He’s a blustering gaffe machine. But a criminal? The mayor of Ottawa?
MAYOR MAY NOT
He’s a blustering gaffe machine. But a criminal? The mayor of Ottawa?
On the morning of Feb. 10, Ottawa awoke to learn that its colourful new mayor had been accused of a serious crime.
Less than three months after high-tech entrepreneur Larry O’Brien rode his conservative platform to a surprise victory, the Ottawa Citizen ran a front page story outlining a claim by fellow candidate Terry Kilrea that O’Brien had tried to bribe him to
drop out of the race. O’Brien denied all wrongdoing. A police investigation followed, the Ottawa force deferring to the Ontario Provincial Police to remove any hint of bias. As their investigation wore on, as O’Brien struggled to get his bearings in his new job, and as questions surrounding his election spread even to the floor of the House of Commons, Ottawa residents realized they’d elected a mayor who would spark contro-
versy over more than just his plans to curb city spending.
Since donning the chain of office, Larry O’Brien has been plagued by criticism and headline-grabbing gaffes. He’s struggled through a difficult relationship with his council, and has learned the hard way that running a city is nothing like running a business. “I don’t think I was ready,” O’Brien says now, sitting in his corner office on the second floor of a City Hall heritage building. “I should probably have had five years’ experience in municipal government before I made the move. Having said that, through those first
‘I FELL ASLEEP DRINKING A BEER AND WHEN I WOKE UP I WAS MAYOR’
five or six months, I probably got that experience through trial and error. I got an accelerated learning process through the school of hard knocks.”
It’s been quite an education. “That transition from private sector CEO to consensusbuilder has been difficult, I think,” says Councillor Peter Hume. “I mean, he didn’t start out particularly well. He called us all lazy the first week he was in power.”
O’Brien come to office vowing to shake up the way Ottawa does business, and to transform it from a bland government town into a city that “swaggers.” O’Brien swaggers. A self-made multi-millionaire, he has a condo at the swish 700 Sussex building, next door to the Parliament Buildings and home to the likes of Belinda Stronach. He has his eye on a World’s Fair bid for the city, apd is trying to bring Ottawa’s CFL franchise back from the dead. During the Ottawa Senators’ playoff run last year, O’Brien sported temporary Senators tattoos on his bald head. He’s been the city’s cheerleader-in-chief.
But after campaigning on spending restraint, to allow for a tax freeze, O’Brien supported a pay raise for councillors in his first weeks as mayor that would have goosed his own salary by $32,000. He declined the raise days later after a public outcry, but then his niece Heather Tessier was hired as his executive assistant—the best candidate for the position, the mayor’s office claimed, and the appearance of nepotism be damned. In office, O’Brien showed an uncertain knowledge of the way the city and its government actually ran. “You know, the first city council meeting I saw with my own eyes, I was, in fact, chairing,” he says. “And the first political debate that I ever saw with my own eyes, I was, in fact, in. When you look up the words political novice in the dictionary, my face would be there.”
He did manage to secure the votes on council needed to fulfill a promise to mothball the city’s light rail transit plan. The result? Ottawa was slammed with $300 million in lawsuits over contract cancellations—more than the $260 million the city would have spent had it gone ahead as planned. O’Brien maintains he’s confident about the outcome of the legal actions, calling the city’s defence “clear and concise and irrefutable.”
Against the advice of the city’s chief medical officer, O’Brien then fulfilled the third of his three campaign pledges by cancelling the city’s crack pipe distribution program. It aimed to reduce the spread of serious disease among drug users in the downtown core, but O’Brien says it wasn’t working; and he drew fire for comments suggesting that surrounding towns were busing their homeless into
Ottawa, comparing panhandlers to pigeons and claiming that if citizens stopped “feeding” them they would go away. “I still stand by this,” the mayor told Maclean’s, reiterating his belief that the majority of panhandlers in Ottawa’s downtown Byward Market area are addicted to crack. “These people need our help. They don’t need handouts. I made the comment that the citizens of Ottawa had to resist the temptation of feeling good by giving these people a toonie, and so I came up with the allusion that it was like feeding pigeons. If you don’t feed the pigeons, they’ll go away. Certain people took that to mean
that I had a problem with homelessness. It had nothing to do with homelessness; it had a lot to do with panhandling and the drug problem in the downtown of Ottawa.”
In the summer, two of the mayor’s highprofile staff resigned: spokesman Mike Patton left to run, unsuccessfully, for the PCs in the Ontario provincial election; and chief of staff Walter Robinson, a former head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and one-time federal Tory candidate, resigned after just six months, citing “disagreements.”
And still, the mayor remains relentlessly optimistic. This fall, he’s managed to keep his tax freeze on the table for the 2008 budget, and he’s won enough votes to pass a contentious motion that will, for three months, give him the power to review city contracts of more than $10,000, despite vocal resistance from some councillors who think it will violate the separation of legislative and administrative branches of government. (Originally, he’d tried to win the power to approve contracts, but that didn’t fly.) O’Brien feels like he’s getting his bearings. “Finally,” he says, “maybe for the first time since I’ve
been elected mayor, I feel like I have the moral authority to be the head of council.”
Moral authority has been hard to earn. “He had a disrespect for politicians when he came in,” says long-time Councillor Rick Chiarelli. “And that’s part of why he got elected, because people wanted someone who wasn’t political. But I think he’s started to develop respect. The year has been a big pile of poop, but we’re starting to see a pony in there somewhere.” Save for one thing: the spectre of the police investigation.
Terry Kilrea finished second in Ottawa’s 2003 mayoral election. A candidate again in
2006, his conservative views were similar to O’Brien’s, though his polling numbers were nowhere near as high as in 2003. After the election, Kilrea swore an affidavit and passed a polygraph test for the Citizen over his claims that O’Brien offered him up to $30,000 in cash to drop out of the race. He also claimed that they discussed an appointment for Kilrea, a court enforcement officer, to the National Parole Board-a claim that has dragged the names of Ottawa-area Conservative cabinet minister John Baird, former Conservative MP John Reynolds, and party campaign director Doug Finley into the investigation. O’Brien and his team were allegedly going to use their influence with those men to secure the appointment. With the reopen-
ing of Parliament last week, the federal Liberal party seized on the allegations, grilling the Conservatives in Question Period about their alleged involvement.
O’Brien has denied the allegations, and told the Citizen he had a hard time recalling any such conversations with his rival. “I fell asleep on my boat in July drinking a beer and when I woke up I was the mayor of Ottawa,” he said. “That’s how fast it went.” His supporters say there was no need for any bribe, since support for Kilrea migrated to O’Brien the minute he entered the race.
With the OPP investigation now concluded and the case turned over to the Crown attorney for assessment, a decision is likely near on whether to charge O’Brien. “Everybody understands that this could have consequences way beyond the charges against one individual,” says Councillor Clive Doucet. “You’re going to end up compromising the ability of the city to run itself.”
Doucet, among others, says the controversy has been a huge distraction. “It sucks the political energy out of this place like it was attached to a vacuum,” says Hume. Rumours abound that some councillors are quietly positioning themselves for a shot at O’Brien’s job if he resigns or is forced out in the face of criminal charges. “I’ve heard talk that some members of council are looking at limiting the mayor’s authority over signing and over contracts if the charges involve bribery,” says Chiarelli. “We’ll have to look at it at that time. But I don’t think he’s going to resign. I think he’s going to stay.”
O’Brien won’t be drawn on what he’ll do if he’s charged. “I’m looking forward to its conclusion, and that’s really all I can say. I’m not nervous about it. I didn’t do anything wrong. I will be thoughtful and will take into consideration the citizens of Ottawa before I make a decision about what I would do.” But there’s no doubt O’Brien wants the chance to realize his vision for the city. Part of his plan for Ottawa is that it be run in a style that’s “low-key to the point that the citizens don’t even know that they have a municipal government. That level of boredom and efficiency would be wonderful.”
He grins. “Boredom is good in management.” After his first 10 months in office, it must look good—both to him and to the people of Ottawa. M
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