pools open during heat waves. We have a rotting Science and Technology museum (well, I guess growing mould is a science experiment!). We are abandoning communities like Albion-Heatherington, barely willing to even study how to make our vulnerable communities safer and more vibrant.

But Jim Watson promised a 2.5% tax increase, and by golly he gave us a 2% tax increase. Why should we care that built up a massive $41M deficit.

There’s no pleasing some people, I guess.

We Must Rejuvenate Albion-Heatherington

There’s a bit of a controversy brewing in Ottawa. The planning committee approved a Strategic Initiative to improve the Albio-Heatherington neighbourhood, but the initiative has hit a bit of snag as the chair of the planning committee, Jan Harder, has introduced a motion to nix the initiative.

There’s a lot wrapped up in this issue: politics, obstruction, leadership, but mostly a neighbourhood that needs some help. Before we get to all that, we have to take a trip to Atlanta.

East Lake

Atlanta’s East Lake neighbourhood has quite the history. At the previous turn of the century, it was a wealthy neighbourhood, known for its golf and its upper class residents. But wealth can flee and time can beat you down. East Lake slipped into socio-economic (and literal) disrepair. It became poor and violent. “Little Vietnam” they called it.

As with many blighted North American neighbourhoods of the late twentieth century, housing projects were built. “The Projects”. A disparaging title we all know too well. These developments were a way to try to cordon off poverty and crime while also appearing to do something about it. Everything that makes cities great and neighbourhoods livable is ignored in the construction of housing projects.

Public spaces are created, but they aren’t vibrant. They aren’t welcoming. Little draws people to them. Without the watchful eye of city life (or the means to defeat poverty), crime is allowed to flourish. And the more crime, the fewer people who will venture out. The cycle perpetuates.

So in the 1990s, it was time to do something. They tore down the projects that only served to ghettoize the neighbourhood and they embarked on a plan to address the poverty and crime. The plan was based on:

  • Break up pockets of poverty by mixing middle-class families with low-income ones.
  • Help pre-k children get ready to learn with programs to boost literacy and language skills.
  • Provide a web of support services for families, such as job training and reading programs.
  • Find a strong lead agency to coordinate assistance. Locally, that is the East Lake Foundation. Founded in 1995, the organization helped build more than 540 new apartments to replace the projects.

East Lake has been a tremendous success. No more Little Vietnam. No more shooting gallery. The deep poverty is being relieved, and the transformation is being used as a model to rehabilitate communities across America.

Albion-Heatherington

Albion-Heatherington is not East Lake. It has no disparaging nicknames, but it does have a poor reputation. It is known its poverty and its crime. In a city with one of the highest median incomes in the country, Albion-Heatherington has not been afforded the opportunity to share in that wealth.

Enter councillor Diane Deans.

The issue of crime, public safety and urban renewal was an issue during the last election for Gloucester-Southgate (as well as neighbouring Alta Vista). Albion-Heatherington had issues with violence last year. It is clear that something needs to be done.

The city’s Strategic Initiatives proposal specified $250,000 for neighbourhood revitalization, and this proposal went to the planning committee for approval. There was nothing in this proposal that specified Albion-Heatherington, it was just for revitalizing some neighbourhood(s). It was Deans who stepped forward and moved that the Initiative specifically name Albion-Heatherington. The committee agreed.

Leadership

Many times in the past year, I have thought that city council lacked leadership. Councillors rarely stepped out of line, generally supporting the mayor’s agenda. Consensus is nice, but few seemed to have a vision or the gumption to chase that vision.

Some deferred to planners, others the mayor. Many, the mayor included, would claim that no one was talking about an issue, so there was no need to address it. This is a leadership deficit.

Deans is stepping up. She has identified an issue in her ward and she has found a way to address it.

The Plan

Deans wants to model the rejuvenation of Albion-Heatherington after the East Lake project. This makes perfect sense. Clustering poverty intensifies it. Mixed-income residential areas afford a means of economic rejuvenation, offering more hope to those who would otherwise be sequestered in poverty. But the appropriateness of this idea rests on more than just Albion-Heatherington’s need for rejuvenation.

The neighbourhood is located along Walkley Road, officially designated an arterial main street (an oxy-moronic designation, but we’ll put that aside for now). This designation means that Walkley doesn’t have to be life-suppressing thoroughfare it currently is.

Walkley is primed for more development, intensification and residential/mix-use builds. The Albion-Heatherington project would leverage this designation, and help Walkley realize its potential.

Further, the city already owns vacant land along Walkley, and Ottawa Hydro will be looking to sell land in the near future. We have resources we can actually use, right now, to implement the rejuvenation project (though it obviously can’t happen right now).

The Process

Mayor Jim Watson likes his processes. He has a lot of control over the budget process and Strategic Initiatives, and he clearly likes it that way (as many would). Luckily for us, he’s generally a competent manager. We may not always get the grand vision from Watson, but he’s a crafty steward.

He’s also a politician, and he doesn’t like to be upstaged.

Watson did not put the Albion-Heatherington proposal into the Strategic Initiatives. This is outside his plan and his process…sort of. The mayor likes to have committees address issues, and he likes to adhere to decisions of committees. Well, the committee decided to tap Albion-Heatherington as the neighbourhood in need of rejuvenation. According to Watson’s history, we should stick with that.

And according to Watson’s rhetoric, we should plow ahead. The mayor likes to note that the recent election was the time for people to vet ideas and choose a course for the city. Since he heard no one talking about re-drawing ward boundaries (because it is time to do so), he doesn’t think the city needs to be bothered with it before 2018.

Issues of crime and poverty were issues during the election for Albion-Heatherington, and they’ve been issues for years. If elections are the time to set our priorities, then fixing Albion-Heatherington should be just such a priority.

The Politics

Jan Harder doesn’t like this. She chairs the planning committee, and the planning committee didn’t do what she wanted, so she has decided to do an end-run around the committee process. She is moving to gut the Strategic Initiative, removing any reference to Albion-Heatherington and reducing it to nothing more than an exercise in deciding how to decide on a neighbourhood deserving of rejuvenation.

(As if Albion-Heatherington isn’t just as–if not more–deserving than any other neighbourhood in Ottawa.)

As planning chair, it seems she might wield an inordinate amount of influence. She’s been around a long time and certainly knows how to work council to help her constituents. Deans does not have the profile that Harder has, even if she demonstrates more vision, empathy and leadership than Harder.

This is the politics of progress vs. the politics of no. There’s no way to ignore that.

The Pettiness

Mayor Watson opposes the plan, in part at least, because he does not want to see one neighbourhood jumping ahead of other neighbourhoods to receive this help. The audacity is stunning.

It takes gall to suggest that Albion-Heatherington is seeking special treatment from the city.

In recent decisions, the city has expressed a desire to extend LRT further south to the Airport, and to accelerate the expansion of LRT to Kanata. We are looking at extending the transitway to Moodie, and recently councillor Qaqish has declared his desire to have a transit link between Riverside South and Barrhaven.

In recent years, we have continued to expand the Queensway out in the suburbs. We built Vimy Bridge. We have constructed new interchanges along Hunt Club. Brian Coburn Drive may be expanded.

These expensive projects have all gone ahead with council’s blessing, but spending a far more modest sum on helping out a poor inner-greenbelt neighbourhood is just unfathomable, apparently.

The Cynicism

I truly believe this is a ploy to do nothing. Diane Deans wants to get on with a plan to help a neighbourhood. Jim Watson and Jan Harder want to spend the money not on helping a neighbourhood and not even on deciding on a neighbourhood to help, but on setting up a framework on how to decide on a neighbourhood to help.

There is a faction on city council that opposes urban renewal. They reject pedestrian safety, healthy transportation, mixed-use development and intensification. They reject libraries and safe injection sites. And now one of them, at least, is rejecting the most basic measures to help those beset with crime and poverty.

This is obstructionism, and it will severely hurt our city.

The Conclusion

Council needs to approve the Albion-Heatherington plan. It needn’t be a Strategic Iniative (though it’s nice when an initiative is actually doing something, rather than setting up the framework to decide on a neighbourhood to then decide on possibly doing something). Find the money. Stop expanding roads. Don’t accelerate the LRT. Raise parking rates. Raise taxes. Raise development charges. Stop subsidizing the suburbs.

Jan Harder’s ward is getting rich off the backs of people like those living in Albion-Heatherington. It is imperative that council fix this imbalance.

Victims of Communism and Victims of Poor Planning

Note: I’ve had this 90%-finished draft sitting around for a week or two, so it may seem a little out-dated. Oh well.

As time goes on, the new memorial for the Victims of Communism is getting more and more bad press. Recently, Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar decried the monument and its placement. Now, The Toronto Star has jumped on the bandwagon, joining the Citizen, many architects, as well as a member of the board that actually approved the monument. Even the NCC doesn’t seem particularly thrilled about.

Personally, I’m not as horrified by it as some, but it’s definitely a bad idea. Here’s a grab-bag of thoughts:

  • This monument is wretchedly political. It’s not a monument to the victims of totalitarianism or dictatorship. It’s not a monument to the victims of fascism. It’s not a monument to the victims of colonialism, imperialism, aristocracies or monarchies. It’s focused solely on communism. It’s a valid target for approbrium, but it’s weird to single it out at this time. We’re 25 years removed from the Cold War. Yes, there’s still communism in this world and it’s still doing horrible things to people, but as a nation, our primary confrontation with communism ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain.This government has no problems pushing through politically-stained history and commemorations, and they’ve been a staunch supporter of this monument (pushing this site). It’s unseemly; it degrades all of our national monuments.
  • Speaking of politics, the Liberals are starting to make some noise about the issue. Good for them.
  • This is prime public land being used for a (private) monument. And, by all accounts, for an ugly monument. This is an absolute waste of a public resource. The government is stealing this land* from the public to thrust a controversial (and rather unwanted) monument on us.
  • As it turns out, this land might be worth closer to $16M, rather than the million or so the government said it was worth. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a $16M giveaway to this organization (the government wasn’t about to sell the land for that amount, nor does it seem it will buy other land for $16M to replace this plot), but it makes it an all-the-more questionable use of public resources.
  • It’s been noted that the land was supposed to be used to build some Justice-related buildings. It is certainly worthwhile to consider other potential uses of the land, but this is hardly a valid argument, in and of itself. Consider: the land the Supreme Court is on was donated for the purpose of building a hospital. If we’re really worried about what the land was supposed to be used for, we’d be planning a new hospital, not another courthouse. And if we really worried about original purposes of the land…well…colonialism, c’mon.
  • None of the renderings of this monument look particularly good. It looks kind of ugly, and it doesn’t seem to open this public land to the public very well. That stretch of Wellington has nice wide sidewalks. There are interesting buildings and monuments nearby. If you’re going to put a new monument there (even an ill-advised, politically-motivated one), try to do better. Yes, I know that it will look different in real life than it does in the pictures, but it would be odd to release images that make the monument look significantly worse than it actually will (though, I guess we will see).
  • Honestly, I don’t get all the hand-wringing over the now-never-to-be-built Pierre Trudeau building. Does Wellington really need buildings more than it does greenspace?
  • Apparently, the people behind the monument are now talking about scaling back the whole thing. Something a little more modest that makes better use of the space (and allows others to make better use of the space) might be a nice addition to the street.

*Yes, this is a rather ironic phrase considering Canada’s history of colonialism. It’s also an odd phrase in this context. The land currently belongs to the government, so you may wonder how I can argue that it is stealing the land (colonialism aside). Well, there are a few ways to look at this. First, the public’s actual and potential use of this land will end once the monument is built. Second, the monument is for a narrow group of citizens and not the public as a whole. Sure, we don’t usually call this stealing (we might say appropriation), but the rest of us are being robbed of something.

I’m with Jim

It hasn’t been a stellar week or two in federal-municipal relations. First, we had the feds announce that they were going to waste $80M refurbing the old-moldy-bread-factory-turned-“temporary”-science-museum rather than building a proper facility in a proper location. That was unfortunate, but worse was the NCC ambushing the city on their LRT plans, deciding that their precious highway is more important than building a livable city.

Thankfully, it appears that Mayor Jim Watson and the ranking local government MP John Baird have reached a bit of a detente for now. This is an improvement, and certainly better than a bunch of appointed NCC henchmen hijacking our development plans.

Before this peace in our time, Watson made the comment that residents needed to make this an issue in the next federal election (which is supposed to occur next year), and he’s absolutely right. There can be valid debates about the LRT. Is it worth the money? What’s the best route? What should be buried? But there is no debate about the fairly useless, almost malicious, organization that is the NCC.

It’s ridiculous that NCC’s prime mission right now is to save a waterfront freeway in Kitchissippi. There is nothing, nothing, about the Parkway that has national significance. It ruins the riverfront, blocks the actual parkland from people and actively destroys the environment. And it’s not even in a particularly significant location.

The NCC needs to be reformed. It’s an outdated organziation staffed mostly with people who little connection to the city (only two of the board members have to be from Ottawa). They have no particular expertise in urban development, and their love affair with parkways demonstrates how archaic their visions actually are. The only people who rein this group in is the federal government.

So, yes, people of Ottawa, the actions and disruptions of the NCC should be a federal election issue.

The Mayoral Race Just Got Interesting

It’s been a sad mayoral race, so far. Many have had fun kicking holes in Mike Maguire’s various plans. Other candidates haven’t been able to gain any traction with their platforms (for good reason) and most of them aren’t even showing up for debates. But all that is about to change as reigning mayor Jim Watson finally has a worthy adversary:

Longtime Ottawa celebrity, philanthropist and community activist Darrel ‘Daffy’ Duck today announced he will run for Mayor in Ottawa in the coming Municipal Elections.

“I’ve dedicated myself and my personal fortune, as a concerned citizen, to the well being and contentment of the residents of Dow’s Lake and the Central Experimental Farm for more than 30 years,” Duck proudly states. “Now, it’s time go pro!”

Duck is, basically, mad as Hell about the state of City affairs, and he’s not going to take it any longer.

Alright, jokes aside, there really is no race for mayor in Ottawa. It’s understandable; Watson has been a fully competent mayor. He’s made no major blunders. He’s mostly likeable. He knows the ins-and-outs of running the city. And he’s damned strong politician who’d likely crush most competitors.

So Ottawa will continue to have his relatively steady leadership. Things could be worse. But things could also be much better. Even if Watson is to continue his reign, it would be better for Ottawa to have a strong, wise, viable candidate pushing him, forcing him to engage on more issues. Hopefully, such a candidate would actually make Watson a better mayor.

Instead, we’ve got a guy who wants run trains through parkland and… well… a bunch of candidates with even worse platforms.

And we have Daffy.

Prioritizing prestige over citizens

Yesterday, Mayor Jim Watson announced his most recent campaign pledge, to spend $1.5M per year to lure high-profile sporting events to Ottawa (things like the FIFA World Cup, the NHL All-Star game or the Grey Cup). Currently, we spend $900,000 each year on this. There are points for and against such initiatives (Watson’s team claims the economic value is 50 times the outlay, but sports, in general, tend to be a net drag on a local economy…and, of course, the ’88 Grey Cup helped bankrupt the Rough Riders), but it is noteworthy what gets priority.

Remember, in November it was proposed that the city plow an extra 16 km of bike lanes at an estimated cost of $200,000 (which is cheaper than plowing the same distance of roads). Council balked at the cost. Yet, we will spend 7.5 times as much on this project.

And so, we see how things go in Ottawa under the current council (and this is the preference of many other municipal candidates); the focus is money, business and prestige–the desire to be a world-class city by hosting world-class events (and the Grey Cup). It is not the city’s priority to ensure that we create a livable city.

Don’t Vote For Mike Maguire For Mayor

Ottawa’s mayoral campaign is now officially a two-horse race. Mike Maguire, who finished fifth last time around, launched his campaign on Thursday. So far, he is the only challenger to incumbent Jim Watson.

Maguire has built his campaign on four pillars: debt and taxes, traffic, trash and hydro. These are probably wise topics to focus on (though politicians fetish for ever-cheaper hydro and an increasingly polluted environment irks me), but–despite being intrigued by his candidacy four years ago–his platform would be bad for the city. His impulses may be wise (control spending! ease congestion!), but his actual proposals would be harmful, and his overall platform is incoherent, lacking in vision and self-contradictory. There is also a clear demonstration that he doesn’t fully understand some of the issues upon which he is commenting (plus, perhaps, a tad bit of convenient dishonesty).

Overall, he has a general goal, but he seems to be applying a high-level political philosophy that works well on talk radio (and, to be frank, blogs) but doesn’t translate neatly to the intricacies of municipal governance. It was never my intention to do a point-by-point fisking of his platform, but, well, here we are.

Taxes
This appears to be his fiscal discipline pillar (his main concern, from interviews and reports, appears to be the city’s debt, but he doesn’t have a plank titled “debt”, so everything goes here). Maguire wants to “rein in spending and lower taxes to foster growth”. It’s a nice idea, and maybe it’s workable. At this point, his site doesn’t have any further specifics, so we don’t know what will get cut.

He has stated that he’s not going to give a specific promise in terms of how much he’ll lower taxes. I respect that. Larry O’Brien got scorched for his “zero means zero”. These sorts of things always lead to a “read my lips” scenario that’s open for easy mockery during and after a campaign (*cough*MillionJobsPlan*cough*).

Unfortunately, he also has an odd definition of taxes:

The City directly taxes residents through property taxes. However, the current City Council has increased indirect taxes by increasing the cost of parking, public transportation and electricity.

Parking prices, transit fares and electricity rates aren’t taxes. They’re prices.

I’m willing to hold off on judgement on this part of his platform until further details arise. All things being equal, lower taxes and more growth would be nice.

Transit
This is a pretty big issue right now, with the LRT, bike infrastructure, Lansdowne and sprawl, there’s a lot to deal with. Unfortunately, despite his (quite true) opening statement, “[g]ridlock in Ottawa has a huge negative impact on our quality of life,” he doesn’t have any sound suggestions for easing congestion.

Further, the very second statement is either dishonest or ignorant. He states:

The Complete Streets Approach to transit, favoured by the current administration, favours pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of cars and drivers.

While it is true that the Complete Streets model purports to favour pedestrians over cyclists and cyclists over cars, the implementation of this model has done no such thing. Ottawa is just in the process of unveiling our first Complete Street, Churchill Avenue. It is a raised cycle track adjacent to the sidewalk with no buffer from the road. Driveways and pseudo-parking lots still intersect the raised cycle track, and there are clearly instances where everyone just has to learn to get along.

In reality, the Complete Streets approach does not favour pedestrians and bikes over cars (even though we should, as these are both the more vulnerable users of the road, and the ones more likely to be using the surrounding neighbourhood as more than just a cut-through). Ottawa’s Complete Streets seek to favour no one. It’s about creating balance between bikes, walkers, cars and buses.

Further, if he is so worried about economic growth, he should acquaint himself with the literature detailing how walkable neighbourhoods help businesses.

Even though Maguire will claim to not be pro-car, he has this to say about transportation infrastructure:

Mike Maguire will focus on relieving congestion for the average commuter in Ottawa, the car driver with common sense solutions. [sic]

That’s pretty blatantly “pro-car”.

Maguire claims that the Laurier bike lanes have created congestion in the downtown core. This is patently absurd. Expanding Laurier back into a four-lane road will do nothing for congestion. Road expansion just leads to traffic increases. This is pretty basic city planning. Only die-hard conservatives with a culture war axe to grind make claims to contrary. Maguire can increase traffic lanes downtown all he wants, it won’t solve congestion (well, until he makes downtown so undesirable that no one will actually go there).

You see, this is where he demonstrates that he does not have the proper knowledge of municipal governance to be mayor.

Maguire seems a little more bullish on OC Transpo than he does on cycling (even though he likes to bike, he swears!). He doesn’t like the current system, and argues for a “hub-and-spoke” system. I’m ambivalent. Generally, I haven’t been swayed by arguments for hub-and-spoke, but I’m open to being persuaded.

Another suggestion, which is a little worse than hub-and-spoke, is cutting away at our sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Oh, he doesn’t say that, but he wants to create more bus lane “pull-ins”, so that buses aren’t stopping on the street blocking traffic, ie cars. As someone who walks, bikes and buses to work at various times, street stopping for buses isn’t a big deal. It slows Bank Street a tad, but not much. It has no effect on Albert or Slater, because those have dedicated bus lanes. Carling has ample space to get around, as do roads like Innes and Merivale. And, really, the further you get from downtown, the less of an issue this becomes.

I don’t think this is a serious policy; I think it’s a statement: Cars come first, buses second. No need to worry much past that.

However, the absolute worst suggestion Maguire has is to open up bus routes to competition–because having one bus line filling our streets isn’t enough. We need multiple bus companies running amok. I get where Maguire is coming from. Generally, competition is good and the government should get out of the way as much as possible, but the infrastructure demands (not to mention the barriers to entry) in the mass transit industry makes it a slightly different beast.

We don’t want multiple transpo garages. We don’t want to worry about multiple fare types, passes and tickets. We don’t want buses getting cute with their routes or their levels of service. As much as OC Transpo should attempt to cover all its costs through fares and advertising (and it should!), there is still a public service aspect to it, and we grant buses a lot of non-monetary subsidies to operate (the transitway, bus lanes, special road laws). The city is a pretty direct stakeholder in the transit system. A wild west isn’t going to help anyone.

Maguire isn’t a big fan of the LRT, and that’s fair. As he says, “[c]urrent projects do not address gridlock on the Queensway or arterial roads, and will not be completed for years.” He’s absolutely right! And, unfortunately, residents regularly get a sold a bill of goods about how improved mass transit will reduce traffic congestion.

It won’t. Additional mass transit will, in the short term, take some cars off the road, but as the roads become clearer, more people will be encouraged to drive (and move to the middle of nowhere while commuting into and through the city). It’s just like adding additional lanes to a road. Build it, and they will drive.

Of course, the ship has kind of sailed. Chewrocka is already underground. Contracts are signed, and the LRT is being built. Throwing up your hands and saying, we’re done! isn’t truth telling, and it isn’t fiscal responsibility. Also, good luck getting council to agree.

Well, even if his promise to scrap the LRT is pretty worthless, at least he understands that expanding mass transit doesn’t actually address congestion issues.

Wrong!

He wants to build light rail, just different light rail. On tracks that are already there. Because somehow this will magically make no one want to drive into the city.

And, though he’s “not for or against cars”, he wants to make it easier for people to drive everywhere. He would roll back the price increases for parking. Free or under-priced parking is good for nobody. It is an incentive for driving, and, therefore, increases congestion. Make no mistake about it, Maguire is pro-car.

And you can’t be pro-car and anti-congestion. It just doesn’t work that way.

One last thing about transit, he promises to do nothing for pedestrians.

Trash
There seem to be two basic elements to Maguire’s trash pillar (which is great imagery for cynics like me), scrapping the Green Bin program and returning to weekly trash pick-up.

Maguire has some interesting slides with a lot of (seemingly sound) back-of-the-envelope math demonstrating that we’re paying a lot for the Green Bin program, and it’s not really achieving what it is intended to achieve (extending the life of our landfills). His arguments are somewhat compelling, but I’m inclined to think that there’s more to it that what he’s presented. Unfortunately, this issue is outside of my wheelhouse (though I recall there being a lot of issues with the roll-out, which meant higher-than-expected up-front costs, so extending the program won’t re-incur those costs).

One thing I will say in favour of the Green Bin program: it’s not just about a cost-efficient prolonging of a landfill’s useful life. There are other environmental benefits to composting and a city-wide program might get more people thinking in terms of not destroying the environment. That’s a good thing… though not necessarily at the cost of the program.

Maguire also claims that we are currently paying as much for bi-weekly garbage pick-up as we paid for weekly garbage pick-up. I find this hard to believe, but if it’s true, then I’m all for weekly pick-up. At this point, Maguire does not have any further details on this on his website, so I can’t judge the veracity of the claim. The site states that more information will come.

Hydro
Maguire wants cheaper hydro. If I combine with his support of driving, his antipathy towards cycling and walking, and his desire to axe the Green Bin program, I’m inclined to think he doesn’t give a whit about the environment.

Maybe that’s unfair. Still, it’s my impression.

Maguire claims that through some really odd accounting (a $200M promissory note from Hydro Ottawa to the City of Ottawa, the sole owner of Hydro Ottawa), Hydro customers are being overcharged. He has a nifty slide show to back that up.

Personally, I’m unconvinced. His argument against the promissory note (which seems to have been issued for no tangible reason) seems thin. I can imagine a perfectly valid reason why the city would demand $200M from Hydro Ottawa (even though it is wholly-owned by the city): getting to be the monopoly provider to Ottawa hydro customers is a damned sweet deal. The promissory note, I would imagine, ensures that Hydro Ottawa pays significant dividends to the city.

This isn’t just a tax grab like he says (though I understand that argument). This is the city selling something of value–the rights to hydro delivery–while maintaining control over an essential service. Maybe it would be better if the government was out of the electricity game, but if that’s the argument, Maguire should make that case. Currently, he’s merely arguing for the city to establish lower costs–and therefore lower rates–for hydro.

Personally, I don’t think hydro is egregiously expensive. I think people who waste hydro (including through heating, cooling and lighting massive homes) are essentially stealing from the rest of us. Their consumption puts an incredible burden on the rest of us in terms of pollution. Lowering hydro rates is merely rewarding environmental degradation. Further, considering how hydro consumption tends to increase with wealth and income, it’s a giveaway to the rich. Conservation is an issue that addresses inequality, and politicians who don’t recognize that are transferring wealth and utility from the poor to the rich.

Contradictions and Summation
Since I’ve wound up at over 2000 words, I think a bit of a TL;DR recap is in order.

Mike Maguire has as his focus a very worthy goal, fiscal discipline. We should concern ourselves with the city’s debt. As much as Jim Watson hasn’t been some crazy-spending liberal, we have embarked on some pretty expensive projects in the past four years. Now, Maguire doesn’t offer convincing arguments against those projects, but having someone hammer on the fiscal discipline bell is useful.

Unfortunately, for Maguire, his campaign doesn’t actually represent fiscal discipline.

He wants to lower taxes and lower spending. OK, if you lower spending more than taxes, you should be able to get your house in order. However, he’s not just talking about lowering property taxes.

Maguire wants to lower hydro rates and erase the dividend the city receives from Hydro Ottawa. He wants to cut the price of parking, selling this precious city asset at a below-the-market rate. He also thinks the city needs to lower bus fare. That’s a wealth transfer to the rich and a way to increase city spending!

At his campaign launch, Maguire noted the very stale anecdote of an Ontario businessman losing a city contract to someone from Quebec (xenophobia is ugly, even just inter-provincially), so he wants to make sure city contracts go to good ol’ Ontario residents, regardless of price. Protectionism is bad enough, but when you’re running on your fiscal responsibility bona fides, it really undercuts your campaign.

Maguire also rails against congestion and gridlock, but he offers no actual solutions. Do you want to get rid of congestion? You’ve got to attack driving; make it expensive. That means road tolls. It means aggressively pricing parking… that is, when you’re not eliminating parking. The carrot of good public transit (or bike lanes) is all well and good, but you really need a stick.

You also need to abandon the suburban bedroom community dream. You need to create real Garden Cities that are self-sufficient. You need mix-use zoning and intensification to make it work. Not only do you need to deter people from driving, you need to make sure that you have the necessary amenities nearby so that they don’t have to drive.

Maguire does none of that. He just wants different transit expansion.

Make no mistake, Maguire’s platform is bad. His heart may be in the right place (and he certainly seems sincere) but his policies are scattershot. There’s no continuity and there’s no clear method as to how his policies would actually get to his goal. Of all the critiques one can make of Jim Watson, he has displayed a competency that just isn’t present in Maguire.

It would not be good should he become mayor.

This is clearly good news

I’m not going to get into a big discussion on political philosophy or economics or the evils of prohibition. The inherent goodness in this story can be summed up in two words: More Booze.

Mayor Jim Watson served notice at the end of Wednesday’s council meeting that he intends to bring a motion forward at the next meeting in support of local brewers who are seeking a ‘by the glass’ licence from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

Such a licence allows Ontario wineries and breweries that already hold a manufacturer’s licence from the AGCO to sell and serve their own wine or beer to customers for consumption in single servings at their manufacturing site under certain conditions.

Okay. I’m pretty darned sure I’ll be voting Watson in the fall.