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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

For want of an email, not much was lost

City staff may have stepped on the toes of city councillors in their haste to find a place for huge sacks of infrastructure cash from the feds.

A Metro file photo of Ottawa City Hall.

Metro file

A Metro file photo of Ottawa City Hall.

Oh, to have more of such problems. City staff may have stepped on the toes of city councillors in their haste to find a place for huge sacks of infrastructure cash from the feds.

In July, the city got a request for a list of transit-related projects, with $155.9 million in federal money available to cover half of any given job.

As usual when another government signs the cheques, there were strings attached, policy and political objectives, qualifying criteria, and tight deadlines between the ground-breakings and ribbon-cuttings, everything finished by April 1, 2018. Oh, and they had three days to come up with their list.

What staff thought was a preliminary back-of-napkin estimate, an “indicative list,” in the words of treasurer Marian Simulik, quickly came back for revision and became a “definitive list,” a binding napkin. They got it done, but some councillors sniffed that in the midst of this scramble, they had not been asked for their essential input.

“Did it ever occur to you,” complained Coun. Diane Deans, “that we all have email, and that you could have at least sent a list and said 'We have a tight turnaround, we've been given this money, we're compiling a list, is there anything you want us to look at?' Yeah, it's summer, but we're all members of council. We all work all the time even if we're offsite, so why wasn't there any kind of attempt to at least inform council of this happening?”

As had to be repeatedly, patiently, pointed out, all of the projects came from the various priorities, master plans and roadmaps hashed out over the past few years on council and at committee. And again, the clock was ticking.

Some omissions could be explained, if not excused. Couns. Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney brought up the still-neglected Prince of Wales Bridge.

Its conversion to a multi-use pathway, staff said, couldn't be completed by 2018 because of the various studies and other preliminary work that need to be done to get it shovel-ready. (That's right; we couldn't do anything there because we haven't yet done anything there.)

And not everyone quibbled. Capital Coun. David Chernushenko was pleased with what the bureuacrats came up with – and that they didn't have to pester him with email to do it. Politicians can be victims of 'vacation-shaming' for daring to take a breather from their constituents' demands, and hence find themselves, in Deans' words, “working all the time,” Chernushenko was refreshingly unapologetic about his own time off:

“News flash: When I am on vacation in summer, you can't reach me. I don't have reception of any kind at my cottage. When I'm on a bike tour, I don't carry any electronics. So, some of us approach our vacations that way and I'm glad to know that when important decisions need to be taken of this kind that it can be done and we don't have to call all of council back.”

Was democracy really subverted by the failure to obtain the line-by-line blessing of councillors on projects they'd already approved, or just the odd ego bruised? Well, at the end of an hour's debate, everyone voted to take the money.

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