McKinley pushing to get a rural advisory committee reinstated

Councillors plan to strengthen rural voice

By Leo Valiquette Ottawa Business Journal Staff

Tue, Oct 12, 2004 12:00 AM EST

The city's rural councillors will meet next week to discuss how the existing agriculture and rural affairs committee can be given more bite at city hall.

In the amalgamated City of Ottawa, six standing committees make decisions on everything from corporate services and economic development, to transportation.

But talk to rural residents and it is clear the amalgamated city is a tale of two solitudes. Rural concerns, they say, are often railroaded by a big city bureaucracy unable to understand that what works well in an urban setting is often an ill fit with the rural community.

The agriculture and rural affairs committee stands apart from the other five standing committees in that its purpose is to ensure the rural voice is heard at the council table. But, according to representatives from the rural business community, it was ineffective in that role from day one, due to a restrictive mandate.

To make matters worse, an advisory group for agriculture and rural affairs made up of volunteers from the community fell victim to last year's budget cuts.

Bob McKinley, president of the Rural Council and the Rideau Rural Community Association, said the loss of that advisory group weakened a committee that was already in need of a major overhaul.

"That committee is floundering because it is impotent in terms of its mandate and lack of any technical support," he said.

He is pushing, not only to get a rural advisory committee reinstated, but to get agriculture and rural affairs overhauled, something he believes is "fundamentally necessary".

For the rural community to have adequate representation, he believes every standing committee should include a rural component that would be involved at policy-making decisions at every level.

He expresses disbelief that the old advisory group, made up of volunteers, was a victim of the city's budget cuts.

"Never in my life have I seen volunteers deemed too expensive."

Earl Stanley, president of the National Capital Business Alliance and chairman of the Osgoode Ward Business Alliance, believes the new business advisory committee proposed by Mayor Bob Chiarelli will help address some of the shortcomings in agriculture and rural affairs.

Mr. Stanley and Mr. McKinley are both members of the Coalition for a Successful Ottawa Economy, which is working with city staff to create the new business advisory committee.

However, that committee is only a start, since it would focus on business rather than on the needs and concerns of the entire rural community, they said.

Mr. Stanley is also critical of the effectiveness of the agriculture and rural affairs committee following the loss of its advisory group.

"You've got five councillors sitting around. Do they really know about doing business in a rural area? I doubt it."

Cumberland Councillor Rob Jellett, chairman of agriculture and rural affairs, acknowledges the committee has lost its bite and has suffered from a restrictive mandate. The challenge is how to make the committee more effective and responsive, considering limited manpower, he said.

To that end, the city's rural councillors will meet the week of Oct. 18 to decide what can be done.

"We're going to sit and talk informally about the future of the standing committee and how we can start taking on some of the bigger issues, instead of just dealing with municipal drains and the various things that appear on the agenda normally," Mr. Jellett said.

"We all have that same ... desire that we want the rural community's voice to be heard. In my case, I think that it is being heard to some extent. I think there's obviously room for improvement there."

He rebuts criticism that the rural voice gets lost downtown.

"The councillors are trying," he said. "There are many councillors who do take the extra effort to understand the impact of a decision on the rural community ... but I still think there is still room for some education there."

He acknowledged the biggest problem is a lack of staff and technical support, in addition to the loss of the advisory group.

"That is lacking here, there's no question."

Another problem is timing. All matters pass through agriculture and rural affairs on their way to other standing committees. Lack of staff only aggravates the situation, he said.

"The other part of the problem is the mandate of the committee itself," Mr. Jellett said. "If the committee can't take on the role of being 'the rural voice' because of the structure of the bureaucracy, then we need to establish a rural voice. That can be done through the re-establishment of the advisory committee. I'm not yet convinced that the standing committee can't be that voice in all aspects, but maybe we need to do it at the high-end level and let the advisory committee deal with the details."

Councillors have also discussed the idea of having a rural component to each of the standing committees, rather than a separate agriculture and rural affairs committee. But the problem is manpower. There are only three councillors with strictly rural wards and two with combined wards.

"So it stretches them pretty thin ... that's why we went with the standing committee," Mr. Jellett said.

"It started out great and we had lots of public support and we had some good issues that we're dealing with, but it's kind of petered out after the summer that's why we're looking at revitalizing it."

Ottawa Business Journal

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