Op-ed: Larry O’Brien offers some hard-earned lessons to Ottawa’s mayor-elect

city council

Congratulations to Mark Sutcliffe, the 60th mayor of Ottawa!

Full disclosure, Mark — I didn’t support you because I don’t believe a rookie can do the job. But in a great competition, you won. Now comes a few weeks of joyful celebration with old friends and many brand-new friends.

You’re now the mayor of Ottawa, where my great-grandfather came to live in 1847. It is now a large, complex city with over 100 city services being delivered to more than one million residents in 2,500 square kilometres. On a playful note, Ottawa is the only G7 country with a farm in the geographic middle. In other words, you have a very complex and demanding job in front of you.

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My first two years were a massive learning experience and if I had a do-over, here is a list of 10 things I would do differently. I offer it as a gift with a hope you succeed, because if you succeed we all succeed.

1) Immediately announce you are going to donate any raise to charity. The raises come by process and you might not even hear about them until it is on the news. Jim Watson did that in 1996 and it’s good politics.

2) Pick a chief of staff that has been in city hall and understands the nature of municipal politics. As a rookie, you will need guidance and wise counsel from someone who knows the way around city hall. Maybe even a former councillor that did not run for re-election?

3) You have had a lot of help getting elected but remember, most of them have zero experience running a city. After studying the city financials for two weeks, I realized my zero-means-zero promise was impossible to keep. Yet, I listened to some well-intentioned stubborn supporters who had no grasp on the issues. I was a rookie and easily led.

4) Get to know all the new and existing councillors quickly. You will need a majority of council on your side to get anything of worth done. I think this will be natural for you and that is good.

5) Meet the heads of the unions quickly and roll over and be submissive. They run the city and, unless the province passes legislation to reverse the binding arbitration clauses, you will never be in control. By the way, there are many qualified and quality people among the 17,000 union workers who want the city to function well. Don’t pick a fight with the union bosses because you can’t possibly win.

6) Review the senior executive team of the city. Ask Watson who among the senior management is capable and trustworthy. Fire anyone you doubt and do it quickly; they can make your life a living hell if they choose.

7) Find a good long-term project that will make the city better and start working on it. There are new technologies you could explore that would continue to position you as a democratic leader. The city could be a world leader in governance.

8) Don’t cancel any major projects; it’s not worth the pain, even if you are right. What the last council completed is where you start from. Fortunately, besides the new hospital, there is not much on the books, so you have a clean slate.

9) Walk back your intentions to not use the new mayor’s powers. Those new powers will be your tool to build a better and stronger Ottawa.

10) Make friends with the provincial government. Although you were elected by the citizens of Ottawa, you are a creature of the province.

And on behalf of all of us who did not vote for you, good luck and I, for one, will be cheering for your success. Good luck.

Larry O’Brien is co-founder of Prio Arts.io, founder of Calian Group and former mayor of Ottawa.

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