Former Kanata mayor says council 'rubber stamps' staff whims

 From the...

Fewer politicians translates
into less democracy for Kanata

By Marianne Wilkinson

October, 2004

It was obvious when the Tory Government appointed Glenn Shortcliffe to "consider" the amalgamation of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton that the decision had already been made.  I made a personal presentation to Mr. Shortcliffe and I might as well have stayed home.  He paid little attention, asked no questions and appeared to be just paying lip service to having public input into the decision.  Additionally the referendum vote held by Kanata, which turned down amalgamation, was totally ignored.  So much for democracy and listening to the people!  Government is supposed to be for the people but that concept seems to have disappeared in the new City of Ottawa.

The Province called the legislation the lesser politicians act.  I call it the lesser democracy act.  Having more local Councillors isn't any more expensive than the cost of the present Council - with their salaries and large staffs necessary to deal with large wards.  In Kanata, for a Mayor and four Councillors, there was 1.5 staff members.  The total cost of Council was less than one Councillor today!  And for that we have one overworked Councillor and have to travel to downtown Ottawa, pay high parking costs and take time off work if we want to put in 5 minutes of input into a decision.  Not a great endorsement for democracy!  We've gained very little and lost our identity, community standards and ability to be a meaningful part of the democratic process.

The size of the new city makes administration difficult. Many councillors know absolutely nothing about communities like Kanata and even less about rural areas, so they rubber stamp staff recommendations.


Prior to the amalgamation of the City of Ottawa my experience included 17 years on municipal councils, nine of which were as head of council; seven years on the Board of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, including five on the Executive leading to election as President of AMO; Chair of the Regional Planning Committee dealing with the development of the Regional Plan; 12 years as a Realtor in both residential and commercial real estate in the Region; and membership on the Citizen’s Panel that was asked to come up with a solution on restructuring last year.  Within the voluntary sector I have served as President on many committees and boards including the Ottawa Council of Women, Kanata Beaverbrook Community Association of and the Kanata Food Cupboard.

Of all of these experiences one of the most difficult, yet rewarding one, was the creation of the City of Kanata.  This amalgamation was only done under pressure from the three municipalities involved and widely supported by residents of the day.  As the last Reeve of March Township and the first Mayor of the City of Kanata I experience first hand the advantages and the difficulties surrounding an amalgamation. 

Considering that my experience with amalgamation was unique, I at least expected my comments to be considered.  Amalgamations work when the community favours them.  If it's imposed then we have unhappiness, loss of corporate memory and the loss of credibility of elected and appointed officials that we're now experiencing.

Much of the success of Kanata came from the wide-spread support and involvement of its residents.   I pointed out to Shortcliffe that any restructuring must consider the feelings of community residents and not be based on the rhetoric of politicians, particularly those already running for office.  In Kanata, even the minority who opt for a single municipality, wanted some system to maintain local control and retaining the characteristics of the "City" they chose as their home, such as a “borough” or other local decision-making system.  So  he ignored


me, recommended a uni-city and we all lost.

Amalgamation was touted as a way to save money.  As a way to reduce duplication.  As a way to provide better services.  What did we get?  Higher taxes, reduced services and a complex municipal structure that we as citizens can't understand and a budget system that no-one understands.  The Board of Trade and the Ottawa Citizen bombarded us with information on how much would be saved in taxes if there was a single city and rejected any other model.  I've always felt that the prime motive of the Citizen was just to have to cover one Council meeting instead of eleven! It didn't matter that every recorded amalgamation in North America had cost more money, that the much touted amalgamation in Kingston was staggering under labour demands and a strike, that Toronto, an entirely urban area, was also struggling.  I was told that Ottawa would be different!  Is it?

Our service levels have deteriorated - our parks, roadsides and buildings are in poor repair; user costs have skyrocketed, access to government has became remote and there is no end in sight.  The City says it's all to do with downloading I would recommend that you discount all of this rhetoric and look at what I told Shortcliffe would happen:

1) Taxes increased due to the high costs of severances and benefit payouts plus the huge payouts when staff are let go; to much higher salary levels (and bonuses) well above levels of previous municipalities; the cost of rationalizing union contracts (always to the highest level rather than using a median level), complex contracting out rather that using experienced staff from the local municipalities etc.

2) Service levels declined - the City says that the character of each part of the City will be maintained but the experience of the last four years is to use 'one-size fits all' to make it easier for staff.  Details important to a community disappeared.  In Kanata this has meant a proliferation of signs, removal of the practise of naming streets after famous Canadians by community theme, increasing the density of housing, ignoring community input and more.

3) Lack of corporate memory - no senior staff came from smaller municipalities (they said they weren't experienced in a big municipality) so when a developer cut down trees in a natural environment area City staff initially said it was okay - despite being contacted by residents who provided the correct information. 

4) Lack of representation.  Kanata, with 70,000 people, huge development concerns, and a sizable rural area has one Councillor.  Downtown Ottawa wards have half of that.  Is that democratic?  Kanata always supported a smaller population for rural wards but the lack of interest by City Council, even today, in rectifying the size of urban wards is appalling.

5) The size of the new City makes administration difficult.  Many Councillors know absolutely nothing about communities like Kanata and even less about rural areas so they rubber stamp staff recommendations.  It is also still long-distance from one part of the City to another.

There seems to be no support at the provincial level to improve the situation.  Amalgamations have been 'undone' in the past - for example in London, England.  We could put in place local elected Councils across the City of Ottawa that would be responsible for the items that matter most to residents - recreation, parks, planning, agricultural concerns, standards of maintenance - and return to a system of local government that really is locally controlled and bring democracy back to the far flung reaches of Ottawa.  If we all work together we can make it happen.  It may be difficult, but it is possible to win over City Hall and the Province.

Marianne Wilkinson is a former Kanata mayor.