In Ontario’s experiment with “strong mayors” for its two largest cities, Ottawa’s next leader could be its most interesting, if unwilling, test subject.
Whereas Toronto is used to having powers no other city has, and its mayor supported Premier Doug Ford’s plan to give him more, neither outgoing Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson nor the lead candidates in Oct. 24′s election say they want these changes. But now that the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act is law, whoever wins may have to get used to them anyway – and voters, knowing this, will have to choose the winner carefully.
Here’s an overview of who is running and the challenges that come next, from housing and transit to the debate on policing and public trust left over from the anti-mandate protests.
Ontario’s new plan for big-city mayors
What is a ‘strong mayor’?
In cities large and small, Canada’s mayors are elected to set the agenda on important issues – but when they turn policies into laws they get one vote, no more or less than councillors. That’s not the way it works in some large U.S. cities such as Chicago, where mayors can veto council decisions. Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty once wanted such a system for Toronto, as does current Premier Doug Ford – a former Toronto councillor whose late brother, Rob Ford, was stripped of mayoral powers by council amid a scandal in 2013.
What does the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act do?
Mayoral reform was not part of the Progressive Conservative platform in this past June’s election, but by August surged onto the agenda at Queen’s Park through the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, which passed in September. The rules, initially applied only to Toronto and Ottawa, would be in place for Nov. 15, when the new councils begin their terms. Changes include:
Budgets, bylaws and vetos
- Mayors would take over the preparation of annual budgets.
- Councillors would have a window of time to make budget amendments, but the mayor could veto these unless council overrules them by a two-thirds majority vote.
- Mayors would be able to choose chief administrative officers and reorganize municipal departments and committees, though they would not directly appoint officials such as police chiefs, medical officers of health or integrity commissioners.
- Mayors would direct city staff to help in preparing budgets.
- The province would set a list of policy priorities and empower mayors to veto bylaws that could “potentially interfere” with them. So far, the priorities are housing-related: The PCs want 1.5 million new residential units by 2031, and the transit and utilities to support them. The regulation also proposes a mayoral veto for decisions about how much to bill developers; Toronto’s council hiked those charges over the summer to offset the expenses of new infrastructure, though critics said developers would just pass those costs onto homeowners.
- Mayors would have more power to put forward proposals to council on a provincial priority.
Does Ottawa want a strong-mayor system?
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who isn’t running again this fall, said he never asked for the changes and there are other ideas he thinks would be more helpful. “We need more money from the province, because houses cost money, and we need more flexibility in rules, such as inclusionary zoning, which allows greater density in certain areas,” he told The Canadian Press in August.
The front-running mayoral candidates are also skeptical: Catherine McKenney calls it “undemocratic” and Mark Sutcliffe says its unnecessary, though Bob Chiarelli has said a strong-mayor system might be useful for breaking council deadlocks.
Ottawa mayoral candidates: Full list
There are 14 registered candidates for mayor, including city-hall veterans, newcomers from the worlds of business and activism and people who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Watson in the 2010s.
First elected as a Liberal MPP in 1987, Mr. Chiarelli became the regional chair involved in Ottawa’s amalgamation in the 1990s, then led the new city as mayor for six years. After losing 2006′s mayoral race, he went back to Queen’s Park as a minister in the McGuinty and Wynne governments, but lost his seat in 2018′s rout of the Liberals. In this race, Mr. Chiarelli’s promoting himself as a voice of experience and fiscal restraint.
A former staffer to city councillors and local New Democrat MPs, Mx. McKenney has served since 2014 as councillor for Somerset, a downtown ward where February’s convoy protests – and Mx. McKenney’s advocacy for those beset by noise and threats in the “red zone” – drew national attention. Their platform is focused on climate action through more green space and improved transit, and on making housing more affordable.
A radio and TV journalist who co-founded the Ottawa Business Journal, Mr. Sutcliffe describes himself as a coach to entrepreneurs with a long philanthropic career. His platform priorities include low taxes, transit and “being tough on the causes of crime” by supporting police and first responders.
Other nominated candidates
- Brandon Bay: A software developer and veteran volunteer with community groups.
- Zed Chebib: Registered on Aug. 10, with no campaign website provided.
- Celine Debassige: Identifies on her Instagram page as Ojibwe and Dene, and as a “radical socialist.”
- Gregory Guevara: A journalist and YouTube satirist whose website suggests Ottawa should separate from Canada.
- Nour Kadri: A University of Ottawa business-school professor and president of the Canadian Arab Federation.
- Graham MacDonald: The founder of a mortuary business who’s worked with governments and the Ontario Chief Coroners Office in investigating crimes and suspicious deaths.
- Ade Olumide: The former head of the Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group and as long-time volunteer with public-policy and church organizations.
- Jacob Solomon: A 19-year-old who registered on Aug. 19, the last day candidates had to file their paperwork.
- Param Singh: A 19-year veteran of Ottawa’s police service.
A management consultant from the rural community of Kars, Mr. Maguire came in fifth in 2010′s election and a distant second to Mr. Watson in 2014′s.
Mr. Couchman, a Guyanese immigrant who leads a marketing company, finished last in the 2014 and 2018 elections.
Big challenges for Ottawa’s next mayor
Ottawa was the first city in Canada to declare a housing and homelessness emergency in early 2020, right before COVID-19 superheated an already hot market. While interest-rate hikes from the Bank of Canada have recently brought prices and sales down somewhat, affordable housing is still scarce and the city is exploring ways to make more. One idea is an “inclusionary zoning” model in which developers of condos (but not rentals, at least not initially) would have to set aside a percentage of new units at a lower price. City staff are preparing an official plan for the new council to consider next year.
Ottawa’s light-rail system was meant to be a big leap forward in transit, and one of Mr. Watson’s signature achievements. But since the east-west Confederation Line opened in 2019, derailments, door malfunctions and computer errors have kept many Ottawans from using it. A provincial inquiry is examining what went wrong and is due to deliver its final report by Aug. 31. The city – still tied up in litigation with the builders, Rideau Transit Group, over costs and construction delays – is in the middle of the LRT’s Phase 2, which expands the existing lines east, west and south. With more lines planned in the future, the next mayor and council have a complicated job crafting a network that improves on past mistakes.
Ottawa’s next council has unfinished business from the anti-mandate convoys this past winter, which City Hall got an uncomfortably close view of as protesters built a shack and fuel depot across the street. The city needs a permanent replacement for Peter Sloly, the police chief who quit in February amid criticism that officers were doing too little to keep residents safe from harassment and vandalism from the convoys. Mr. Watson’s ouster of the chair of the Police Services Board – who was herself considering a mayoral run, but now is not – also raised questions about civilian oversight of the police, which could be complicated if the new strong-mayor powers alter the dynamic between mayor and councillors.
How to vote in the Ottawa municipal election
Am I eligible to vote? Am I registered?
Any Canadian citizen aged 18 and older can vote if they live or own property in the city of Ottawa. Use the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation’s lookup tool to see whether you’re already on the list.
Who’s running in my Ottawa ward?
There are 24 wards in Ottawa, including a new one in Barrhaven. Use the city’s “who is running in my ward?” tool to search using your home address.
Where do I vote? What ID do I bring?
Eligible voters should have received notifications in the mail the week of Aug. 29 with information on polling places and advance voting days. You’ll need to bring a document with your name and address, such as a health card or driver’s license. Check the city’s list of acceptable ID documents.
When is the Ottawa municipal election?
Election day is Oct. 24, with polls open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. We may know who wins by that evening, but the city clerk doesn’t certify final results until Oct. 28.
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Evan Annett, Dustin Cook and The Canadian Press
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