Access and identity, key citizen concern

By Christa Charron

Though the one-city model is often praised for reducing taxes and boosting Ottawa’s international image, it has faced criticism from citizens worried about losing their community voice and identity.

“It will be vital to ensure that open access and real public consultation survive the amalgamation,” says Jay Baltz, president of the Hintonburg Community Association. “Or we’ll become a smaller voice in a larger area.”

Baltz supports the one-tier model but he says he worries about getting outvoted by the suburbs and rural areas and that the government will leave the problems downtown to concentrate on problems outside the greenbelt.

In a report presented to Ottawa City Council in April 1998, the proposed one city model scored high on accessibility and accountability.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson defines good governance as not only affordable, but accountable. He says he believes a one-tier government will reduce costs and tax bills as well as increase accountability because “the buck stops at one person”.

The new “City of Ottawa” would have 20 councillors and 1 mayor governing 750,000 residents. The tri-city model calls for 24 councillors and 3 mayors, as well as a tri-city authority to provide some cross-boundary services.

The mega-city councillors would be full-time, whereas the tri-city would have part-time members of council. Having full-time councillors has raised some concerns.

Rick Chiarelli, Nepean Centre Councillor, supports the tri-city model. In an article he wrote for the Nepean community newspaper The Clarion on September 18, 1999, he questioned the effectiveness of having only full-time councillors.

For example, does this mean fewer people can run for office because some people can’t put their careers on hold for a few years? And will full-time councillors fall out of touch with citizens due to lack of time spent in the community, whereas a part-time councillor could be participating in the community on a daily basis?

Mayor Watson refutes these concerns.

“In terms of a crisis, a part-time councillor may not have the luxury of dropping whatever they’re doing,” he says. “Personally, I find it easier to get in touch with full-time regional councillors than part-time regional councillors.”

The one-city model, also supported by Regional Chair Bob Chiarelli, promises to be accessible and accountable by creating community councils.

Three or four wards would be combined to deal with local issues such as traffic decisions. These councils would be comprised of councillors elected from a defined area within the municipality.

In the mid-70s, Dave Hagerman was a chairperson of the Participation Advisory Committee, acommittee of city councillors who tried to encourage the participation of citizens in community decisions. Hagerman, now administrative co-ordinator at Glebe Parents’ Day Care, says one city will help voter participation because people only need to focus on one level of government to raise concerns.

He says the positive benefits of the regionalization of child care service in the early 1980s is proof of this.

“We don’t have to go to eight different municipalities to try to advocate on behalf of the child care centre,” he says. “There’s one set of rules for the whole region and this brings a general good across the board.”

Hagerman says in a one-tier model it’s important that efforts are made to expand participation beyond the middle and upper-middle class, who have traditionally been most active. He spoke on this concern at a people’s forum at Ottawa City Hall in September.

“A lot of lower classes and working classes don’t even vote,” he told the audience at the people’s forum. “So I think our objective is to try to increase that level of participation and feeling of belonging to the political process.”

Although the report presented to Ottawa City Council gives the one-city model high marks for accessibility and accountability, it rates low on community identity.

Peter Marwitz, president of Action Sandy Hill Community Association in the inner city of Ottawa, hopes community identity, such as bilingualism, won’t be swept aside during the process of amalgamation.

“The needs of franco-Ontarians in a new one-city model must not be ignored.”

Marwitz recently formed The Caucus of Community Associations, which includes various community associations in Ottawa, including Baltz’s.

Their first meeting was held October 12 where they discussed how they would interact with a reformed one-city government.

Marwitz says he hopes that in a new one-city model, main council and local councils will recognize the importance and influence that community associations can have by consulting with them, co-operating, counseling and sometimes warning councillors on controversial matters.

Mayor Watson doesn’t see this as a problem for the one-city model.

“It’s not about politics or boundaries. Government can’t create community identity,” he says. “It’s the people.”

“Centretown is very diverse with its Francophone communities and places like Chinatown. Ottawa has changed so much in 50 years but those neighbourhoods have not lost their uniqueness.”