Councillor exit interview: David Chernushenko stands by ‘bridge-building’ approach to politics

David Chernushenko (centre) was the city councillor for Capital Ward for eight years. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson (left) and city manager Steve Kanellakos (right) recognized Chernushenko, who was not re-elected in October, for his public service during the final city council meeting of the term on Nov. 28, 2018. Christopher Whan / Global News

David Chernushenko had hoped the track record he built over the last eight years would win him a third term on Ottawa city council, but it wasn’t to be.

In a closely watched, tight race between five strong contenders in Capital Ward, the longtime Ottawa resident lost his seat in October’s municipal election to school board trustee Shawn Menard.

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Friday marked Churnushenko’s last official day on the job as councillor for the downtown area ward.

Before he made his first bid for a seat at city hall, the Calgary-born politician worked as a business and sustainability consultant and was a prominent federal Green Party member.

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Chernushenko ran twice, unsuccessfully, under the party’s banner in Ottawa Centre in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections. He ran for the party leadership in 2006, losing to Elizabeth May and then briefly served as her senior deputy.

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He was first elected to Ottawa City Hall in the 2010 municipal election and re-elected in 2014. During his second term on council, he chaired the environment committee and was a member of the transportation and finance and economic development committees.

Global News sat down with Chernushenko on Nov. 28, after the final city council meeting of the term.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How are you feeling today? It’s your last day of city council after an eight-year run.

A: It’s obviously a time of big transition. You really do give everything during your time in office so it’s eight years of giving it everything and save a little for your family and your health and things like that. I didn’t get emotional today, I think I’ve already kind of been through the mental shift from: “Okay, if my time is over as an elected councillor here, I move on.” There’s lots of adventures still to come.

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Q: What would you identify as some things you’re proud of from your time in office?

A: There’s the tangible things which are the ones that come sort of quickly to mind, which are the Main Street renewal as a complete street and the Bank Street reconstruction with wider sidewalks and the O’Connor bike lane. So quite a substantial shift towards more complete streets, safer sidewalks, safer cycling… this overall transition to a city that isn’t just built for cars.

The non-tangible is just the relationship building and in the end, that’s what I was about (and) am about. I’ll try not to make it sound like sour grapes… it seems like that was not recognized or acknowledged as being as important as I believe it to be… it’s (the) building of relationships that led to all of these accomplishments. … You accomplish more by being strategic and developing relationships and figuring out how to get the votes and how to get the money and how to get the community on side. It’s the way I operate. I wouldn’t do that any differently.”

Q: What would you identify as some things you weren’t able to see through to the finish line?

A: You know, the funny thing is, there’s really just one thing and that was stopping bad infill. In the end, you just look at the votes on council, where you get 22 to two – mostly it’s 19 to five votes constantly – (on) a particular project that is in compliance or adheres to the Official Plan, whereas those of us who live in the neighbourhood and the rest of the urban councillors look at the exact same project and scratch our heads and go: “But it’s way too big, it’s too close to the sidewalk, it’s too dense, it’s too this, it’s too that.” And yet these things get approved. And that’s led to, I would say, a crisis of confidence in the most affected wards for these sorts of projects.

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Q: Is there anything when you look back on the last eight years, a particular issue or file that you wish you had dealt with differently or voted on differently? Any regrets?

A: There really aren’t. I don’t think that’s me being arrogant or defensive. … Could I have been more popular with some voters by voting differently on a particular issue? Maybe, but that’s not why I believe people get elected. I believe you get elected to represent the broader good of your constituents and the city as a whole. You get elected on your own set of values that you’ve made really clear to the voter … so if I apply those values to a particular vote or issue or project, you will know why I voted the way I did. And on ones that were contentious, I always made an effort of explaining. You know, the 99 Fifth Avenue Court (site), which is one that I voted for even though I was against that excessive height initially, I explained why in the end I had to vote that way.

There are times to say ‘no’ right to the end … and there’s others where you realize: “This is going to happen. This is a project that is going to happen. I need to get better for my community.” Lansdowne was going to happen. I didn’t go to the wall saying: “I’m going to refuse to touch Lansdowne and deal with it.” When I was elected, I said: “It’s gonna pass and I’m going to work to make Lansdowne better” – even though the majority of residents of Capital Ward didn’t like the project as a whole. I didn’t like it either but I knew it was going to pass so I made it as good as I could make it.

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Q: What do you think of Lansdowne as it is right now?

A: As a sports venue, it’s great. As retail and as a civic space … it’s too hard, it’s got too many cars on it, it’s still got too many chain-type – it’s basically become pubs and sports. Which is good for what it is, but it’s not as if Ottawa needed another drinking area or another restaurant area. So what I would’ve liked is more green space, more true park space, more community type of facilities there and a little less of the hardened surfaces. I would’ve liked to see more affordable housing and more housing, period, on the site because that would’ve helped to keep it lively in those non-game, bad weather times of the year. It could be better.

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Q: What about this job surprised you or was more difficult than you anticipated?

A: The pure volume (or) number of issues that get thrown at you. You do have to be strategic about what issues you truly take on. Yes, you’re going to have to vote on it, you’re going to have to inform yourself. But to champion particular projects, issues, policy changes, under-represented constituents, you need to pick and choose because you will never have the time and energy that you need to do it all. And that’s tough, because you want to do it all.

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That surprised me, just how hard it is to truly read your reports, absorb them and thoughtfully vote on them. But on the other hand, never a dull day.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My only definite is that I’m not going to rush into a next job. Whether I go back to consulting, being self-employed and do project by project… that’s one possibility. There may be that great new job opportunity that may be in a totally new field that I’ve never thought of and worked in … but I feel like I need to take a few months where I don’t really put my mind to it, where I allow everything to settle. This has been an eight-year adrenaline rush. My family is enjoying me making meals more often at home again and reading Harry Potter for the third round with my nine-year-old now.

But otherwise, I’m kind of leaving that open. I have this novel that I’m working on. I just know that I can’t do anything but keep contributing to my city and my world. In one sense, it doesn’t matter what form that takes and that’s why I’ve been in federal government, a business consultant, speaker, filmmaker, writer, Green Party, city councillor… it morphs, but the goals are a sustainable, healthier planet and community …  (that’s) sort of at the core of what I’m trying to do.

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