Ottawa Sun, December 14, 2002, page 15
By WALTER ROBINSON
-- Ottawa Sun
an old saying that goes: If you want something done right, do it
yourself. In the context of the present city budget debates, the
new saying goes: If you want something from the budget --
especially if it involves capital dollars -- you better form a
big, diverse and unprecedented coalition.
This is what is happening in Ottawa's east end with an
impressive and unprecedented group calling itself the Equality
East Citizens' Coalition (EECC for short), or if you're
francophone inclined, Egalite Est. This coalition represents 58
separate groups that have signed a joint declaration calling on
city council to commit a minimum of $8 million to establish a
permanent, multifunctional community arts and cultural facility
in Ottawa's east district -- a project that has been on the
books since 1988.
The birth of this group is instructive on two fronts. First, it
previews what will likely be the model that neighbourhoods
across the city will employ in future capital budget cycles.
Second, this particular issue also shows how city staff, if left
unchecked, can pull a fast one on local ratepayers.
While yours truly has never been the world's No. 1 booster of
arts and culture projects (preferring emergency services,
transit and sports venues for allocation of scarce capital
funds), it is hard to argue with EECC's logic and justifiable
case for an arts facility.
The west end has Centrepointe Theatre and the central core is
equally served by Arts Court. Yet the east end is inadequately
served with a smattering of passable facilities.
The diversity and mix of EECC's membership base is also
noteworthy. The 58 groups now on board run the gauntlet from the
Gloucester Arts Council to the Chapel Hill Residents Association
to the Mouvement d'implication francophone d'Orleans (MIFO) to
the Orleans Chamber of Commerce.
In April 2001, then-Heath, Recreation and Social Services (HRSS)
commissioner Dick Stewart informed the HRSS committee of council
(HRSSC) that the city would retain Toronto-based DMA Planning
and Management Services to develop a priority list of arts,
culture and recreation projects inherited from the
Common sense dictated that an independent and objective review
by an outsider of some 21 building projects and 42 study
projects (according to the Eastender's Fred Sherwin) would
depoliticize the task of having the HRSSC try and develop a
priority funding list for the new city. In May 2002, DMA's list
included the east end arts facility along with the south end
library, a twin pad and swimming pool in Kanata, another ice pad
at the Ray Friel Centre on Tenth Line in the east end and a city
But here is where city staff pulled a fast one on council and
ratepayers. Staff's own list of priority projects in the 2003 to
2007 short term capital project list substituted $8 million for
a new east end pool instead of the arts facility.
This begs a fundamental question: Why pay a consultant over
$300,000 for a report if you're just going to ignore it and
stick it to one-third of city ratepayers to boot? When this
happened, hardly a peep was heard from our mayor or anyone on
council. It makes you wonder who is actually minding the store.
But I digress.
Now this not-so-humble scribe loves to swim, but any urban
planner worth their salt will tell you that a pool is like a
toilet bowl -- pour your money in and flush it down the drain.
The only way pools work (or are even economically justifiable)
in modern city complexes is in the context of multi-use
recreational facilities complete with gyms, ice pads, breakout
rooms and a host of other amenities thrown in.
Sadly, EECC didn't get very far at this past Wednesday's HRSSC
meeting as staff informed Coun. Phil McNeely at the last moment
that he could not divert reserve fund moneys destined for a pool
toward the east end arts facility.
What is puzzling is that none of his fellow east end council
colleagues -- Michel Bellemare, Rainer Bloess or Herb Kreling --
all of whom have previous council experience, alerted him to the
fact that provincial law says money isn't fungible in this
manner. On this question, they should explain themselves.
As for the EECC, they promise to keep the pressure on and more
power to them. This coalition is the template that other groups
must emulate to move their capital priorities forward and their
experience to date shows that taxpayers must keep an eye on
staff and city affairs, because council, at least on this
occasion, fell asleep in the cheap seats.