No longer a free ride for councillors
New watchdog group intends to make councillors accountable


From The Ottawa Citizen...

Keep an eye on this group

Randall Denley,
The
Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007

The formation of a new citizen watchdog group at Ottawa City Hall sends exactly the right message to city councillors. Sharpen up, because the public is watching.

 
 
In the last two elections, not a single incumbent city councillor was defeated. Trust me when I say it's not because they're all doing an outstanding job. The problem is, the public really has very little information about how individual councillors perform.

 
 

Last fall's election was notable both for the number of high quality challengers who came forward and the public's absolute unwillingness to choose any of them. Now, some of those unsuccessful candidates are showing they are sincere about wanting to serve the public. A dozen or so former candidates have created Eye on Ottawa, a non-profit group that wants to offer an independent view on what's happening at city hall.

In the last two elections, not a single incumbent city councillor was defeated. Trust me when I say it's not because they're all doing an outstanding job. The problem is, the public really has very little information about how individual councillors perform. In the newspapers, one can read that council did this or that, but particular councillors are seldom singled out. Convoluted motions and numerous amendments even make it difficult to tell where your councillor stood on major issues. As long as the councillor comes to your community barbecue and doesn't get arrested for anything, the public deems him to be re-electable.

In theory, people agree that new blood on council is a good thing. Even incumbent councillors say this, usually when they're arguing for a raise that will supposedly attract better candidates. When it comes to voting, though, the public relies on the devil-you-know strategy. There is a great and unreasonable fear that any new councillor selected will be worse than the old one, even when the odds of this are remarkably slim.

 
 


"Four years from now, we hope will have more informed citizens."

                                                    -Luc
Lapointe, Interim Chairman of "Eye on Ottawa".

 
 

Eye on Ottawa counts among its members some of the more impressive past candidates, including Luc Lapointe, Anu Bose, Bruce McConville, Frank Reid, Blake Batson and J.F. Claude. Based on their backgrounds and experience, they certainly have as much to offer as the average city councillor.

The group was formed when the former candidates got together for an election postmortem and discussion of how things might be different next time, interim chairman Lapointe says. It has two goals.

"Four years from now, we hope will have more informed citizens," Lapointe says. The group is also interested in municipal election reform, particularly doing something about the practice of councillors' office staff working for the boss's re-election at public expense, volunteering their time only when it becomes too blatant.

"We need to make it easier for people to run against an incumbent," Lapointe says.

The group has undertaken a huge task. It wants to monitor committee and council meetings and compile individual councillors' voting, attendance and spending records. Eye on Ottawa is asking the public to get involved and is hoping to find five to 10 volunteers per ward. Its website at www.eyeonottawa.ca is intended to provide a forum for citizens to share information on what councillors are up to, to raise issues and exchange ideas. There is a public opinion survey on the site now and detailed content will be put up in about three weeks, Lapointe says.

The group starts with a potential disadvantage in that some might see members as being driven simply by sour grapes. One would have to find sour grapes terrifically motivating to commit to spending four years tracking the performance of city councillors.

I hope Eye on Ottawa will fill an important niche in this city. We have a long list of groups that speak for special interests in Ottawa, but none that represents the views of the ordinary, homeowning taxpayer. Councillors too often find it easy to appease a vocal group at homeowners' expense. Lowering taxes on apartments and making homeowners pay more is an example that comes to mind.

People mistakenly believe municipal governments are more accountable than their federal and provincial counterparts. It's certainly easier to present your views directly to councillors, but the accountability part is weak. There is no official opposition to question the actions of councillors and it's in their own clubby little interests not to pick on each other too much. Media scrutiny of city hall is light, compared to what Parliament or a provincial legislature receives. Expect an improvement in that soon, when the Citizen launches a segment of its website that will provide far more information about city councillors' performance.

We'll see how successful Eye on Ottawa proves to be, but at the outset, one can only applaud the effort and motives of this group that wants to raise the bar for city councillor accountability.

Contact Randall Denley at 613-596-3756 or by e-mail, rdenley@thecitizen.canwest.com

 The Ottawa Citizen 2007


 

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