Thursday, April 14, 2011

DC Mayor fights Congress for municipal autonomy: Lessons for Ottawa

In the capital of the United States there has been mounting tension between the City and Congress with the climax being this past Monday. DC Mayor Vincent Gray and some city councillors attended a rally by DC Vote, a “non-profit dedicated to securing full voting representation in Congress and full democracy for over 600,000 residents of Washington, DC”.

As a result of the rally, which blocked Constitution Avenue, forty-one protesters were arrested including Mayor Gray and six city councillors.

The Mayor wrote in an article, “...two riders contained in the budget deal impinge on the District of Columbia’s autonomy. One limits our ability to fund, using our own money, reproductive services [abortion] for low-income women; another imposes a continued school-voucher program on the District. If these reports are correct, then the District of Columbia’s right to govern itself has, once again, been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency...DC residents from all wards of the city should express their outrage, as I have over the colonial status of the District of Columbia.”

Over the past few months I have grown very frustrated with the National Capital Commission and their approach to development which appears to be very top-down, controlling and stifling to new ideas. The issue is not the organization, but the approach. Prior to the events in Washington, I’ve been thinking about whether I would ever see a mayor and city council in Ottawa advocate passionately for local autonomy, even to the point of protest. Clearly, as seen in Washington, holding federal agencies to account in that manner is possible.

I commend this capital city’s pursuit of autonomy. Ottawa is not accountable to Parliament in the same way Washington DC is to Congress, but federal agencies like the NCC hold much power over growth, and ultimately vision and identity, in the National Capital Region.

Sometimes I wonder if a similar shake-up as we saw in DC is needed in Ottawa in order to change the way federal agencies relate to the City, residents, and the private sector. While our capital enjoys many freedoms, in other ways our municipal autonomy is threatened. In my opinion the NCC and other agencies sometimes operate in a way that runs counter to the City’s economic development strategy, the desires of many local residents and Canadians, and even the flow of the private sector as seen with the proposed Art Wall project at the Ottawa Convention Centre.

Of course, events like what happened in DC can be avoided by respecting capital cities and their constituents as municipalities and partners. The capital belongs to Canadians but is stewarded by the Federal Government and its agencies. Canadians, including those who call the capital home, should play a leadership role in the vision for the capital and should not just be consulted when a slogan is needed for a new marketing campaign.

Will we ever see our local leaders, whether in City Hall or the private and non-profit sectors advocate for our interests as passionately? Probably not, but what we can learn from Washington DC is that strong advocacy is required today to ensure a balance between local and federal interests in the Capital Region.

Kevin Bourne

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