Ottawa city councillors took their seats in the council chambers today for the first time since the spring of 2020.

Councillors have been meeting virtually over Zoom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wednesday's meeting was a hybrid model, with councillors sitting in the chamber in city hall or connecting remotely as they have for the last two years.

Members of the public are not yet allowed in the gallery, but reporters can enter the council chamber in person for the first time since the pandemic began. Committee meetings will remain virtual for now, though the Ottawa Police Services Board has confirmed its March 28 meeting will be held in-person.

Eighteen councillors and the mayor took their seats in the chamber Wednesday. Councillors Matt Luloff, Scott Moffatt, Rick Chiarelli and Jan Harder connected remotely. Riley Brockington was absent Wednesday to attend the Public Library Association Conference in Portland, Oregon, on behalf of the Ottawa Public Library Board.

The meeting began with Zexi Li being awarded the city builder award. Li is the Centretown resident who filed a class action lawsuit against the "Freedom Convoy" protesters and obtained an injunction to silence the relentless horn honking in the downtown core during the demonstration that occupied city streets for three weeks.

VACANT UNIT TAX

Council passed a vacant unit tax, with dissent from councillors Laura Dudas, Jan Harder and Rick Chiarelli. The new system will come into effect starting in 2023. It will require annual declaration from property owners indicating any homes they own have not been vacant for more than 184 days in the previous calendar year, otherwise, they would face a one per cent levy on their tax bill for that property.

Staff estimate 330,000 residential property owners would need to declare their vacancy status annually.

There will be several exceptions to ensure homes are not taxed unfairly. The vacant unit tax does not apply to primary residences. Exemptions would also be available for owners in care, death of an owner, significant renovations, sale of the property, court order, and cottage rentals in rural areas.

PATIOS AND E-SCOOTERS

Restaurateurs will get another break on patio fees this summer and will be allowed to request on-street patios under an extended patio program that was passed Wednesday.

E-scooters will be back on city streets this summer. Councillors voted 16 to 7 to approve the 2022 e-scooter plan.

Electric scooters have been popular, but have not been without opposition. Several residents with disabilities have argued against their use in the city because of people riding them on the sidewalks or leaving them about, making it more difficult for people with disabilities to navigate around them.

The city is prohibiting the use of e-scooters on sidewalks in 2022 and is implementing more stringent guidelines for the companies operating e-scooters in the city.

Councillors Moffatt, Darouze, Cloutier, Tierney, Dudas, Kitts, Harder, El-Chantiry, Menard, Gower, Fleury, Luloff, Chiarelli, Curry, Hubley and Mayor Watson voted in favour of the program. Councillors Deans, Kavanagh, Meehan, King, Leiper and McKenney voted against it.

BRIAN COBURN/CUMBERLAND TRANSITWAY EXTENSION

Councillors voted 15 to 8 to approve the next step of creating an east-end transit extension that runs through federally owned Greenbelt lands, voting in favour of Approve the functional design for the Brian Coburn/Cumberland Transitway Extension. The proposed extension would cut through land currently owned by the NCC, which has been resistant to the idea.

Councillors who voted in favour were Moffatt, Darouze, Cloutier, Tierney, Dudas, Kitts, Harder, El-Chantiry, Gower, Luloff, Chiarelli, Egli, Curry, Hubley, and Mayor Watson. Councillors Deans, Kavanagh, Menard, Fleury, Meehan, King, Leiper, and McKenney voted against it.

Councillors unanimously approved a plan to request the minister responsible for the NCC, Filomena Tassi, direct the NCC to strike a joint committee with the city to try to resolve the impasse, with a deadline to report to the minister and the mayor within 100 days.

 

FREEDOM CONVOY SUPPORTS

Council also unanimously passed a motion to defer property tax payments for small business owners impacted by the “Freedom Convoy” protest and occupation in February. If approved, applications would open Thursday to allow eligible businesses to defer property payments to September. Landlords would be required to pass the savings onto their tenants under the program.

A motion by Coun. Mathieu Fleury asking the city to request that the federal government establish a working group with all three levels of government, senior agencies, and Indigenous elders to “propose a plan to modernize the needs and responsibilities of Ottawa’s jurisdiction as a capital city,” including removing the financial burden of national events from residents and businesses in Ottawa and clarifying the roles of multi-jurisdictional authorities, was passed unanimously.

Council also approved a plan to provide a form of compensation to university students who possess U-Passes in light of free transit service on select downtown routes following the convoy protest. U-Passes are paid for in advance, meaning students with the passes did not benefit from the no-charge transit service. Coun. Fleury, who moved the motion, noted that OC Transpo said it wasn't feasible to provide a straight refund, so council approved a plan to offer to the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Université Saint-Paul the option to accept, at no charge, QR-coded passes valid for May 2022 travel on OC Transpo, to be distributed to eligible students who held a U-Pass for the January-April 2022 term.

Finally, council approved the appointment of Coun. Cathy Curry to the Ottawa Police Services Board.

The board was completely reworked amid the Freedom Convoy protest. The resignation of Peter Sloly as Ottawa Police Chief led to the removal of Diane Deans as chair of the board in a heated council meeting in February. Councillors Rawlson King and Carol Anne Meehan resigned from the board during the meeting. Coun. Eli El-Chantiry was appointed the new chair of the board and Coun. Jeff Leiper was appointed. However, there remained one more space for a city councillor, which, on Wednesday, was given to Curry.

Curry was the only councillor to put forward interest in serving on the police services board.

OTHER ITEMS

Mail-in voting was approved for the Oct. 24 vote. Mail-in balloting was used during the byelection in Cumberland ward in 2020, but has never been used in a full city-wide election. This fall, electors will be able to mark their ballot at home and mail or deliver their ballot to the city of Ottawa's Elections Office on Cyrville Road, or deliver it to Client Service Centres. In-person voting will also go ahead as usual.

Council did not vote on a proposal to provide $100,000 to the legal challenge of Quebec's Bill 21 because the motion was withdrawn.

Coun. Diane Deans had tabled a motion calling on the city to join Brampton in supporting the constitutional challenge by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the World Sikh Organization and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, but said Wednesday she would withdraw the motion until organizations were better prepared to have it debated at council.

In 2020, Council passed a motion to officially oppose Quebec's Bill 21, which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by certain government employees deemed to be in positions of authority while at work.