The following is the first of a three-part year-end interview with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. Stay tuned for future parts of our discussion including COVID-19 and light-rail transit in Ottawa. The interview was filmed in its entirety on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.
Jim Watson has no qualms about how he conducted himself and city council during his three terms as Ottawa’s mayor, arguing in a year-end interview with Global News that his record of keeping tax hikes steady and getting work done on city-building projects speaks for itself.
Watson announced on Friday that he would not seek re-election as mayor of Ottawa in 2022, opening the floodgates to well-wishers, critics and challengers for his seat.
Speaking to Global News over Zoom on Monday — the mayor remains in self-isolation after a recent COVID-19 exposure but said he tested negative on Tuesday — Watson said he was “honoured and humbled” to hear from his friends and colleagues after his announcement.
He said in a written statement that day that he made up his mind about running again on election night in 2018, but said he wanted to share his decision before the new year so prospective mayors could have time to organize their campaigns.
Three candidates threw their hats in the ring that first day: former mayor Bob Chiarelli and two current city councillors, Diane Deans and Catherine McKenney.
The two councillors both said in their initial comments that they’d like to see city council run “better” in the next term, with, for instance, improved representation and collaboration across the city’s rural, suburban and urban wards.
Asked whether he thinks council has been broken under his leadership, Watson disagreed with his council colleagues.
“Council is a democracy,” he said. “I take it very seriously that part of my responsibility is to shepherd things through council, working with all members of council.”
Watson said that the majority of votes around the council table are unanimous, with only “high profile” items causing division.
Divides in council have been evident on a number of big-ticket items this past year alone: the Ottawa Police Services budget, a tax break for a proposed Porsche dealership in Vanier, and, of course, debates over whether to call for a judicial inquiry into the problem-plagued light-rail transit system, to name a few.
But Watson pointed to major projects from his tenure in office such as the Lansdowne Park revitalization, the construction of the Ottawa Art Gallery and the Confederation Line itself as proof of a well-functioning council.
Others have claimed that the so-called “Watson club” — councillors who tend to vote alongside the mayor — lines up behind him solely to ensure his position on major items can’t be challenged.
Watson disagrees and says these patterns of division are not signs of dysfunction at council.
“On some votes, there is a minority of people who disagree and that’s their right in a democracy. But at the end of the day, my job is to line up the votes to get things through council. I don’t want it to be a complete free-for-all on council where… everyone running in circles. I want things to get done and that’s the clear message I received from the public when I was seeking re-election,” Watson told Global News.
The mayor’s critics have not only been around the council table this term.
Watson has been charged with not valuing the concerns of some Ottawa residents, namely Black, Indigenous and racialized community members and those pushing to reallocate funding from the Ottawa police to other social services.
The mayor has meanwhile said he’s not in favour of attempts to freeze or lower police funding, citing Chief Peter Sloly’s claims it would lead to layoffs in the force.
That came to a head over social media during debates over the police budget, when Watson compared demonstrators blocking traffic to anti-vaccine protesters set up in front of hospitals.
Watson again defended his position against some of his most vocal constituents.
“There’s a difference between listening and agreeing. I listen to people. I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say. I’m not going to change my vote because 20 people show up outside City Hall yelling and screaming. That doesn’t act as a very effective way of lobbying,” he told Global News.
“I can’t try to be all things to all people. I think that’s a curse of some politicians, they’re like a weeping willow back and forth, depending on what the loudest shout is.”
Watson said he believes the 2022 budget passed that last week, which included a two per cent funding hike for police next year, is “in the best interest of the people of Ottawa,” positioning his promised three-percent property tax cap as a measure of stability in uncertain economic times.
“Housing affordability and affordability of living as a result of inflation is a problem. And we don’t want to add to that problem by constantly raising taxes about what I think is a reasonable level,” he said.
While he won’t be focused on an election campaign in 2022, Watson said a few of his priorities for his final year in office are consistent with the past 11: getting shovels in the ground on major city-building projects, this time eyeing the central library at LeBreton Flats and the new Ottawa Civic Hospital.
Watson said he expects roughly a dozen candidates to come out of the woodwork in the months ahead to announce their intentions to run for mayor.
Offering a bit of advice to his would-be successors, he advised candidates for both mayor and Ottawa city council to put forward a “realistic, consistent and affordable vision.”
“Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Do the exact opposite, under-promise and over-deliver, because I’ve seen far too many politicians over the years who have promised everything but the kitchen sink just to get elected. And then if they happen to get elected, they come back, ‘Oh my goodness, I had no idea I couldn’t do this or council wouldn’t vote for this,’” he said.
“Some people want to be all things to all people. I’ve never been like that. I’ve been very blunt in my view that if you make a promise, you have to do everything you can to fulfill that. … I’ve done my very best to stick to my word because it gnaws away at the public’s confidence, politicians that will just say anything to get a vote and then completely capture a case of political amnesia that they forgot what they voted for when they get in office.”
In his statement announcing the end of his mayoral runs, the 60-year-old veteran politician hinted that he’d like to have “one more career” after 2022.
While he said he’d like to return to sitting on non-profit boards and volunteering at the Shepherds of Good Hope soup kitchen, he did not give any suggestion of where he might apply himself after he’s out of the mayor’s chair.
“I haven’t given that a whole lot of thought because it’s hard to apply for jobs when you’re the mayor of Ottawa,” he said.