Five things to watch for at city hall in 2021

·7 min read
Five things to watch for at city hall in 2021

Across much of the world, governments were preoccupied in 2020 with ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the powers that be at Ottawa City Hall were no exception.

The focus on keeping COVID-19 at bay will continue well into 2021 here in the capital, as elsewhere. But the new year delivers a new arsenal in the fight: vaccines began to trickle into the city in December, with thousands of doses expected to arrive over the first three months of this year.

Hundreds of municipal workers are expected to be involved in the logistics of delivering the vaccines, whether in long-term care homes or public health clinics.

It's all part of the biggest inoculation program in this city's history.

Supplied by The Ottawa Hospital
Supplied by The Ottawa Hospital

Of course, there are other major agenda items on the horizon that aren't strictly about the pandemic, though as we all learned in 2020, there's almost no facet of daily life that isn't touched in some way by COVID-19.

Here are five things to watch for on the municipal front in 2021.

1. Budget uncertainty

The city may have approved its 2021 budget in December as usual, but there's nothing usual about the times we're living in.

Ottawa had a $192-million hole in its books for 2020, as the city — like most other municipalities — struggles with steep drops in transit ridership and recreation fees, while also paying more for public health and cleaning.

In mid-December, Ottawa received its final payment from the provincial government to bridge that revenue gap for 2020 — money that should also help cover any shortfall in early 2021.

But the city is predicting a deficit for 2021 of $153 million if the pandemic continues for another 12 months.

Considering that federal officials have said most Canadian adults who want to be vaccinated will be able to do that by September, there's hope the red ink will be stemmed before the end of the year. Even so, the city will still need to get help from other levels of government, cut services or raise taxes — or all three.

More information on the bailout, particularly for transit, is expected in January.

2. Chiarelli goes to court

It was the fall of 2019 when CBC first reported allegations of Coun. Rick Chiarelli's egregious behaviour toward female staff and job applicants.

Last year, integrity commissioner Robert Marleau delivered two damning reports on the conduct of the College ward councillor, finding his behaviour to be "a shocking and astounding failure to treat complainants with the respect they were due."

Council and other members of the community have called on Chiarelli to resign, but he has declined, even though he will not be paid a salary for most of 2021 because of the sanctions stemming from Marleau's reports.

Chiarelli did not participate in the investigations, and in a public statement in October 2019, he denied the allegations, claiming to be a victim of a "mob mentality."

The veteran councillor also contended that the integrity commissioner did not have the jurisdiction to investigate the complaints, and that council had shown bias by, among other things, denying his request for a leave of absence.

Last July, just before the integrity commissioner's first report was released, Chiarelli's lawyer said he was launching a judicial review in provincial court.

That hearing is scheduled to take place Jan. 13, 2021, when a judge will hear arguments on the merits of the application. A decision isn't expected to come until weeks later.

Because of COVID-19, the hearing will take place virtually, and the public should be allowed to attend.

Rogers TV broadcast of council
Rogers TV broadcast of council

CBC has also confirmed that the Ontario Provincial Police is investigating Chiarelli, although no charges have been laid, so it's unclear what, if anything, will come of that in 2021.

3. Expanding the city

COVID-19 delayed the urban expansion debate that was supposed to take place in March 2020 but didn't water it down, as 100 delegations presented to city council committees that met over 28 hours.

In the end, council approved adding 1,281 hectares of rural land to the urban area, which would make that property eligible for future suburban development. As many as 23,000 homes could be built there.

But where these homes are going isn't known yet — that will be revealed at a big meeting at the end of January. And that's important to residents, because it will show which communities will be growing, and to landowners, because the new designation has increased the value of their land immensely.

Kate Porter/CBC
Kate Porter/CBC

Council agreed to protect agricultural resource areas, which will also affect the way the city is expanded.

And the urban boundary discussion is just the warm-up act when it comes to Ottawa city planning in 2021. Council wants to see a new official plan — the 25-year blueprint for how to develop the city — adopted by fall.

The goal is to make Ottawa one of North America's most livable mid-sized cities.

4. Lansdowne rethink

Even before COVID-19 struck, the group that runs Lansdowne Park's commercial sector and owns the Ottawa Redblacks and Ottawa 67s was struggling to attract the necessary foot traffic to the site.

In the last fiscal year, the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) lost $11 million. It didn't help that the pandemic, which restricted social gathering at restaurants and pubs and virtually shut down sporting and entertainment events, hammered OSEG's revenues.

Michel Aspirot/CBC
Michel Aspirot/CBC

In late 2020, council agreed to extend its 30-year partnership with OSEG by a decade, in order to allow the business group more time to recoup its investment in Lansdowne.

But that was the easy part.

Over the next few months, OSEG and city officials, some councillors and stakeholder groups will discuss ways to make Lansdowne more sustainable post-pandemic. One idea that's come up is more housing — including affordable housing — on the site.

Mayor Jim Watson has already said that he won't support building on the city-owned urban park portion of Lansdowne, which includes the Aberdeen Pavilion and the Horticulture Building, and there are questions as to where additional housing would fit in.

Then there's the bigger question of whether — or how much— additional public money will be spent on Lansdowne. Taxpayers have already invested $210 million, including $135 million to renovate the stadium.

A report on possible changes is expected by the end of June.

5. The future of the Prince of Wales Bridge

In 2005, the city bought the Prince of Wales Bridge from Canadian Pacific Railway, with plans to run light rail on it some day.

That never happened. And although officials have fenced off the unused 1.3-kilometre iron span across the Ottawa River, they've always had trouble keeping people off it.

Tragically, a 14-year-old boy died last summer after jumping off the bridge.

CBC
CBC

Now, however, the city appears on the cusp of converting the rail bridge into a pedestrian and cycling crossing. At its budget approval meeting in December, council set aside $540,000 for design work and an environmental assessment for the pathway, which is actually more than the bridge cost the city.

The plan is to have the project shovel-ready in time for the federal government's $100-billion stimulus plan — meant to boost Canada's post-pandemic economy — that's expected to be announced this spring.

It doesn't hurt at all that the MP for the area is Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, who promised to make this project happen in her re-election campaign in 2019.

In the fifteen years since the city has owned the bridge, we've never been closer to being able to actually use it.