Five challenges facing new Ottawa mayor Mark Sutcliffe

In the end, it wasn’t a particularly close mayoral election in Ottawa.

With no incumbent and a robust campaign, many observers had expected a race down to the wire. But Mark Sutcliffe, a political rookie with the backing of much of the city’s political establishment, won more than 51 per cent of the vote compared to nearly 38 per cent for main rival Catherine McKenney.

It was a more than 42,000-vote gap in a race in which one poll last week showed McKenney with a razor-thin lead.

All 13 incumbents who ran for re-election won their wards on Monday. They will be joined by 11 new councillors; 10 in wards where incumbents didn’t seek re-election and one in a new ward, Barrhaven East.

Sutcliffe, an avid runner who has raced in many marathons, now embarks on a different race with an entirely new set of challenges.

Here are a few things that the new mayor will have to tackle when he takes over at city hall.

Political harmony

It’s been a rocky few years on city council, with an increasingly sharp divide emerging between Mayor Jim Watson and his allies and a vocal opposition group. Some outgoing councillors cited the increasing toxicity that comes with public life as a reason they weren’t seeking re-election.

Sutcliffe said he views Monday’s results as a chance for a fresh start.

“I think there’s really a sense that this is an opportunity for a fresh start,” he told CTV Morning Live on Tuesday. “That we’ve had some dysfunction over the last few years, and this is an opportunity now to really put the political divisions aside and just get everybody working together.”

Sutcliffe said he’s looking forward to working with the incumbents. But some councillors who are returning were vocal supporters of Catherine McKenney, the runner-up in the mayoral race.

“We’re going to start from a good place and we just have to maintain that,” he said. “It’s OK to disagree. It’s OK to have different ideas on how we should move forward, and to discuss them. And I’m ready to do that.”

OC Transpo

Transit was a hot button topic in the election campaign. A Nanos Research poll for CTV News found it was the most important issue for voters.

Sutcliffe made McKenney’s position on free transit—which he accused them of flip-flopping on—a major focus throughout his pitch for office.

But after McKenney promised to freeze fares, Sutcliffe adopted the idea as well. He has said he will freeze OC Transpo fees for one year.

An immediate priority for Sutcliffe: addressing OC Transpo’s projected $85 million deficit this year, which city staff attribute largely to lower fare revenue.

“We’re going to need to get the funding from other levels of government to address that,” Sutcliffe said on Tuesday.

Sutcliffe is also promising to “modernize and optimize OC Transpo bus service” to reflect people’s new travel patterns in a post-COVID world.

The public inquiry into the city’s LRT is set to release its findings later this year. Sutcliffe has pledged to implement the recommendations that come out of it.

Finding ‘efficiencies’

Sutcliffe’s financial plan includes up to $60 million in “strategic review and efficiencies.”

To find those efficiencies, Sutcliffe is pledging to launch a strategic review of existing city spending. McKenney framed this plan as cuts to city services. But Sutcliffe has cited areas such as travel and training for city staff and consulting fees where savings could be found.

He has promised to limit the property tax increase to between 2 and 2.5 per cent in 2023 and 2024, “targeting the same level” for the following two years.

Roads

Sutcliffe made fixing the city’s roads a key plank of his campaign, pledging an extra $100 million over a four-year term toward fixing them.

It’s unclear how much of a dent that would make in repairing the city’s deteriorating roadways. Fixing Carling and Bronson avenues alone, for example, which routinely land on CAA’s annual list of worst roads in Ontario, could eat into a huge chunk of that money.

Policing

The ongoing testimony at the Emergencies Act inquiry shows the significant failings of the Ottawa Police Service during the three-week Freedom Convoy occupation.

Despite the ongoing hearing, the city’s police services board—which was entirely overhauled in the immediate aftermath of the convoy—appointed a new police chief the Friday before the election.

Sutcliffe supported the timing of that move. He has also pledged to take his seat on the police services board (current Mayor Jim Watson has declined that option).

But with the city’s police force such a hot political topic in the aftermath of the convoy, Sutcliffe’s pledge to increase police funding could face opposition from some city councillors.

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