Exult: Mayor Not a Crook

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Local Government, Media Appearances, Taxation

Citizens of Ottawa rejoice! Your Mayor is not a crook. You may live in a city where property taxes are 40% higher than those paid by the average Canadian. You may pay a third more in user fees than the average Canadian. And your city may spend more than it raises, despite revenues being 30% higher per household than the average Canadian city.

But forget impossible dreams about competence in local government. For now, be content in your boast Larry O’Brien has been found not guilty of influence peddling. How many municipalities can say with confidence that their mayor is not a criminal? This is the new yardstick by which we judge our politicians.

In truth, most people in this city long ago moved on from this sideshow of a trial, persuaded that the Mayor is an uncouth promise-breaker but unconvinced he has the wit to be a criminal mastermind.

Now that Justice Douglas Cunningham has agreed with them, Ottawans can resume bitching about the governance of a city that seems to have taken its financial lead from its largest private sector employer, Nortel.

The annual study of local government performance by think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy shows how the city likes to live beyond its not inconsiderable means. In 2007, the city took in revenue of $7,042 per household, compared with a national average of $4,869. This was made up mainly of property taxes that averaged $3,357 per household, far above the national figure of $1,937. Yet, the city has remained resolute in its adoption of systemic overspending — at $7,143 for every household in Ottawa, it is 36% higher than the national average. “In terms of overall financial health, Ottawa is sailing close to the wind,” said David Seymour, one of the report’s authors, with considerable understatement.

More than half of that expenditure went on the unionrun bureaucracy. The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation has calculated that the average salary of city employees in the five years to 2005 rose 44% to $76,000.

This is not to say life is tough in the capital. It was nice to see The Proclaimers play a free concert in the Byward Market last month, but should my neighbours really be paying for my indulgences?

Mr. O’Brien was elected on a promise to freeze property taxes for four years — zero means zero, he said. In fact, this year zero meant a 5% tax hike.

Ottawans may be poor, but at least they are safe. This ultimate of nanny jurisdictions has just witnessed the end of a police blitz on errant cyclists, some of whom were handed $110 tickets for riding on the sidewalk or not having a bell. Perhaps this was evidence of the tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime policy that Mr. O’Brien promised when he took the chain of office.

From his first week in office, when he proposed to increase his own salary, through the cancellation of the city’s first light-rail plan; from his proposal for a $50 snowclearing levy to the 52-day OC Transpo strike last winter, Mr. O’Brien’s tenure has been the kind of failure that gives failure a bad name.

But the blame for Ottawa’s mismanagement cannot be laid entirely at the Mayor’s door — he has had some willing accomplices, namely the 23 other members of council.

Mr. O’Brien was elected on a wave of discontent at soaring tax hikes — yet the exact same roster of councillors was returned, despite the mood for change. The reason, of course, is that no one follows municipal politics unless they are paid to do so. During a general election campaign, voters may tune in and vote for the party whose ads they saw last on television.

But municipal campaigns are marked by a handful of unaligned candidates wandering around their wards, stirring up apathy. How many voters entered the polling booth at the municipal election and were confronted by three names they’d never seen before and one they vaguely recognized from the ad in the local paper?

The solution, as suggested by a number of governance experts in recent months, is for big Canadian cities to adopt party politics. Parties are not perfect, but at least they offer the resources, strategic thinking and ideological underpinnings necessary to run large cities in the 21st century.

If Larry O’Brien wants to salvage his political career, he should embrace this idea, come up with a slate of attractive candidates who could push through his conservative agenda and provide Canada’s capital with a sense of direction.