One-tier government means business, experts say

By Siobhan Byrne

Big or small, most analyst agree all sizes of Centretown businesses will benefit from a one-tier model of government.

The issue then becomes how to make that city responsive to small business interests.

The City of Ottawa is paying analysts to look at how a one-tier model of government will work differently than the two-tier system already in place in Ottawa-Carleton and the three-city model that has been proposed.

The proposed three-city model would see Ottawa, Vanier and Rockcliffe Park amalgamate, Cumberland and Gloucester amalgamate and Nepean and Kanata amalgamate.

Katherine Graham, dean of public affairs and management at Carleton University and former commissioner for election boundaries in the region, has been hired by the City of Ottawa to submit a proposal on how a one-tier model will work.

Graham says one of the common complaints she has heard from business associations is that municipal government have too many confusing layers of bureaucracy.

“The main disadvantage (of) a two-tier system from the perspective of a business-person or a business firm is the need for civic literacy . . . you need to know who is responsible for what,” says Graham. “For whatever reason, firms may not be that literate or may not find it that easy to become literate.”

The Bank Street Promenade business association has not voted on a specific model to support yet. However, Gerry LePage, executive director of the Bank Street Promenade business association, says it would seem that the board is leaning towards some form of a one-tier model.

He says businesses have a difficult time knowing what the different levels of government are responsible for with the current structure.

“(Now) there’s all these different ownerships and different levels and strata of government that one has to go to,” says LePage. “Being under one umbrella . . . will negate the fact that you will have to go to the city and then the region.”

As an example of the confusion with the current system, LePage points to an incident last year where a television crew tried to plug in a lamp on Parliament Hill during filming and could not get permission because they did not know which level of government to go to.

“They just said they had never been aware of such an over-governed city in their lives,” says LePage.

Gail Logan, president of the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Trade, says the board has been on record for 30 years demanding one-tier governance.

Logan, whose board represents big business interests in Ottawa like Air Canada and the Bank of Montreal, says that a one-tier model would cut down on a lot of government.

“To best attract jobs and investment . . . and help existing companies grow we need one streamlined level of government,” says Logan. “A one-stop-shop for business in a municipality is a much better choice. It is going to be less costly by reducing duplication (and) cutting red tape.”

Logan says businesses will benefit from a one-tier model simply because businesses will know what level of government to go to for assistance.

“Right now you could have a small business person who wants to do business in one or two municipalities within the region. Their requirements, their by-laws, their licensing — there’s no standard,” says Logan. “By streamlining everything and making it common across the entire area, it’s got to make it easier for business.”

But Hoa Vuont, manager of his family’s new business, Golden Baguette, on Bank Street, says he is concerned that a one-tier government would be too large to deal with small business interests.

Vuont applied for a business licence in January and had to wait two months, while paying rent on the store, for the city to grant him a licence.

“If they are going to become a big city then maybe we would have to wait . . . longer,” says Vuont.

Vuont is, however, one of only a few.

Todd Blair, manager of the James Street Feed Company, seems to line up with the majority in supporting a one-tier model.
“Having (government) under one umbrella would be a heck of a lot easier for everybody involved,” says Blair. “When you start splitting up duties you have people not used to their maximum ability.”

Researcher Graham says regardless of what model of governance is chosen, the elected officials will be the ones who must ensure that small businesses will get the help they need.

“I’m not sure, frankly, that small business has really been a priority in local government to begin with,” says Graham.

“I think that the key for small businesses will be in the electoral system and how the political structure is put in place so they can have access, just as an ordinary citizen can have access, to an elected official who can at least put them in touch with the right parts of the bureaucracy and perhaps advocate on their behalf.”

Graham says she does not expect the landscape in Centretown to physically change if a one-tier model of governance is chosen.
The true measure of success would be “a vibrant area” where residents would not say, “My God, this is an area in decay and distress.”

LePage says the members of the Bank Street Promenade business association will vote on the model of governance to officially support within the next few weeks.

Graham expects her proposal to be ready for the City of Ottawa around the middle of October.

The Board of Trade will be inviting special adviser Glen Shortliffe to their board meeting on October 19 to discuss a one-tier system.