I arrive at the sleek, stone lobby of Ottawa’s premier condo address on time. I am duly escorted to an upper-level condo by the concierge. There I am met at the door by the mayor, his wife, their small dog, his campaign manager and a campaign advisor. It is a chaotic and informal greeting.
Larry O’Brien, it turns out, has a good sense of humour and has no problem laughing at himself. He also has the memory of an elephant when it comes to facts, figures and what his opponents have said about him.
O’Brien arrived in office four years ago as a political neophyte with a long business CV. It has been a steep learning curve.
“For me it has been a metamorphosis. I have come in and only looked at the world through the lens of a businessman. But in the course of being mayor, I have realized that, like many things in life, like in business, you are not going to be successful unless you give back to the community,” says O’Brien.
Despite a slow start — and the outright hostility of council in his first years — O’Brien has pushed through some heavy-duty items: a downtown Ottawa transit tunnel, the Ottawa River cleanup, a new conference centre, plans for the Lansdowne development and, on a smaller environmental scale, the green-bin program.
Early in his term, O’Brien launched a 1,000-day transformation campaign, a restructuring strategy that included the streamlining of municipal governance. O’Brien says that progress has been made — the decision-making process is smoother, and council is ready to move into the next phase to put more authority into the hands of councillors and the various city committees.
“Change takes 1,000 days — that’s in business. Municipal government, probably 2,000,” says O’Brien. “But what I am most impressed with is that we are on that track; we are moving towards something that is very exciting.”
O’Brien sees transformation as a way for the city to move forward after amalgamation. The aftershocks are now over, he says, and he credits — perhaps surprisingly — his predecessor, Bob Chiarelli, for doing the heavy lifting.
“He did an amazing job of keeping the ship afloat while the bureaucracy was trying to understand what the heck they had done,” says O’Brien. “He did a lot and I give him full credit for what he and the previous councils have done. I was able to build upon that.”
While the development of Ottawa is close to O’Brien’s heart — he wants to see Ottawa transform into a vibrant city — he has also taken steps to separate municipal politics from social policies.
Case in point: during the last term, council established a Board of Health. It will operate separately, with the chief medical officer reporting directly to the board — and not to council. It is similar to the Police Services Board, a seven-member civilian body responsible for the hiring of the police chief and policy reviews of the Ottawa Police Service.
The political will to relinquish control of health matters came in 2007, after council voted — against the advice of Ottawa Public Health — to dismantle the crack-pipe program.
O’Brien still supports the decision. He says council’s decision was in the best interest of the citizens of Ottawa and that public health did not have enough evidence to support the benefits of the crack-pipe program.
“Quite frankly, when I talked to people who had just had a hit of crack, they were no more capable of making a decision to use a clean crack pipe than I would be to fly to the moon,” says O’Brien. “They were just not there; it wasn’t working — as a matter of fact, some of the dealers were taking City of Ottawa bags — they were crack loot bags — they would sell a complete package.”
It’s a matter of not having enough evidence, he says, to justify the distribution of safer inhalation kits. (Council, he points out, does support other harm-reduction programs, such as the clean-needle program.)
Later in the interview, however, when faced with another set of facts — this time, the overburdened sexual health clinic on Clarence St — he says his hands are tied.
Of the 80 health workers employed by the city, 35 of them work out of the Clarence St clinic. Between April and June 2010 the clinic had more than 4,000 visits; average waiting times were four to five hours.
The city can’t afford to do more, O’Brien says, laying the problem at the feet of the provincial government.
“That particular issue is somehow complicated by the relationship between the city and the province in terms of the overall funding envelope available for those kinds of services. We are always asking for more,” says O’Brien.
O’Brien says there are other social issues that are a problem, and he cites homelessness as an example. O’Brien made waves during his first term in office by comparing Ottawa’s homeless to pigeons and telling Ottawans not to give them change.
It is evident that O’Brien is concerned with how the city looks — visible homelessness complicates the city’s sales pitch. Pushing panhandlers out of Lowertown appears to be an important accomplishment of O’Brien’s — although he admits his approach was less than diplomatic.
“Maybe I didn’t do it as politically cunning as I should, but I made sure that the people in the city knew that the majority of the money that was being given to panhandling was going to drugs. I asked the police to focus on the drug issue downtown. I asked the citizens to not give money to the panhandlers, and I said it in very colourful words,” says O’Brien.
O’Brien says there are fewer panhandlers — and drug users — downtown now because of community policing. He gives credit to police chief Vern White.
“He is very definitely a leader, and he has taken on a role that I have asked him to take on, which is to be a higher profile and to represent major initiatives and communicate with the people, because for many years people did not have an idea what the police force was doing,” says O’Brien.
White’s mixed reviews from the gay community don’t seem to faze O’Brien. As mayor, O’Brien is supportive of White’s approach to community policing — cops on bikes, the crackdown on gangs, the introduction of the street-crimes unit.
The last of these includes regular prostitution sweeps in Lowertown, Vanier and Centretown. Hookers are targeted, arrested for breach of condition or prostitution and forced into working in areas that are sparsely populated and poorly lit, and therefore more dangerous.
On the day I interviewed O’Brien, the body of a hooker had been found in a parking lot in Vanier. I asked him if the police were doing a good job of protecting people of every economic status.
It was clearly not a conversation O’Brien wanted to have.
He first suggested that I ask to ride with the police on one of their sweeps (I have asked, but the police have yet to take me up on my request). O’Brien argued that the city needs to balance police crackdowns against condoms in alleys and concern for residents who have needles on their front porch and taxpayers whose property value suffers.
It is obvious that, although O’Brien loves Ottawa, he is more comfortable talking about business and development than the social issues that affect the poorer residents.
That gap was starkly illustrated by the city’s long, mid-winter bus strike, which left thousands of Ottawa’s working class citizens stranded in sub-zero weather. In that case, O’Brien pledged to wring money-saving concessions from the union, but after two months he was forced to settle for binding arbitration.
Still, O’Brien is not malicious or unlikable. On the contrary, he is focused on finishing the job he started in his first term as mayor — developing the city’s economic prosperity and physical infrastructure. He is convinced he is on the right path and that, in a second term, he would be able to complete the task of building Ottawa.
“Eight years is enough time to set the course for the balance of this century and will probably be the total amount of time I would want to put in as a politician,” says O’Brien. “If I cannot make the changes in the city of Ottawa in the eight years, I doubt if I am going to make them in 12 years.”