Like him or not, rookie Councillor Stephen Blais is getting things done

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Ottawa Citizen

Written by Joanne Chianello in the Ottawa Citizen

Stephen Blais doesn’t immediately see why he has a reputation for being arrogant.

Of course, the Cumberland Ward councillor has asked city staff and developers to leave his office for not being prepared enough for meetings. And he has pushed hard on the city’s bureaucracy to move forward on what he sees as key issues for the residents he represents in Orléans and Cumberland. And, he admits, he has “walked around process” on occasion instead of “walking through” it.

“Do you piss people off when you do that? Sometimes,” Blais concedes.

But while he may not be the most lovable of the 10 new councillors elected in fall of 2010 (if you count former regional chair Peter Clark as “new”), Blais may be the most effective of the rookies around the table.

And if his reputation within the halls of power concerns the 31-year-old councillor, Blais isn’t showing it. Instead, he boasts that $100 million in new infrastructure has been earmarked for his ward since he’s been elected.

One of his early accomplishments was securing an environmental assessment for the expansion of Highway 174. Why is this important? Because when infrastructure money becomes suddenly available, projects need to be ready to go. So when the federal and provincial governments announced they would make economic stimulus money available for “shovel-ready” projects in 2009, Kanata saw tens of millions poured into projects like the Terry Fox Drive Extension and the widening of Hazeldean Road.

The assessment for Highway 174 has been on a to-do list for years, but Blais insists that these initiatives don’t “flow though the bureaucracy without pushing.”

That pushing is a big part of what Blais sees as his job — even if that means bending the rules now and then.

Like when Blais wanted a park built in a new community in his ward and was able to persuade city officials to build it sooner than scheduled by getting Minto Corp. to front $2 million for its construction. Or when he convinced council to waive the usual city fees for a storage shed for the Cumberland Panthers football team (which prompted 15 minutes of some of the most lively debate witnessed at City Hall so far this term).

But certainly Blais’ most important success so far has been convincing his council colleagues to direct city staff to consider bringing light rail to Orléans sooner rather than later. And last Friday, a memo from a city senior manager outlined the plans for assessing whether light-rail transit could be deployed earlier than expected along two routes to the city’s east side. In particular, Blais has been pushing for staff and council to consider bypassing the plans to build a bus-rapid transit system out to Cumberland for $380 million, only to rip it up later to replace the BRT with LRT.

Considering that 67 per cent of Orléans residents who work downtown take transit, getting light rail out there makes sense. And to counter charges he’s trying to “jump the queue,” Blais says he believes the LRT should be extended to the east and west ends simultaneously.

You don’t have to like him, or even agree with him on principle — does widening roads really solve congestion? — but there’s no denying Blais is proving to be a councillor who can get things done.

Why is that? Among other things, he knows the right people, and knows his way around a local government structure.

Blais worked in Councillor Steve Desroches’ office in 2007, and in Mayor Jim Watson’s constituency office when the latter was an MPP. So Blais was familiar with the City Hall process.

Aside from his connections and political know-how, his arguments usually contain a healthy dose of logic. (He says that “at the risk of sounding arrogant,” he “rocked the Casbah” on his GMAT exam. In addition to his work as a councillor and raising a two-year-old with his wife, Blais is also pecking away at his MBA.)

Whether Blais’ winning streak can last partly depends on him. There’s only so many times you can kick bureaucrats out of your office before they start to sabotage — subconsciously, of course — your projects. “I can be charming,” Blais insists. The key is whether he wants to be.

And he’ll need all his powers of persuasion for his next challenge: getting employers to set up shop in Orléans, something city officials haven’t been able to do for 40 years.

Blais may never be voted councillor you’d most like to have a beer with. But he is certainly in the running for guy mostly likely to come through with the goods. And that should count for more than congeniality.