Russell Mills reflects on a decade at helm of NCC

Russell Mills reflects on a decade at helm of NCC

Ottawa and the people who live here have always had a complicated relationship with the National Capital Commission, that mysterious chamber of appointed strangers with enormous influence — and final say — over everything from the placement of lemonade stands and the planting of tulips to city-shaping redevelopments and multi-billion-dollar transit plans.

For decades critics railed against the NCC and its secrecy, and former Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills was one of the commission's most consistent detractors.

As a journalist Mills took the NCC to task for barring reporters from meetings, sometimes pleading his case directly to former chairs Jean Pigott and Marcel Beaudry.

"The NCC had just in-camera meetings back in those days, and there were a lot of times a decision would just seem to come out of nowhere, and they were ones that had significant impacts," Mills told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Thursday as he prepared to end his decade-long tenure as chair of the NCC's board.

"One I recall was the decision to put a third lane on the Champlain Bridge, which connects up with Island Park Drive, and of course people were outraged when they found out about that. That's the type of thing where there should be public consultation on a lot of that in advance, and a decision made in a public meeting where people can hear the discussion and the debate."

'We could actually implement these things'

Apparently his activism made an impression.

After a 2006 review of the NCC's mandate recommended more open meetings, among other changes, Mills was asked if he wanted to lead the institution he'd spent so many years railing against.

He said yes.

"I got a call from someone in [then transport minister Lawrence Cannon's] office suggesting that I apply for the job, and when I looked into it and investigated the mandate review that had been done and the fact that we could actually implement these things and start having public meetings, it would have been kind of hypocritical not to accept this challenge, so I did," Mills said.

He's spent the intervening decade steering the NCC's board through highs and lows, including the controversy over where to build the new Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital, and where to put a planned memorial for victims of communism.

The memorial was first brought to the NCC's attention in 2008, and was a small project planned for the south side of Wellington Street near the Garden of the Provinces and Territories.

Then, without any NCC consultation, two then cabinet ministers held a press conference announcing a larger project on the Supreme Court lawn, Mills recalled. The ensuing controversy generated headlines for months, but Mills doesn't think the NCC's reputation suffered.

"I don't think it damaged the NCC. I don't think it helped the government at the time. It did with their constituents who were pushing this, because they loved it obviously, but it seemed like an arbitrary decision," Mills said.

"This was in the judicial precinct and there was already a plan for this area, and to just sort of throw it out the window arbitrarily didn't seem like the right thing to do."

As for the future Civic hospital campus, Mills continues to defend the NCC's initial selection of Tunney's Pasture as a site, though he said the Sir John Carling site — which came second in the NCC's analysis — is good, too.

He chairs his final public meeting Thursday and his term finishes and the end of the month. A search for his replacement is underway.

Mills said he plans on continuing as president of the Michener Awards Foundation and will focus on helping journalism in the future.

Listen to the entire interview with Mills here.