A Lack of Transparency at Jim Watson's City Hall

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Ottawa’s Jim Watson is Canada’s most popular mayor according a Mainstreet poll released last January and it seems that a year has not changed much. Watson is certainly well known locally – credit needs to be given to Watson on this front - he goes above and beyond to makes the rounds at every pancake breakfast, community event, and ribbon cutting.

And Watson loves the Twitter - he has amassed well over one hundred thousand followers. 

So, it might be Watson’s visibility and not some past wish on a magical monkey’s paw that explains his popularity. But visibility alone - without consultative and transparent decision-making - is a thin gruel that may eventually not poll so well.

In Ottawa Citizen Randall Denley asked if 2018 could be the year Watson loses his grip on City Council. Denley writes that “Watson has not been a bad mayor – far from it” but in truth Watson’s bland track record may actually prove Denley is actually giving him too much credit.

A good mayor would have had strong words for the city’s Police Service when a study, prompted by a human rights complaint, revealed that the Ottawa police engaged in racial profiling. A good mayor would not have single handedly (and literally) frozen-out a lifesaving safe consumption site. A good mayor would have been proactive when one of his citizens died in police custody. A good mayor would cast aside the self-imposed shackles of a two percent tax increase when an additional small amount of revenue was desperately needed.

A good mayor would work constructively with all his fellow council members and welcome transparency at City Hall.

Mayor Watson did not do any of those things and it may ultimately be Watson’s consistent lack of transparency that ultimately brings his polling back to reality.

Let’s start with a small example – a park.  On May 13, 2016, the city of Ottawa announced that TVO’s kid series Giver was helping Ottawa to build Canada’s largest playground. Watson said he was excited for kids to enjoy a “recreational treasure."

Surprise!

And it was a surprise - there had been no public consultation of any kind.

Only after the announcement was made was it revealed that Canada’s largest playground would cost Ottawa one million dollars.  There was public criticism, not only over the lack of transparency, but over the cost of the project and loss of green space.  But the decision had been made and Watson joined City Council in voting down a motion to temporarily halt construction and review alternative locations. An iron grip on Council indeed. 

The city held a "community outreach and consultation session” – but only weeks after playground contract had been signed, the trees cut down, and the decision made. 

Oh – and a couple of months later the City's integrity commissioner found there had been major breaches to Ottawa's lobbying rules.

Again, a small example but it seems this sort of after-the-fact consultation and surprise release of information is emblematic of the Watson regime.

Because then there was also the mess with the location of a much-needed new hospital.

But first, a bit of history.  In 2014 then Conservative federal cabinet minister John Baird announced that 24 hectares of farmland at the Central Experimental Farm would be used for a the new hospital. The gift of land was met with public outcry and rightly so – not only would prime farland be paved over but no one had been consulted. Scientists, community associates, heritage organizations, and First Nations groups were purposefully left in the dark

But then there was a federal election and the Conservatives were voted out of power. The new Liberal government reopened the site selection and promised “real consultation.” The National Capital Commission held public consultations - thousands of people provided input. Ultimately the bland 1960's concrete covered government complex , also known as Tunney’s Pasture, was recommended as the top site for the new hospital.

The hospital's board of directors was not happy with this free federal land – it preferred its new two-billion-dollar hospital be built on the near by Central Experimental Farm.

Enter Mayor Watson who was critical of the NCC process for site selection; though he had a seat at the NCC table he had not attended a critical meeting on the subject. Watson was not a fan of the Tunney’s Pasture location either. Watson started a backroom discussion with provincial and federal members about an alternate site. The NCC’s recommendation was scrapped; Watson said that the Sir John Carling site provided the best location on which to build the hospital of the future.  And so the hospital had a new site - consultation be damned.

So, to sum up. The Conservative decision was slammed for a lack of consultation. The selection process was relaunched with extensive consultation but it resulted in the wrong decision, at least according to the mayor. So, there were backroom conversations – involving Watson – where a new decision was made about the preferred site.

It may have been the right decision – despite the fact that 20 hectares of greenspace will be paved under (ironically Watson likes to cast himself as a protector of greenspace) – but the process lacked all transparency. Or as CBC called it: the worst way to get a fine decision.

There were also questions raised about transparency when it came to how the city was going to dole out millions of dollars for Canada 150 events. And recently it came to light that in the lead up to the city’s budget debate Watson was in the know about likely delays in the anticipated 2018 completion of the city’s multi-billion dollar light rail project – but he did not share that information with council for weeks.

And then there was the two percent tax promise – the centrepiece of Watson's fiscal platform. And Watson has kept his word on that. Sure, we may have had to under-budget by millions for 2018 snow removal,  increased user fees, and water rates, and sewer rates, and storm water fees - but Watson kind-of kept his 2% promise.

And he even found an extra 10 million dollars of change in the city cushions – but Watson kept that to himself and his friends and only revealed the existence of this new-found money after some counsillors went public with a plan for raising a much-needed extra eight million dollars of addition revenue through a small extra additional tax increase offend additional 0.5 of a percent.

The point about transparency that Watson does not seem to understand is that process matters.  Decisions made without a transparent process and when information is only shared with political allies lack legitimacy. And in the end so may Watson.  

But maybe more importantly as we approach the 2018 city elections - opaqueness can prevent accountability.

Watson may be a blandly popular mayor but his track record is not good when it comes to transparency or collaboration.

And so, if 2018 is the year Watson loses his iron grip on city council - as posited by Randall Denley – the mayor’s lack of transparency and collegiality may finally catch up with him and his easy ride in the polls could come to an end.