DEMOCRACY AT STAKE

 

If you’re still confused about the city’s multi-billion light rail project, about the financial implications for Ottawa, perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing you’re not alone.

There are still so many unanswered questions about the LRT and the finances surrounding it. No less than Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum has raised his strong fears about the project, feeling so strongly about what’s been happening that he took pen to paper or fingers to computer as the case may be and wrote an essay for Postmedia.

If a brilliant mind like Nussbaum’s can’t wrap his head around all that is going on, there’s little hope for the rest of us. As he points out, given the miscommunication surrounding the $1 million penalty for the delay in LRT, there has to be concerns about the assurances from on high that the city will be compensated for the costs incurred by that delay.

“This delay will mean the forecasted budget numbers passed by city council – 48 hours before senior staff publicly revealed the likely LRT delay back in mid-December and three weeks after they first became aware of the risk – will clearly not be achieved. What should be made of the public assurances by Mayor Jim Watson and senior staff that the contractor will fully reimburse the costs? As much as I wish that to be true, I have not seen any evidence that the contractor is required to repay the city for additional costs incurred due to a new, permitted, handover date.
“Previously, I might have taken those assurances at face value, but the events of the last weeks have made me skeptical – and I’ve realized how dependent municipal legislators are on the executive branch of government to provide clear and accurate information,” he continued.

Exactly.

How can we be expected to take Watson’s words on LRT at face value a second time around, especially when all we really have are the same platitudes we’ve heard so often in the past? And the mistrust that has now developed creates a real and very serious problem around the council table.

If councillors can’t trust what they’re being told, how can they do their jobs effectively for the constituents who count on them, the very people who pay their representatives out of their hard-earned money?

“Cities lack the kind of independent officers who act as checks on the executive branch in other levels of government…This has two implications. The first is that the municipal public service must scrupulously carry out its statutory obligation to “undertake research and provide advice to council on the policies and programs of the municipality” without fear or favour. This is admittedly easier said than done. One can imagine that providing advice to council that contradicts the public statements or positions of the mayor (such as “on time, on budget”) would make for awkward moments. Yet this is the obligation that the Ontario Municipal Act has imposed on city managers and their senior officials.

“The second implication is that municipal legislators must always exercise significant and vigilant due diligence, particularly on big projects that the public cannot be expected to follow in detail,” he continued.

As Nussbaum acknowledges, city councillors need to be diligent in ensuring they’re asking the right questions and getting clear and specific answers. But anyone who thinks councillors should be reading every contract they vote on doesn’t really understand the role of a city councillor.
Nussbaum’s essay is a bit chilling, but not overly dramatic.

“Protecting and promoting the public interest is what binds the executive and legislative branches of government together. For that shared objective to be achieved, we need to constantly be guided by shared principles of transparency and accountability along with a strong dose of courage and humility.
“Nothing short of public trust in the democratic process is at stake.”

Incredibly well put.

Let’s hope Mayor Jim Watson is listening.

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