How a council meltdown let down a city in crisis
It’s not often — in fact, it’s never — that an Ottawa city council meeting garners national attention. Last week’s histrionics attracted more than 10 times the usual eyeballs on YouTube, spawning news commentaries that characterized it as everything from appalling to dysfunctional and embarrassing to any reasonable citizen of this city.
Watching the tears, the accusations, the ousting of the police oversight board’s chair and calls for the mayor to resign, you might well believe this city council imploded under the weight of the historical civil unrest the capital has experienced this month.
But for close observers, council’s conduct wasn’t a surprise. Instead, it was the culmination of years of rivalry, pettiness and personality politics, all coming to a head at the worst possible moment.
Although all members bear some responsibility for last Wednesday’s debacle, the mayor is the head of council and his leadership has set the tone for the divisiveness that has characterized his most recent term of office.
From the moment Jim Watson was re-elected in 2018, he effectively froze downtown councillors out of leadership positions, and has passed over more experienced councillors — who may not agree with him — for newbies who may have to lean more on his office for help.
And with Diane Deans now removed as head of the Ottawa Police Services Board, not a single woman chairs a council committee or board, despite the fact that one-third of council is female.
That there’s no love lost between Deans and Watson is hardly news.
The mayor has rebuked Deans publicly on many occasions. He’s rebuffed her calls for an audit of the LRT (which council later approved), slammed her suggestion to cut bus fares in the summer of 2019 until the delayed LRT was up and running (council later offered free fares for an entire month) and had her microphone cut off during a debate on a possible judicial inquiry over the LRT, for which he apologized the next day. (It’s worth noting the province is moving full-speed ahead with its own public inquiry on the Confederation Line at this very moment.)
Watson even once refused to allow Deans to ask a question at the finance committee meeting, to which she does not belong, which is completely unheard of.
So when Watson told Deans last week he no longer had confidence in her as the chair of the police board, it’s understandable that some saw the move as a personal vendetta or, as one councillor put it, “100 per cent political.”
Here’s the thing: Maybe it wasn’t.
Consider that Deans, with the backing of the police services board, signed a contract to hire an interim police chief from outside the city within 24 hours of Peter Sloly resigning as police chief. In fact, the news release announcing the shocking resignation of the police chief — in the middle of a massive crisis — on Feb. 15 ended with the statement that the board “will be appointing a new chief very soon.”
Apparently, “very soon” meant the following day.
Now, the police services board is an autonomous body, and has every right to hire a new chief. But it’s an unquestionably odd move to bring in someone — even if it’s on a short-term basis, even if he’s well-regarded — without discussing the matter with the mayor and council first, to say nothing of the public, and just as an operational plan to end the downtown occupation is being launched.
That’s not to say the board should have to have council’s approval, but it should not have come as a surprise that many of Deans’s council colleagues were none-too-happy to be blindsided by the news. It should be noted that three board members resigned in support of Deans.
Among the analysis and soul-searching that will occur over the events of the past month will be serious questions regarding police governance.
And in the coming weeks, we may have more clarity over whether Deans made a too-fast decision, or Watson overstepped his authority having Deans removed from the police services board.
But it should never have come to this.
Elected officials should disagree. They should hold various perspectives, be able to argue behind closed doors, and at public meetings.
What they shouldn’t do is get entrenched in deep divisions that make it impossible to have constructive discussions during a city crisis. The mayor and Deans should have been able to come to some sort of mutual agreement — or at the very least be able to talk over a decision of this magnitude for more than five hours on the day the contract is completed.
Perhaps Watson could have asked the board to consider waiting until after the truck protesters were cleared out of the downtown core before bringing someone in from the outside. Perhaps Deans could have let council know the board’s plans before signing on the dotted line.
None of this happened because there’s no trust on this council between what’s been dubbed the Watson Club —those who often vote with the mayor — and the Detention Club detractors.
Everyone’s to blame, from those who let the mayor’s office whip their votes, to those who ratchet up the rhetoric, or call for the mayor to resign.
(It’s hard to see how Watson leaving in the middle of this mess would help. Would we be in better shape handing over the reins to one of the deputy mayors, such as first-term Coun. Laura Dudas? Or drive-and-Zoom Coun. George Darouze, who dissented on a council motion to apologize to downtown residents for failing to provide safety and security to them during the protests?)
As the head of council, though, Watson needs to take ownership for the broken culture at council, and he’s bearing the brunt of that now.
The mayor might have a valid, non-political, reason not to support Deans’s decision to hire an interim chief — that remains to be seen — but he’s squandered any benefit of the doubt many may have afforded him on this issue.