He has been called the business community candidate, but Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe is quick to point out that he brings many other perspectives to the council table.
“I think I (bring) more than just business experience to the table,” says Mayor Sutcliffe, pointing to his background as a community volunteer. “I do hope what I’m able to deliver as mayor is a focus on economic development going forward; that’s certainly one of my biggest priorities.”
In a wide-ranging interview with OBJ in which he laid out some of his plans and priorities heading into the new year at City Hall, Sutcliffe says his No. 1 focus in his first term will be to foster economic development in Ottawa, because, as he explains, a vibrant and successful business community creates the wealth that allows other social goals to be achieved.
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“I think if we have a strong economy, that allows us to make all the other investments we want to make in addressing social issue challenges, like homelessness and helping the most vulnerable, addressing mental health issues, and substance abuse disorders. So, to do all of that, I will be focused on building a better economy for Ottawa and creating more jobs and addressing the needs of our downtown and the ByWard Market.
“I’m really encouraged to see the federal government is moving towards having their employees go back to the office a little bit more often. I think that’s going to be helpful for our downtown businesses,” he adds, referencing the recent Treasury Board announcement that federal civil servants will be expected to work two to three days a week in the office starting early in 2023.
Sutcliffe takes the mayoral reins at a time when the Ontario government has put in place controversial legislation intended to encourage more housing to be built across the province. Sutcliffe also has identified affordable housing as a goal for his administration and believes there is plenty of land in Ottawa to build that housing without bulldozing greenspace in the process.
“I’m glad it’s a priority for everyone moving forward,” Sutcliffe says, although he adds that the province’s housing targets may be more aggressive than his own.
“Our population is going to double in 40 years; the needs of a city of 1.5 million people are a lot different than a city of one million people,” he says. “We can increase density a lot, but the implications of that growth on housing needs and transportation have to be managed properly.”
Whether it be housing or any other issue, Sutcliffe reiterates that he has no intention of using the province’s “strong mayor” powers.
Under provincial legislation approved last year, the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto will be allowed to veto council decisions deemed to impede the construction of new homes. The leaders will also be allowed to table budgets, hire and fire department heads, and propose housing-related bylaws, which will require the support of just one-third of councillors to pass.
“I don’t intend to use any of those powers,” Sutcliffe says. “I’m not aware of anybody in Ottawa who was asking for that, so I intend to work with the city councillors that were democratically elected by the people.
“All of the plans and the commitments that I made during the election campaign were made expecting to work with council under the old system, the old rules. I know that so far the feedback that I got from council is that they support many aspects of the platform that I ran on, so I’ve got a platform moving forward,” he said.
Although he is just one voice around the council table, Sutcliffe is confident that he and the new council can and will work well together.
“I have been really delighted about how well we have been working together. We have a budget priority framework going forward that we have agreed on,” he says, although he adds that it was far from unanimous and many councillors balked at the city’s proposed 2023 budget adhering to Sutcliffe’s campaign pledge of a maximum tax increase of 2.5 per cent.
“I’m very optimistic with the spirit of collaboration around the council table that everybody wants to work together. I know that we all heard during the campaign that we should work together instead of having the divisions of the past,” he says.
As for the recent public inquiry report on the city’s troubled LRT project, Sutcliffe says the city will review the report to make sure that large-scale public and private projects are better designed and managed from now on.
“Once we have more time to look at the recommendations from the inquiry, we will be able to make further improvements to how these projects are rolling out. There’s a lot to do obviously, but I’m optimistic about public-private partnerships in the future.
“I’m not sure (the inquiry) is a statement about public-private partnerships or the issues that arose with this specific project and that there’s any reason to put an end to partnerships,” he adds.
“I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned in terms of how we structure partnerships going forward and the parameters that need to be placed on them.”