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.

Adventures in voter outreach

I’m not trying to pick on mayoral candidate Darren Wood; I promise. But the mayoral campaign is pretty quiet and Wood is not, for good or ill. To his credit, he is very engaged with residents on social media, even if it doesn’t always work out so well.

For instance, on Twitter, he has been claiming to support bike safety and bike infrastructure, but this is a direct contradiction he’s written previously. As happens, people–voters–call him out, and when they do, he doesn’t respond so well:

Here’s what he wrote on his blog:

So how do we handle the debt. Tighten our belts, no new capital spending, cut back the LRT to finish the line we started and use existing tracks in the city and expand as we have the money in the future.

Bike safety does not come from a few cans of paint. Real cycling infrastructure requires capital spending. You can’t honestly claim to be for bike safety but also categorically rule out any new capital projects. Buy, you may wonder, what did Wood have to say specifically about bike infrastructure in that blog post:

Last, but not least by any means, is bikes in Ottawa. Surprisingly the views run the spectrum from let them fend for themselves to make more bike lanes to the need for bike lanes with concrete barriers separating the bikes from the cars. I am all for separate bike lanes and in new construction or total remodels, room permitting concrete separating the bikes and the cars. But we cannot do it over night. Bike lanes are easy, concrete separated bike lanes cost money. When asked of the people who wanted concrete if they were willing to pay for it with a slight tax increase the answer was 100% no from everyone asked without fail. You can’t have it both ways. But no matter how you dice it, bike safety has to be a priority in Ottawa. With more and more people riding due to health concerns, cost of fuel and/or it’s the environmentally friendly thing to do, there are a lot more bikes on Ottawa’s streets then ever before. Their safety is everyone’s concern. But to make any real change when it comes to bikes in our city, it will take an effort on the part of city hall and the bikers to come together and create “realistic” plans and goals.

It is, clearly, one giant hedge. He’s all for bike safety, but we need “realistic” goals. He supports putting in separated bike lanes “room permitting”. What does that mean? Does he value ample free parking over bike safety? Is all for bike safety as long as it doesn’t interfere with his commute down a four-lane road. His suggestion that bike safety would necessarily require a tax increase is facile and dishonest. Surely, a mayoral candidate understands that city funds can be re-allocated. Current spending on bike infrastructure is a pittance compared to the overall budget, as well as current spending on road work. We could spend a tiny bit less on cars and a tiny bit more on bikes.

However, Wood seems to be wedded to the status quo (which is odd for a self-styled maverick and outsider). The money for cars must remain for cars in perpetuity. It’s a simple-minded approach to city budgeting. A new budget is an opportunity to re-prioritize spending.

Further, since Wood is running on a platform of saving millions by eliminating the green bin program and cutting wasteful spending, why would we need a tax increase to pay for a few more cycle tracks? Is Wood admitting that his crusade to curb waste is doomed to failure? If you think Wood learned his lesson about going after residents over twitter, you’d be wrong. Here’s what happened yesterday evening:

Here’s the full quote, from the same blog post as above:

I have sampled almost every ward in Ottawa via Tim Horton’s and various grocery stores and without a doubt, the number one issue in Ottawa is garbage. People want their weekly garbage pick up restored now!

Well, I guess he has a point. He surveyed people at Tim Horton’s and grocery stores.

(And, yes, I’m sure he’ll just chalk it up to his sense of humour.)

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.