Ottawa City Council met on March 6th for a 7-hour council meeting, where council voted on over $9 billion in spending on LRT Stage 2 and the 2019 budget. Our volunteer from the Council Watch team attended the meeting and here are some major discussions and votes.
A large topic of discussion on the agenda was the approval of the LRT Stage 2 expansion at a cost of $4.66 billion dollars. While it seems like a simple answer to move in the direction of achieving a more sustainable and equitable city by approving the expansion of the light rail, a lot of concerns were raised by councilors in the discussion.
Councilor Catherine McKenney motioned to defer the decision to approve the LRT Stage 2 expansion to the March 27th council meeting. Councillors Jeff Leiper, Shawn Menard, Carol Anne Meehan and Rick Chiarelli raised concern about the lack of information or public consultation, and the fact that council was only given 12 days to decide on a project that has changed significantly in scope and price tag. Councillors supporting this motion did not want to delay the contract, but to move the vote about the expansion to council on March 27th so that councilors had more time to review the report and answer the public’s questions.
City staff and external lawyers, however, continued to advice against delaying the project, citing, among others, the need to draft a contract and get approval from federal and provincial governments, and the loss of negotiating power with the winning bidders. Although councillor Leiper cited lack of community support for the many changes made to the project, and councillors Carol Anne Meehan and Diane Deans questioned the process that led to the short time frame for decision making, staff continues to suggest that delaying the vote means the city will be “plunged into chaos”, and councillor Stephen Blais said “deferring the decision means killing the project”. The motion ultimately failed 16/6, with councillors McKenney, Leiper, Chiarelli, Meehan, Deans and Menard voting yes.
When it comes to the vote on the approval of LRT contract itself, council questioned city staff and legal consultants extensively. Some concerns include SNC-Lavalin as one of the winning proponents, the increase in price tag, the extended closure of the Trillium line, etc. Particularly, councilor Deans was persistent on determining whether the winning bidders received a technical score above the 70 percent threshold in evaluating all three bidders. Staff refused to disclose any information about the evaluation process or results. This led Deans and many of the other councilors to believe that SNC-Lavalin did not achieve the 70 percent threshold, which was substantially influential on the way that the councilors were swayed to vote.
Ultimately, Mayor Watson and Councilor Harder urged the rest of council to take a leap of faith and vote yes to the expansion of the LRT Stage 2, characterizing anyone voting no as being against LRT. Meanwhile, Councilor Meehan and Deans reiterated that councillors have the right to ask questions and seek transparency to make an informed decision. They reaffirmed that they were in favour of LRT, and that their concern is with the process with which LRT is approved and built. Councillors McKenney and Leiper were both hesitant to vote yes, whereas Leiper said for the first time, he is voting without all the facts.
The motion to approve LRT Stage 2 expansion passed with 19 yays and 3 nays. The three nays were from councilors Menard, Deans, and Chiarelli.
The 2019 budget passed unanimously, although with several positive amendments. Councillor McKenney was responsible for putting forth a motion for Council to approve the allocation of $60,000 in new funding to complete annual community and corporate greenhouse gas emission inventories using the dividends from Hydro One. This motion was seconded by councilor Brockington, reiterating the need to take climate change seriously, starting with tracking our progress. With very little questioning, Council takes a step in the right direction acting on climate change by carrying the motion.
McKenney and Leiper also motioned to provide funding and support for the Urban Forest Management Plan as a term of council priority. Fleury and Harder expressed their agreeance and support with this motion and the motion was carried.
While there was a lot of discussion around the transportation budget, there was also a lot of discussion around winter maintenance and sidewalk clearing. Councilor Harder expresses concern about public safety in the suburbs, and is supportive of the study around renewing sidewalk clearing coming up. Councillor Theresa Kavanagh explains the importance of having properly maintained sidewalks in winter conditions with approving the new expansion of the LRT and prioritizing walkability to transit stations. While Meehan agrees that sidewalk clearing and maintenance needs to be improved, she suggests that the funds used on the study be allocated to the actual maintenance of sidewalk.
Lastly, Councillor Kavanagh motioned to freeze the fares for the Equipass, community and access pass with funding from the FEDCO investment income. With mutual agreement among council members, this motion was carried.