Dissension in council bound to come about

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Ottawa Citizen

Written by Joanne Chianello in the Ottawa Citizen

Expect newbies to take initiative soon

On his last official day of office, Gord Hunter referred to the gang of new councillors as “Snow White with her friends.” But that metaphor hasn’t turned out to be altogether accurate.

For one thing, not all of the nine male councillors are so vertically challenged that they deserve the diminutive characterization. More important, they don’t moon after Kitchissippi’s Katherine Hobbs, the sole female rookie councillor.

Instead, the new councillors have been under the spell of Mayor Jim Watson, making the Pied Piper a more apt analogy.

But that fairy tale won’t last much longer.

Every new mayor has a honeymoon period, even Larry O’Brien. Before the Lansdowne Park debacle, before the LRT cancellation and the trial, O’Brien’s first budget passed with little controversy.

Maybe that’s as it should be. While many of us have criticized the Watson council for being too eager to get along, it’s certainly preferable to, say, what’s been happening south of the border. The underlying problems of the U.S. debt crisis are complex and go back decades, but the problem was made excruciatingly worse by a minority of inexperienced, newly elected officials who held the world’s most important economy hostage with their inflexibility.

So better to acquiesce in the beginning than stubbornly stick to an under-informed viewpoint. But by now the new councillors have learned their way around City Hall. Come fall, some of them can be expected to disagree, and loudly.

Chief among them will be Cumberland Councillor Stephen Blais.

Not exactly a graduate of the Miss Manners school of public discourse, Blais, with an arm slung over the back of his chair, can be blunt with colleagues and occasionally downright rude with staff. But he can be disarming, too. One of my recent favourite moments covering committee meetings was hearing Blais quote the late reggae icon Peter Tosh, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” referring to the age-old dilemma of citizens wanting the full spectrum of services without a tax increase.

Blais, along with his fellow newbie, Kanata South Councillor Allan Hubley, voted against the move to biweekly garbage pickup that is starting in 2012 (as did two veteran councillors). More to the point, Blais scored two wins at council for his east-end constituents. First, he secured an environmental assessment on the widening of Highway 174. Second, he convinced his colleagues that the city should consider extending the LRT into the east end more than a decade ahead of schedule. Another articulate dissenter to watch is Nepean-Knoxdale Councillor Keith Egli, whose background as a mediation lawyer is evident in his well-informed questions – one can almost imagine he is actually trying to understand both sides of an issue! And in his short career on council, Egli has shown himself willing to vote on an issue-by-issue basis. Among other things, he questioned why snowmobiles had to run through the backyards of a number of Osgoode residents, when a detour for motorized vehicle was readily available. (In contrast, rookie Rideau-Goulbourn Councillor Scott Moffatt, opined that when he was boy, snowmobilers used to drive through his parents’ farm with no problem. Why can’t everyone just get along?)Egli also tried to delay a vote on allowing 21 gaming tables at the Rideau Carleton Raceway, an issue that was brought straight to council, bypassing the usual process that would have allowed public delegations on the question of the extra gambling option. He wanted council to hold off on approving the move until they heard from the city’s chief medical officer of health about its potential health impact.

And to round out my prediction on those who will be willing to break away from the pack, my money’s on David Chernushenko. If some of his fellow novices surprised nobody by slipping into the role of doe-eyed follower, many expected the Capital ward councillor, a well-known environmental activist and former deputy leader of the Green party, to be a bit of a lone wolf. Instead, as he promised he would during the election, he’s been working co-operatively on the Lansdowne Park file. It’s not clear he personally supports the plan, but he’s accepted that most of Ottawa does.

Still, Chernushenko has spoken out on environmental issues, too. He proposed a righteous but ultimately impractical idea to compensate people conducting city business for walking or riding their bikes, the same way they’re already compensated for parking. Doomed from the start – and unceremoniously mocked by a number of his colleagues – Chernushenko’s idea showed imagination and an refreshing willingness to take the city’s policy of encouraging nonmotorized forms of transportation seriously.

There may be no Prince Charming among the new councillors, but by now, it shouldn’t be too much to hope for a fall season of less pack politics and more personal initiative.