Articles

"My six furious years as a city father"

Charlotte Whitton May 25 1957
Articles

"My six furious years as a city father"

Charlotte Whitton May 25 1957

"My six furious years as a city father"

As woman mayor on an all-male city council I fought civic sloth, sticky-fingered politics and the federal government. Here’s what I learned in

Charlotte Whitton

The author in her robes as mayor of Ottawa. She retired last fall. ^

"It happened to me”

This is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean's . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.

HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto.

For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.

"What exactly do the Canadians call their mayors?” the Queen Mother asked me, shortly before she rose to thank Ottawa for a civic luncheon.

“Your Majesty,” I replied, “deference to the presence of royalty prevents me from being explicit.”

The mayor in a town or city, a reeve in a village, is the head of the local government and the municipal government is the most easily able of all levels of government. He—or very occasionally, she—is the average taxpayer’s most visible and therefore most assailable instrument of government: the person who deals directly and intimately with the taxpayer’s personal affairs and interests.

What does a fifty-million-dollar subway or a thirty-million-doilar highway rate if Mr. A who says he voted for you gets a two-dollar parking tab? What does a million dollars’ worth of pavement mean if Mr. B hits a pothole at forty miles an hour? What matters the debenture debt or interest rate if the spokesman for a Grey Cup football game wants the city to put up the price of a hundred dinners for fifty out-of-town guests? What does Mrs. C care about the city’s sewage and pollution-control plan if the drain is blocked and the cellar flooding in fier house? Of what

concern to Mrs. D are collective bargaining and attempts to keep the city's dump-truck charges reasonable if her garbage collection has been missed? What does Mr. F care about roads if there is a delivery van stuck in his driveway?

It’s the same the world over. The Hon. Miss Hanbury-Williams, the former mayor of Windsor (England), is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Her address is Henry III Tower. Windsor Castle. She made her name and municipal fame not through any of these rare distinctions but because she was very good at organizing the garbage services of the Royal Borough and Castle when she was an alderman.

The average person hardly ever feels intensely about anything that doesn’t hit him or her directly. It is Shylock’s “The curse never fell upon our nation till now.” And the aldermen are near and the mayor nearest of all for the cursing.

The psalmist said: “He that watcheth over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” The same thing could be written of the mayor of any large modern city. The burdens—and privileges—of such an office were mine for nearly six years in Ottawa. I think there’s a good reason for candid talk about municipal politics. Nothing is more important to the comfort and well-being of the average Canadian than the way we run our

towns and cities and the people we choose to run them. A person who apologizes for his lack of interest in local politics with the plea that all the candidates arc second rate thereby betrays himself as a second-rate citizen. My job as mayor of Ottawa was not of my seeking. It came to me in sudden tragedy. Responding impetuously to the challenge of the Ottawa Journal, after a crusading feminist speech of mine in Montreal in October 1950, I stood for controller. Thanks to many of the city's women, but with strong help from some of the men, I headed the poll.

By Ottawa custom the "top" controller is named acting mayor, by special bylaw, to serve in the absence of the mayor. It was the 97th Council of the City of Ottawa and never had the city fathers had a woman father among them. Some gaggled as the fair-minded majority invoked the bylaw, naming me acting mayor, but it passed unanimously.

In August Mayor Grenville Goodwin, in his vigorous fifties, collapsed and died. I became acting mayor at once. But such unseemly bickering developed that I had to plead we bury the dead mayor with dignity before disputing about the new one. I was named to act for a month, until the royal visit of HRH Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh was over. You could

just hear the debate in the council caucus, which I declined to attend. “Charlotte will carry that off well, and then it'll be over.”

But the royal visit was postponed due to the King's illness. I declined to consider another ten days' or fortnight extension and the majority of council agreed with Alderman John Powers, who urged that the bylaw be honored.

“What will the heir to the Crown think of the capital of Canada?” he argued, “with no city hall, no proper police building and only an acting mayor?”

On motion of the next-ranking controller, who with ten years in council had a claim to contest the honor, I was unanimously elected mayor by the thirty-one-/mm council. I have often wondered, had it been the other way around, would a solid council of females have done as well by a lone male in their ranks? Perhaps, had the males been mobilized!

Hordes of women, some of them my critics, were sitting on the windowsills, the floor, the platform of the dais, and even on the stairs leading to our temporary council chambers, the night of my election, October 1, 1951.

Twice I went to the people for re-election. In November 1956, after six of the most satisfying, if wearing, years of my continued on page 60

Continued from page 21

“My six furious years as a city father”

“To most people in Ottawa cleaning up City Hall has merely meant a change in caretaking staff’’

working life, I called it a day and did not seek re-election.

My memories are, on the whole, gratifying. In those years most of council remained unchanged. The gentlemen remained gentlemen and the boors remained boors. The most considerate and chivalrous were often the "roughnecks,” not the polished, the smiling and the suave. The mealy-mouthed and unctuous were rarely trustworthy. There were only three whom I had instructed were not to be even honorary pallbearers in case of my demise in office and a civic funeral.

The campaign of the women’s groups in municipal affairs had been directed for years to “getting things cleaned up at City Hall,” though for twenty-five years Ottawa had had no city hall because of controversy with dominion authorities over various sites. The city’s own cityhall square had been the centre of its municipal life for a hundred years. But then fire wiped it out in 1931. (By fortunate coincidence, documents of a civic enquiry then under way were burned along with the building!)

To most people in Ottawa “getting things cleaned up at City Hall” has seldom meant anything more drastic than a change of “caretakers,” chasing out one group that another might dominate in favors, finance and influence. My first troubles came over some appointments, which 1 just could not endorse, to certain civic bodies.

Here a woman mayor really goes through the wringer. The women’s groups insist on the selection of women of proven capability in their own right, while “the boys” tend to favor naming men’s wives whom they know and who may not be otherwise qualified for the posts in question. I do think also that "the little

things” crowd more upon a woman than on a man in public affairs.

A neighbor banged on my door late one night to protest vehemently that she didn’t share my pride that the street on which the mayor lived was among the last to be ploughed after a storm. I judge I lost her vote, if I ever had it. when 1 refused to interfere in the priority of street cleaning.

Another stormy midnight the director of Planning and Works was roused when one of our drivers, “higher than a kite,” ran amok with a snow-blower and began spraying large quantities at the upstairs windows of the awakened and enraged populace in one of the swank new subdivisions. I lost some of the truckers' votes when I upheld the director in his dismissal.

I forfeited the votes of a fireman’s friends when the chief was sustained in dismissing him. “Feeling no pain” at the Winter Fair, he had insulted a group of Women’s Institute members, stolen a prize cheese from the exhibits and eaten it on the spot. At least i gained the ballots of those relatives of the aggrieved cheesemaker who lived in the city.

Of such was your daily life from dawn to dawn again, really, while you tried to grapple with the major problems besetting municipal government everywhere. Demands increase for more “complications” services, as one alderman put it, while local governments face fairly staticincomes. The dominion and provincial governments take more and more of individual earnings.

Ottawa’s plight was even worse than that of most cities. The dominion made a grant in lieu of taxes in 1949 of only four hundred thousand dollars on eighty million of tax-exempt property. Ottawa's

total taxable assessment was less than three hundred million, so the federal government, which is everybody elsc’s rich uncle, was to us a hungry free-loading brother-in-law. We also had to provide services for an increasing number of embassy properties, exempt from taxation at the courtesy and cost of the people of Ottawa, not of Canada.

There were the crown companies— the CBC, the Film Board, Central Mortgage and Housing, Atomic Energy—developing in competition with private enterprise but paying only such taxes as each chose or none at all.

There were the highways, parkways, water mains, sewers, hydro extensions, which the people of Ottawa had to provide today for the greater capital of tomorrow. We felt we should be paid for those that had to be built “in advance or in excess” of our present needs.

And what did a woman—and a welfare worker at that—know about such things?

More than you'd think, for 1 had once been private secretary to a federal minister. An unregenerate Tory, I had no qualms trying to force a comfortably rich and entrenched Grit government to right these inequities. The two Liberal members for Ottawa just had to be with you.

All the mayors of Canada joined in the common cause to make Big Government pay a fairer share of the cost of Little Government. But Ottawa had the “inside fighting” with the cabinet ministers. our residents and the members of Commons and the Senate fellow sufferers in our municipal poverty. Government House garbage was ours to collect and one of our most expressive trunk sewers discharged right behind the French Embassy and the prime minister's residence.

Ihe Hon. Douglas Abbott, the resistant ex-minister of finance, meticulous on protocol, was late for one of the posh embassy dinners and protested: "Charlotte, why isn't the ice cleared on Stewart

Street? My wheels just spun and spun and there we stuck.”

“Because Canada won’t pay its taxes, Doug,” was my humble reply.

There have been many advances since then. Just before the federal election of 1949 Douglas Abbott himself ironed out some of the inequities in the tax rate. Walter Harris went further before the election of 1953. Next has come final capitulation on one-hundred-percent payment in lieu of taxes for the election of 1957.

But the federal government still won't accept, as other taxpayers have to, the assessment of the city in which it does business. It still won't pay a fair tax on all those crown companies. It still is in business on a dozen fronts but pays no business tax: there’s still many a target ahead for the municipalities to take in yet another day.

To assure the gains that have been made I regret to say that the former mayor of Ottawa spent a good deal of her time fighting ("just like a woman") with

the dominion government. But against less than one million dollars in grants in 1950 Ottawa will likely get over three and a half million in 1957. And I was reasonable. 1 did not ask for any of the forty-three million the people of Ottawa had spent on municipal services for the people of Canada in their capital from 1910 to 1955!

The basis of municipal assessment is vital in the simplest operation of city, town, village or rural community. What, by the way, does a woman know about assessments? Head on, I got into that. I found "fixed assessments” are not favored in a well-ordered community or province. but that does not outlaw "fixed" assessments whereby properties, as in certain outstanding examples in Ottawa, were assessed at practically the same level year after year. They are generally the large holdings of the powerful, or the small, terrible hovels that yield an annual rent beyond the property’s total value. The average property owner just grins and bears the cost of his average honesty and compliance with the ordinary routine of the law.

It was most important to get privately owned property re-assessed if the government were to pay Ottawa on the full value of its holdings.

That was a fight. The Ontario government loaned us staff; we re-assessed according to the Ontario Manual, the only large city yet to have done so. Legal action was entered by one company over the "upped" rate; it was settled out of court to the city's benefit. The assessment department and procedures were reorganized.

(I recall the shock I got when I saw again in my outer office a man whose taxi license had been canceled by the police commission for theft of passengers’ goods, and learned that he was working with the field assessors.)

But the re-assessment battle paid. The city was found to be worth some seventy million more; the tax rate was cut and has remained reasonably stable, the lowest of any major city in Canada.

Political pressure? Lots of it, but I found that it did not come from the great mass of the decent, average “run of the mill" electors at all. It centred either in the so-called “lowest economic level” or among some of the leading citizens. Men and women who would never never think of using their influence to get a man on the snow-cleaning gang or a relief or a rent voucher for someone down and out and perhaps not quite eligible sought favors of rarer distinction. It might be an appointment to one of the powerful municipal boards; or a water main to a proposed subdivision on which they had an option (acquired from a trusting farmer for a small down payment and a large promise); or support for acquiring land to assure a large school near or within a proposed development. It might be very special specifications in some tender call: or, in this motor age, perhaps assurances about concessions or rates in proposed parking lots.

Then there was the organized pressure of various groups, so many of them businessmen who would not get into the rough-and-tumble of municipal politics themselves. (“Bad for business, you know.") Yet, ardent and worthy, their delegations would press for grants from public funds and would be among the first to damn the higher taxes out of which such aid must come.

I learned a number of other unpleasant things. I learned how difficult it is for the small man to do business with the city. He must be large scale to get in on the mass prices.

Two sides of life

for a woman mayor

In court gown, with badge of office, Charlotte Whitton attends Coronation.

In windbreaker and denim slacks mayor straightens furrow at plowing match.

I learned a lot about the nice device of the limited company. No one in municipal office can deal with the city or its auxiliaries. But a limited company is different; it must have at least three directors. These directors may include you, your wife, your brother or any of “your sisters, your cousins and your aunts.” Then you can sell to, or buy from, the city to your bank account's content. You may “declare interest” on a deal just by stepping out of your council seat, and not voting on the item in question, even if you have satisfied yourself that the vote of your colleagues is quite adequate without yours.

And, if you happen to be in a coterie of friends, unselfishly serving in various municipal bodies, the permutations and combinations of contracts and awards can be both ingenious and fascinating. You may even join the syndicates for subdivisions in adjacent municipalities.

But why would a woman bother about subdivision control, one of the gravest problems facing the very survival of the “old” municipality in our exploding suburban expansion everywhere? Ottawa, loyally working with the plan for a greater national capital, in 1950, on a flash motion of council without any detailed examination, increased her area five-fold with only a twenty-thousand increase in population. It added several millions of dollars in assessment, plus a disproportionately increasing debt for public utilities, schools, sewers, roads and general development. It will be years before revenue catches up.

Here the element of speculation and the terrific pressure upon the city s officials can absorb so much time of permanent personnel as to leave all other municipal areas seriously under-served. At the same time, the “old” city loses out in its share of the local-improvement costs and takes on new debts and obligations.

So I fought with the subdivides for regulation, controls, prepayment of costs, and was only partly successful. Here provincial political patronage too often meshes gears with municipal patronage. Particularly in Ontario, each local proj-

ect in detail and the actual agreement with each subdivider must be approved by the provincial authorities. A municipality’s officials and council may battle through for controls, conditions, prepayments, charges back to the developers— all to save the individual taxpayer in both the old and new areas of the city. But the subdivider, with singleness of purpose and direct approach, can often prove more potent than the people, puzzled and ineffective in bringing their will to bear on public authority.

It is a problem to which the Hon. W. M. Nickle, Ontario’s Minister of Planning and Development, is bringing courageous and forthright attention. Provincial legislation will ultimately be required everywhere, in my judgment, along the lines of recent bylaws enacted in greater Toronto, in Hamilton, in many smaller communities all over Canada. There will have to be province-wide statutory stipulations as to the percentage of costs the land developer will pay for his privileges. He will have to assume part of the extra costs of new water, sewers, roads, school and similar services. Private profits will be less; so will local taxes.

In this area a woman is really up against it. The syndicates, the deals, the borrowing, the big business for the banks and mortgage companies, for the contracting firms and the suppliers, all along the line, make for a communion of anything but the saints or the non-participating.

But the torments visited on the municipal politician do have their easing moments. 1 often think, for instance, of the celebrating Shriner at a gala street “do" outside the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. As my car drove up and 1 stepped out to the salute of the driver-constable and the doorman, one befezzed and bemused visitor handed me his card.

“Rameses Temple. Rochester,” I read. “A nice city. My mother was born there and your university gave me an honorary degree this year.”

“Who are you?” he asked.

“The Mayor of Ottawa,” I replied.

“Put it there." he said, extending his hand, “we’re both drunk.”

Yes, a mayor’s life, like a soldier’s, is “terrible hard.” There is the city’s water and power supply and health and sanitation, its safety in building and traffic, and food.

There is construction and keeping open the city’s throughways; its sewage and garbage disposal; its police and fire protection; its welfare and recreation services; its complex problems of decent shelter and housing; the control of taxi operation; the licensing of a maze of undertakings and permits for raffles, bingos, and games of skill or chance; the control of salacious literature, of public halls, of markets.

The first day we required wrapping and refrigeration of fresh meat some wholesalers argued fowl was not meat. The health officer called the mayor. I voted with His Holiness the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury that it was, and the bylaw stuck.

I kept on my desk an ashtray, the gift of a Queen’s University friend, which I would slip gently forward into sight in tense moments or when 1 needed courage: “Ce que diable ne peut femme le fait” (a woman does what the devil can’t).

“Your Worship,” pleaded one controller at an interminably long committee meeting, “let’s get going. My wife will have a fit waiting dinner and getting me back off in time for council tonight.”

And I, a woman, had had to plan my menu, order, pick up my meat on the way home (I always ate an almost raw filet of beef before entering the amphitheatre on council nights), cook my meat and get off to the next port of call. A man hasn’t his hair, his make-up, his lingerie, runs or crooked seams on his hose to worry about, or a complete change of clothes for luncheon, afternoon, the evening, or a new hat for each season.

Like any woman, married, unmarried, semi-detached, who takes on a job outside the home, 1 survived only because other women would take on part of mine. Of course, officially there was Miss May Byers, unelected mayor of Ottawa, as secretary to the mayors of the capital for thirty-five years. But in my home 1 leaned on one auxiliary who was willing to give my apartment the “once-over” three times a week and a friend who, between trips to Europe, the Middle E^ast and the Far East, sallied back, each of the three autumns of the campaigns, to guard the home base during my elections.

And I still believe that next to better pay and more respect for permanent officials, male and female, the best hope for better local government lies in mobilizing more competent women. Since men have taken out of the home practically every occupation of women in which money could be made, one of the largest sources of unused energy in the Western world is its woman power.

So much of a municipality’s work calls for general clerical workers and heavy manual and semi-skilled operators that there are few top-flight jobs and a comparatively small ratio of good openings. It is difficult to attract and hold ambitious and promising people. As they develop they move on.

Then there’s the discouragement and disgust of so much petty patronage. Last winter I got one of the shocks of my life when 1 discovered that one of the city’s truckers hauling snow was really a woman clerk in the federal service. She was obliging a boy friend, employed by the city and therefore precluded from a contract with it. Board of Control was unanimous that both she and the truck could be spared.

Kipling probably wasn't thinking of civic politics when he wrote:

“Four things greater than all things are Women and Horses and Power and War.”

But he did have a point. And the power for good of able women will never be fully realized until able men accept them as equals. The woman who feels “my husband knows best” does a great deal to postpone that blessed day.

It is not my belief, incidentally, that men and women have equal qualities in equal degree. Principles and risks matter more, on the whole, to the average woman than to the average man. Instinctively a woman does not take chances. She cannot; she pays dearly for any misplaced confidence. So women are, generally, more insistent on keeping to prescribed procedures, on knowing the details, on following simple principles.

Women in government want to see where they are going, in policy, planning and spending. They fear obligations they may not be able to meet. They want income and outgo to balance. They will

Who is it?

He traded a cabinet seat for a board chair and a different kind of insurance. Turn to page 74 to see who this boy is now.

fight deficits, overdrafts and outlays beyond a safe reckoning. So women are apt to be “difficult” in a public-spending body, unwilling to compromise or saw off.

“Aw, Your Worship, be reasonable,” said one of my frankest, most cynical controllers. “Forget your principles once in a while. You get your own way ninety percent of the time anyway.”

But how can you give way the other ten percent of the time when that may involve the appointment of the head of a vital department or a change in wages or hours that will mean an unjustifiably growing burden on city taxes practically forever?

Yes, a woman is stubborn as a mule when she thinks she’s right. Contrary to the slander of counter-claims, this is not always.

For all the wear and tear of the years, the satisfactions and the frustrations, 1 left office convinced of one fine and hopeful thing. The great mass of the people have a conscience. Patient, long-suffering and often discouragingly slow in the rising, it is, nevertheless, terrible and consuming once it is stirred to righteous indignation. T he people do earnestly want their government and public business to be kept on the level, if they can only know what the level is. Even the most reckless of political gamblers will seldom risk the acid test of simple honesty before the judgment of the average man and woman.

That is the basis, as it is the guarantee, of democracy. ★