Councillors on the run since city merger

By Valerie Cross and Kirsten Goodnough

It’s 9 p.m. Coun. Diane Deans is just getting home to her husband and 13-year-old daughter. Her day started with a 6 a.m. TV interview at the New RO. She calls this a good day — only one meeting.

Deans and fellow councillors Doug Thompson and Clive Doucet say 13-hour days are typical.

Deans represents 51,500 suburban and rural residents in Gloucester-Southgate; Doucet represents 41,900 urban residents; and Thompson represents 18,800 residents in rural Osgoode.

Despite very different wards, the three veteran municipal politicians say amalgamation meant one thing for them all — more work.

“Amalgamation doubled the size of my ward, it doubled the number of residents and it doubled the issues. I stress about the workload. You never, ever leave this place feeling that your work is finished. I did before amalgamation. Now, you can never get ahead,” said Deans during a lunch-hour meeting in her office — the only time she could speak with the press.

Prior to amalgamation, three councillors represented Gloucester-Southgate.

Deans, the only representative now, is also the chair of the city’s Emergency and Protective Services Committee.

Thompson, 56, says his ward population didn’t change with amalgamation, but the single city doubled his workload.

Becoming “a rural councillor on a city council” involved a “huge mental leapfrog” for the retired school teacher. Learning about “city issues” was time-consuming.

Thompson, for example, met with 400 protesting cab drivers two weeks ago. Laughed Thompson during an interview from his office overlooking Parliament Hill, in downtown Ottawa, “we don’t even have taxis in Osgoode.”

Thompson used to spend his afternoons checking complaints about barking dogs or garbage removal.

Before amalgamation, he worked as the Osgoode mayor with four councillors and a regional councillor. Thompson says he worked eight hours a day. Now it’s 12 to 14 hours.

Doucet says there were two councillors — a local and a regional — to represent his ward before amalgamation.

Answering reporters’ questions as he rushes through City Hall’s corridors towards another meeting, Doucet, 56, says he put in long days during his first term in office. “Now it’s harder, there are more issues for everyone.”

Deans agrees. “At one time I had time for my family.” Deans says her 13-year-old daughter is in a “needy” stage and Deans “hears about it” when she’s not around. “Now, it’s difficult to find time for one-on-ones with constituents. But that’s the reality of the workload.”

Thompson, who says community involvement is “especially important in rural areas,” says he doesn’t have enough time to spend in Osgoode.

Former Cumberland mayor Gerry Lalonde agrees.

Lalonde, who used to work 14-hour days within his community, says rural councillors always had a “huge workload.” Lalonde says, “it’s not the workload I’m worried about, it’s the level of rural representation.”

First-time politician Phil McNeely, 64, of Cumberland ward says the hours are not a problem. “I work 70 hours a week and I’m not complaining, it’s not the size of the ward, it’s what you do in it.” McNeely says he worked similar hours in the private sector, running his own engineering company.

What does this mean for constituents?

Doucet, Deans and Thompson say they try to maintain contact with constituents.

Doucet holds “coffee with Clive” at a café once a month – an open meeting for constituents. Deans has similar early morning meetings at Tim Hortons.

Thompson works from his Osgoode office every Friday.

Stuart Holmes, an Osgoode resident, says “Doug always made himself accessible before amalgamation. His workload is increasing and curtailing some of that. Before, there was not a wedding anniversary or a 50th that he didn’t make a point of being at.”

Gloucester-Southgate resident Bob McLean says “Deans is just too bloody busy. We were going to have her speak to our community association, but there’s enough for her to do. We figure we’d leave her alone for awhile.”

But whether it’s a rural, urban or suburban ward, councillors and constituents say things are getting done.

Thompson says he eliminated a contentious garbage program, banned the spreading of biosolids (solids from the treatment of human waste) on rural land and halted the unwanted expansion of transit services to Osgoode.

Thompson says constituents didn’t want “unnecessary” and costly bus service bringing “urban sounds, sights and pollution” to the rural areas.

Craig Cudmore, the president of Riverside South Community Association, says Deans managed to increase bus services to Riverside, approve new parks and address residents’ concerns over retail development.

Donna Silver, president of the Heron Park Community Association, says Doucet helped establish the association, which the community wanted after amalgamation.

The heavy workloads have personal costs for the councillors, who make $56,000 a year and say they work over 70 hours a week. Prior to amalgamation, city councillors made $55,000 and regional councillors made $49,189.

“I can’t take time off,” sighs Doucet, battling a cold.

Some days, the workload makes Deans think she “might not run again.”

Thompson says he’s accepted that being a politician means “his life is not really his own.”

On Nov. 12, the Ontario Municipal Board quashed city council’s request for new ward boundaries, which would have evenly distribute the city’s population.

Deans feels new boundaries would make her workload “more manageable.”

If boundaries can’t be re-drawn, Deans wants to see a re-distribution of budgets so she can hire more staff to ease the workload.

All councillors have the same $37,500 operating budget and a $150,000 staffing budget.

“It’s not reasonable that Rideau ward, with its 13,700 people, would have the same budget as Gloucester-Southgate, which currently has 55,000 constituents,” said Deans to the Ottawa Citizen.