Op-ed: Patience is what mayor-elect Sutcliffe needs from our business community

Mark Sutcliffe
Mark Sutcliffe has been elected the 60th mayor of Ottawa. Photo by Caroline Phillips.

In the end, it wasn’t even close. Broadcaster, entrepreneur and community leader Mark Sutcliffe earned more votes than all other mayoral candidates combined … and when the vote is broken down, I suspect he will have won at least 20 of 24 city wards. And in mid-November, he will be sworn in as our mayor.

So, what can the business community expect from Mayor Sutcliffe? In a word: integrity. In two words: hard work. In three words: consensus-driven leadership. But here’s the rub, the business community — tech, life sciences, developers, consultancies and a range of SMEs — will need to be patient, very patient in the coming months.

By the time you read this column, Mayor-elect Sutcliffe will already be through dozens of texts and calls with re-elected and new city council members. His transition team will have scheduled meetings and calls with Mayor Watson’s office, the city manager and folks from the NCC and other levels of government. For the mayor-elect, the next three weeks will be an endless grind of city hall bootcamp and his evenings and weekends filled with even more thank you meetings, calls, Zooms, texts and emails. For an accomplished marathoner, it will be tough to get morning or evening runs in.

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His ambitious platform of a safer city, all modes of transportation working together, affordability/availability of housing, a greener Ottawa, and a recovering and more vibrant post-COVID economy could be easily eclipsed by the briefing binders unearthing even more issues that require immediate attention. And the simmering issues of confidence in our police force, findings (and lawsuits) from the LRT inquiry, and a pandemic that will usher in an eighth wave will challenge his focus and resolve.

Mark Sutcliffe is in the classic first 100 days of any new leadership position. And the formula for success is not an elusive mystery, it consists of five simple steps.

First, build and shape your team, which means staffing up his office, cultivating key council allies, and a kitchen cabinet of external advisors to offer raw (if not harsh) counsel, when necessary.

Next up: learn your environment and organizational culture, which translates into endless briefings (see above) on policy issues from recreation to sewage, to transit to planning, to snow removal and a hundred other files in between. Also, and not to be underestimated, learning the cadence and procedure of council, its committees and consequent agenda setting. Note to city staff: expect many intelligent questions from the new guy/team in the room.

Third, get a handle on organizational resources, stressors and risks. So, for the Sutcliffe team, they need to build and pass a new city budget (operations and capital) for the 2023 fiscal year.

Fourth, communicate your vision broadly. During his swearing-in and state of the city speeches, Mayor Sutcliffe will need to re-articulate and clearly prioritize his winning platform while being mindful of external events (LRT inquiry report, ongoing Emergencies Act inquiry, local and national economic indicators, state of COVID in the city, how the new police chief is settling in, new council dynamics, etc.) to city residents, city staff and unions, other governments, and key city partners and suppliers.

And step five, constant vigilance — and brutal self-evaluation — especially for this mayor as a rookie politician. The fawning glow of his media friends, the adulation of hundreds of community leaders, and the palpable excitement of residents will — not can, but will — erode by the time the winter snow is melting next March and April. This is the undeniable inevitability of politics in a Twitter-driven, 7-24-365 media and societal context.

Our incoming mayor is intelligent, compassionate, a team-builder and, above all, respectful to diverse ideas and voices. The best thing our dynamic business community can do is be patient and give him what no opposing hockey coach would ever tolerate: space and time on his new ice. And in this patience, we must look for the signals. 

In his first budget and in his office appointments, the seeds of change and growth will be evident. Steps to accelerate the housing and building permits process will occur to meet his commitment of 100,000 new houses over a decade. Likewise, issues of community safety and community health will move quickly in the context of expanded paramedicine services into primary healthcare settings and striking a task force on the overdose crisis and mental health issues to shape specific investments in Budget 2023. And new funds for increased policing and roads rehabilitation will be self-evident!

On the more difficult issues of defining the future of our transit system, returning more federal public servants — in tandem with the federal government — to office buildings in the core, accelerating momentum on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats by working with the NCC, finding a sustainable path and de-risking taxpayer exposure at Lansdowne Park, and truly diversifying the region’s economy to be less reliant on government in all its forms, these issues have festered for decades. Solutions from the Sutcliffe administration will not appear overnight. 

Campaigns inspire promises, excitement and hope. Governing, at any level, is a more mundane and process-driven affair. Finding balance between these realities is the art of the most successful politicians. Again, let us give our new mayor the time and space to be successful.

Yes, this is counter-intuitive and runs against the DNA of bias-to-action entrepreneurship and the competitive spirit so necessary in business but, having been in the bowels of the city hall process with a new mayor, it is the best thing Ottawa’s broad business community can do … for now, be patient.

Walter Robinson has 25 years of progressive leadership positions in the public, private and non-profit sector. He served as chief of staff to Mayor Larry O’Brien and was an inaugural Forty Under 40 and former United Way community builder award recipient.

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