Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news. The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

In the weeks since the news broke, my boss and I have had several conversations about working conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behaviour, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behaviour is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

Staffer’s Notebook: A motion to declare a climate emergency

On April 16 2019, Ottawa City Councillor Shawn Menard presented a motion asking the City to declare a climate emergency to the Environmental Protection Etc. Standing Committee. The motion passed at Committee and will rise to City Council for a vote by all City Councillors. 

Dear residents of the City of Ottawa displeased with Shawn Menard’s motion to declare a climate emergency,

Since most of you are conservative-minded, I thought I would respond to you directly rather than wait for your left-leaning City Councillor to do so. Not all Councillors are left-leaning mind you, but I’m sure that anyone who supports this motion will be painted with the same red-orange brush.

I offer myself as your interlocutor because I made life choices that have planted me squarely in the centre of the conservative messaging’s Venn’s diagram.

I represent everything progressives want to progress away from.

I studied law but sacrificed my career to stay home with my children while my husband worked. To this day, my paycheque is sent automatically to a joint account and I couldn’t tell you the figure on my bi-weekly deposits. I am a Catholic mother of nine children conceived the old fashioned way. I chose not to use birth control with my own brain.

As a mother of nine, living in a walkable neighbourhood is unaffordable, electrical cars are too small, and using my bike to go grocery shopping is impossible. We live in a house built over prime agricultural land by one of those greedy developers bike-lane advocates wake-up to loathe at night. Neither of the two egress routes out of my neighbourhood have sidewalks and both require a documented death wish to be biked. Our neighbourhood — while far from the worst — has no green space other than the Hydro corridor and is so poorly serviced by public transit that we own three vehicles, one for each driver. Our van is the biggest on the street, yet another proof of my husband’s virility, as if we needed one.

Because I’m a good hang, I’m often tapped by newsmedia to be their token mother of a large family. In 2014, Robert Sibley wrote a piece about our family in the Ottawa Citizen. It took no time for the global warming trolls to  go to town in the comments. I’ve been called every ugly name in the progressive workbook and then some. Not only was I not convinced to stop killing the planet, I wrote a blog post defending my choices. It remains the most popular post on my blog. You can’t buy right-wing creds like these. My husband is a gun owner and we have three grown children in the military. I don’t vote Conservative yet I’m a neodemocrat’s worst nightmare.

I’m friends with a lot of people who believe, as you probably do, that climate change is a matter of opinion at best and a hoax at worst. It’s not that you don’t want to use your bike or a LED lightbulb, you just don’t want the government to force you to do so for reasons you don’t buy. You want fiscal responsibility, business cases and freedom. Liberals think that your political inclinations are due to selfishness. In reality, you think, just as liberals do, that you hold the key to political stability and social cohesion. Every decision you make, from how to plant your garden, where to buy your house, and who to elect, gives shape to your understanding of happiness. Your imagination fails when you have to accept that other people are acting under the same inspiration.

Politicians who succeed in moving the ball forward on broad societal change are those who understand that public support does not rest on homogeneity of purpose but in aligning common interest among a diversity of points of view. If you can convince people that their neighbours are not after their piece of pie but rather part of a closed system, you might achieve something meaningful.

Part of my job at City Hall is to think of ways to talk about social issues without using words such as “sharing,” “equity” and “fairness” and replace them with “business case,” “common sense” and “freedom.” It’s interesting because conservative political philosophy never argued for letting the poor and the downtrodden fend for themselves. The difference between conservative and liberal philosophies is not whether or not we should help the poor but how to do it. In conservative philosophy, communities are loosely organized by geographical closeness or family ties and riches are shared based on need as defined organically by the community. Families should be strong and are worthy of protection because they are the social safety net. In liberal philosophy, government is responsible for  sharing the riches and determining who needs what. The judgment call, the agency, is transferred from the family to the government. Things get sticky when the government and the taxpayers disagree on how much to share, who is needy and what is needed. Liberals don’t have the humility to admit that governments are becoming too large and unwieldy to adapt to need in a timely manner. It needs families and communitites to bridge the gap. Conservatives don’t have the humility to admit that individuals and families don’t have all the information necessary to decide who deserves to be helped. Evening-out the playing field with objectivity is the fair thing to do.

Pride: still going before the fall, after all these years.

The problem in Canada is that we lean left when it comes to our expectations of what we should receive and right when it comes to giving it to other people. We howl for tax cuts and service increases in the same breath. We elect conservative governments on promises of tax and spending cuts but we don’t carry through with the rest of the bargain: that in exchange for more freedom, we will make sure that those in need will be helped. We’re content to leave people to their sorry fate while commending our hard-work and good choices. Until hard times befall us and everyone is looking the other way.

Our election system rewards divisive language and polarizing ideas. Then leaves the winners to reach out to those they painted as the problem, wondering why they can’t reach consensus. The motion to declare a climate emergency is a good move for those who value freedom and fiscal responsibility but how can we expect conservatives to take Shawn Menard’s word for it when he just called them Dinosaurs on every media platform available? I have been telling my kids to use nice words rather than insults for 25 years, I can be your mediator.

Forget about making life better for other people. Forget about the environment, forget about a low-carbon economy, forget about stewardship, rising sea-levels and equity if you must. Just think about yourself, your family, and how measures to counter climate change can improve your quality of life, give you more freedom and lower your taxes.

The motion to declare a climate emergency comes with an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to review the City’s priorities from the perspective of climate change. This may sound like a whole bunch of gobbledygook but think about it: the City will have to start thinking in terms of getting people off the road. I don’t think we’re arguing that cars and trucks cause pollution anymore. To do so, the City will have to promote density in areas already well serviced by transit and improve the efficiency and coverage of our transit system. You may think “how does this benefit me, who drives a car and lives in the suburbs?” and “What about my taxes and how much this will cost me?”

If I learned one thing in my 4 months at City Hall is that there is a lot more to the smooth running of a municipality than meets the eye. You might think that living in the suburbs is just another real estate option but your choice to live far from the core is an expensive one. Take my house in Stittsville for instance. Each time I flush my toilet, a complex system of pipes and pumps works to send my sewage to the Robert O. Pickard waste water treatment centre, 39km away. 39km of pumps working non-stop to transport my sewage from one end of the City to the other. And you worry about the cost of LED lightbulbs.  Building density around the core rather than build more suburbs like Stittsville means that we’re not extending the capacity of our sewage system farther away than we have to. You can make the same calculation for every piece of infrastructure, from parks to stormwater management to roads and sidewalks, streetlights, I challenge you to name one City service that doesn’t get more expensive as you build it bigger and farther away. If you build more density, your garbage trucks don’t have to drive as far to pick up the same amount of trash. It just makes good business sense. See: I’m using the same means as climate advocates to reach different ends. There’s nothing wrong with making everyone happy!

This is a Google map of the distance — by road — my poop has to travel to reach the water treatment facility. Since sewer pipes generally run under roadways, this is approximatively correct. I wanted to draw a poop emoji line like on Snapchat but Google doesn’t have this important functionality yet.

Transit and bike lanes are another sore point but as God is my witness I don’t understand why you can’t see the benefits of the so-called “war on cars”. I understand that no one likes to be painted as a monster but if I were you and I valued the freedom of car driving and the imperative of fiscal restraint I would sponsor a bus route. You think LRT is expensive but so are roadways. And the more cars we put on these roads, the more they need to be maintained, 12 months a year, in snow, sleet and suffocating heat. By crews of people drawing salary and benefits and driving Really Big Trucks. Not to mention the cost of being stuck in traffic: time is money and idling in traffic is both. Now, you might feel like it’s your prerogative to spend 3 hours in traffic every day and by a large measure it is. But here’s the deal: there are people like me who would rather put needles in their eyes than drive. I much prefer being driven. If you get enough people like me off the roads and into a bus or train, you get more highway to yourself, more time to your day and more money in your pocket.

Diversity of purpose, unity of means. That’s how the world should go round.


Staffer’s Notebook: Take me to Paris

Staffer’s Notebook is where I put emails that are way too long, or none of my business, or ideas no one wants to hear about. Glen Gower is my long-suffering boss and the person most likely to receive “I wrote you a 1200-word reply, wanna read it?” in response to a simple question. Sometimes he says yes. Sometimes I send it anyways.

Subject: Paris… Sigh

Hi Glen,

Some time ago (or so) I mentioned the Square du Temple in Paris as an example of a great public space. Today we received an email critical of public art in transit stations in Ottawa. It reminded me of Paris. Everything reminds me of Paris.

As a kid my mom took us back to France often but we never stayed in Paris. Two years ago, I took Éloïse and Marie to France for a family reunion. Since it was their first trip abroad, I decided to play tourist before joining my parents in Brittany. I was always interested in urban design and the secret sauce that makes greatness. My travels to Europe as a child and young adult formed my outlook on density, public transit and art. I wanted my two teenage daughters to experience the smaller footprint of life in a large European city and take that experience back with them to Ottawa, like I did growing up. I took a ton of pictures of public art, gathering space and (of course) transit.

Here is a short video I took in the Square du Temple. It’s about 15 seconds long and doesn’t have much sound: I was trying to capture the feel of the place.

This park is located in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, a hipster shopping district and former Jewish quarter. The girls and I bought bread, cheese and saucisson at the nearby Marché des enfants rouges — the oldest food market in Paris, created in 1615 — and took our “dinner” back to the park. Once there, we shared a moment with local residents and passers-by. The square is one of the 24 city parks designed and planned by Charles-Eugène Haussman, the prefect of the Seine charged by Napoleon with a massive urban renewal project. Haussman was ousted by critics for extravagance but his vision survives in the spirit that still animates Paris today. The garden in the Square du Temple contains 70 species of trees, some of them exotic and requiring special attention by skilled gardeners. Maintaining the park costs money and the park is not generating any revenues. It serves its purpose as a place of refuge in a densely built environment. It’s beautiful for its own sake.

Paris, like any city in a mature democracy, can no longer put one person in charge of transforming its image at any cost. But the spirit of making art and culture a set piece of any major project lives on. Many public projects in Paris have been commissioned to world-class artists and architects to reinvent and interpret. The Louvre Pyramid comes to mind as do many lesser-known transit stations.

We came to the Square du Temple through the “Arts et métiers” metro station, another public space worthy of a Google search if you are so inclined.

This station is named after the museum of “Arts et métiers” which translates to “crafts and trades”. It is lined with copper panels and was inspired by steampunk esthetics and the Nautilus — Jules Verne’s legendary submarine in 20,000 leagues below the sea. Unlike most metro stations, advertising is not allowed in this station. Portholes dot the walls and display sketches of some of the museum’s exhibits. The station is a work of art. Commissioning the art cost money and the station is not generating revenues through advertising. It’s a public transit station that serves its purpose as a transit station and as a work of art. It’s beautiful for its own sake.

I was reminded of this station during our chat about what our transit system says about our priorities. I said that Ottawa was a City of “good enough”. This is not a value judgement on the morality of being visionary or conservative, it’s a statement about Ottawa’s distinct personality as an agglomeration. I struggle to imagine Ottawa City Council, or the residents who elected it, supporting a kind of artistic vision for transit stations that makes them worth visiting in and of themselves and not just something to pass through. And yet, that ability to think bigger than “how do I get to work?” is part of the secret sauce that makes every corner of Paris worth discovering. I planned our Paris visit around landmark public transit stations, public spaces and public art. The two pictures below are another example of public art adorning a transit station.

We are a practical city. We don’t plant flowers that require a gardener’s care. Our vision for Ottawa Beyond 2036 is to be the “most liveable midsize city.” I wonder if this is not setting us on a path of un-remarkability and damning us to obscurity. Do we want to be a city where people merely live or do we want to be a city that people seek out? Do we want to be “survivable” or “desirable”?

I see “liveable” as a subset of a “desirable”. Liveable speaks to those who are already here. Desirable makes our city attractive to those who are not here yet. The difference between liveable and desirable may be an existential one: do we want to be a city looking inward or outward? Do we want to grow in stature and meaning or do we want to stay cozy within our small-town self-perception? When I listen to Stephen Willis talk about Ottawa Beyond 2036, I hear hopes for a city looking both inward and outward: a city caring for its own and shining beyond its limits. When I listen to the public, I hear wishes for a city that is safe and predictable in scope and ambition. Safe is unremarkable. It will keep our city sprawling, our zoning unequitable, our transit unreliable, our roads wide, our sidewalks missing and our children in our basements.

The best we can hope for by playing it safe is to make the wrong things better or maybe start doing the right things poorly. Doing the right things well will require vision and a will to match.


Deadhead: A municipal staffer’s notebook

In public transit speak, “deadhead” is the movement of a transit vehicle without passengers on board. For instance, the time a bus spends driving from the garage to its starting point, or from the end point of its route to its starting point. In a city like Ottawa, where we run one-way express routes into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the afternoon, deadhead is a costly yet unavoidable element of our transit equation. I thought it was a great concept to name my staffer notebook after.

As a staffer, I often feel like a necessary evil in the bureaucratic equation, something that most people would do without if they could, but can’t figure out how to wish away. If transit authorities could magically make their buses appear at their starting point without using gas or putting mileage on those axles, they would. If City Hall could magically make staffers disappear while maintaining a 100+h workweek for its municipal councillors, it would. The only reason we are tolerated is because we help maintain the illusion that elected officials can singlehandedly read hundreds of pages of reports, sit on 4 committees plus City Council, answer the phone, solve their constituents’ problems, cut ribbons and wrangle stakeholders.

Last December, I started working at Ottawa City Hall for a municipal councillor. Personel attached to a politician are often called “staffers”. In Ottawa, “staffers” are not to be confused with “City Staff,” the public servants and bureaucrats keeping the machine going. It is no coincidence that the two jobs I found after spending several years at home were staffer jobs, one for a federal politician in 2008 and one for a municipal politician in 2018: staffer positions are entry-level positions that require no other background than getting along with your boss. We are hired and fired at our boss’ will. Our salaries come out of each politician’s office budget, along with swag, pens and paper, printers and newspaper advertizement. This is not only a pay mechanism, it is an adequate reflection of our relative importance in the hierarchy of the City. At best, we are something less valuable than furniture. At worst, we get shit thrown at us and get fired for being in front of it. In meetings we have no name, no identity, no claim to a chair or an introduction. (As I was writing this in the cafeteria — no word of a lie — a municipal councillor I meet several times a week walked past me and gave me a blank stare of non-recognition when I said Hi…)

Because staffers are poorly paid, mostly young, and often of questionable ability, the turnover rate among political staff is high. We do not have any recourse if we are treated unfairly: we signed-up to be hired and fired at will. For someone like me, it has been mosly an advantage. I am smart, usually competent, and able to get along with anything with a pulse. What I lack is a resume and work experience beyond “raised 9 live children, no face tattoos.”

I am, essentially, deadhead.

But that’s not how I see myself. I was lucky to be hired by a phenomenal municipal councillor, along with two other spectacular woman. My colleagues make me want to be better every day. We are working in a collaborative environement, supporting one common mission and each other. Within the confines of my office, I don’t feel like an entry-level minion. I feel like a trusted advisor, someone’s whose ideas and talents are valued and used to their full capacity. My push back on some of my boss’ ideas is as appreciated as my support and I have yet to execute a direction I didn’t agree with. When my boss and I disagree, we hash it out, argue, convince each other — or vice-versa — and move on. This is a rare work environment where we are building trust one good decision at a time, like a row-boat moves forward one stroke at a time, as long as both rowers are paddling in the same direction at the same time.

This collaborative environment where ideas are shared freely has caused me to dig deep into municipal policy and planning. I have a Master’s Degree in law: I am naturally inclined to get into the weeds. Urban design is an ongoing invitation to geek-out on just about anything. I am driven to keep up with the conversations happening around me, even when I sit unnoticed and silent. It can be hard to keep my mouth shut and I am chomping at the bit more often than not. I am often writing emails I never send and piling on notes no one will ever read. My hope is that sharing my thoughts on this blog will help me manage my restlessness and form ideas that are my own in this new space I just created.

Welcome to my notebook.