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Acquittal of mayor Larry O’Brien still leaves city in crisis

After acting like a lame duck for three years, O'Brien has become one

So. It turns out that influence peddling isn’t going to be the nail in mayor Larry O’Brien’s political coffin.

No, it’s going to be influence piddling — the mayor has pissed away a lot of goodwill, failed to keep his promises (which were, to be frank, pie-in-the-sky anyway), and failed to remain a likeable public figure.

He got no points for the bus strike. No points for the “visioning” meetings. He certainly got no points for comparing homeless people to pigeons.

Once the hoopla surrounding O’Brien’s acquittal dies down, I think it will prove immaterial to his chances of cinching reelection in 2010. He’s cleared his name, but whether he runs or not next year, it’s shaping up to be a crowded ballot. Certainly no cake walk.

It’s impolite to say, but, after acting like a lame duck for three years, O’Brien may now be one. City Hall has grown so used to living without a capable (if somewhat symbolic) head of council that he will have his work cut out for him just to reassert himself.

And meanwhile, the public has been watching the court case develop for so long, we’ve forgotten what O’Brien did as mayor. That may be to his advantage, actually, given his less-than-stellar maiden voyage as the Captain Hook of the Capital.

The disappointment from both left and right has been palpable. Municipal politics is in crisis — we needed a strong leader these last three years.

Take city zoning. There are two clear camps to be reckoned with. The first is the suburban development folks, who like living in new (or newish), low-density housing developments on the edges of fields. Some of them oppose development past wherever they live, some support it. Most don’t mind new mega-strip malls, provided they have a Golf Town and an oversized Jacob Annex. Urban folks overwhelmingly oppose development, since it spreads out resources, complicates transit and is bad for the environment.

Downtown, the zoning issue looks a little different. In the heart of the city, the battleground is 20-storey condo buildings in Centretown, the Byward Market and Sandy Hill. Many of those who oppose suburban sprawl worry that big towers downtown will “change the character” of the neighbourhood.

The solution, if we want a vibrant livable downtown, solid transit and a green city, is not going to make either group happy: kill suburban development and give the thumbs up to large-scale downtown residential development. It would take a politician with a backbone (rather than a swinging daddy dick) to brave the political firestorm and make it happen. Sadly, Ottawa has done the opposite, trying to minimize the size of downtown condos while permitting growth on the perimeter.

Meanwhile, gays have been watching a leadership void develop at city hall over the rainbow village on Bank St. City hall has yet to endorse the project, meaning we will be crowbarring politicians into taking a position in the 2010 race.

Add to that a festival circuit that’s been stagnant (or even declining) for a half decade: the end of pop concerts at the Tulip Festival, a scaled back Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, and so on. It’s an oft-repeated statistic that Ottawa has the smallest per-capita arts funding of any major city in Canada.

As a rule, the mayor and the city has shown indifference to Ottawa’s festivals. They have ratcheted up the petty practice of charging festivals for the police that attend, the rental of fencing and even the space they take up on the street — down to the last quarter the city loses in unused parking meters. Capital Pride, wounded by debts in the early part of the 2000s, has limped along for several years now — and in keeping with municipal attitudes, city hall doesn’t seem to care.

I have no doubt in my mind that we will see a hard-nosed O’Brien in his final lap as Ottawa’s mayor. But after three years of dithering, I suspect residents will see it for what it is — a desperate grasp at a legacy.

So. We look to the next mayor of Ottawa for the leadership this city so badly needs. All eyes are on 2010.