UARB decision is just the first step, and not the most important.

City Hall, Under Construction
Sometimes, the metaphor is just there, waiting to be used.

Today, the Nova Scotia Utility Review Board (UARB) ordered Halifax Regional Council reduced from 23 to 16 district representatives, plus the Mayor.

The last few months of scandal and ethical challenges has lead to a feeling that this Council, as a government, is no longer functional.  Unlike a parliament or a legislature, they cannot pull the plug and move to an election, Nova Scotia municipal elections are fixed, and the next is October 2012.

As we often do in Halifax, I think many people are hoping this pretty significant change will be the magic bullet that will fix Halifax.  Many today commenting in social media hoping that this decision means that 7 of the current councilors would be given pink slips immediately.  Sadly, this is not so, the changes go into effect next election.

Democracy is messy.  Council is not a Board of a company, subject to shareholder revolts and yearly AGMs, and a clear goal of profit and growth.  The municipal councilors and Mayor are elected ever four years on a fixed schedule, from geographically distinct areas, each with local agendas, where ideology and world view can even shape what you think government should do.

So how can Halifax get out of this slump and get to where we all feel this city and region should be?  How do we live up to our potential?  The answer is that the downsizing of council has to be just the starting point.

Community Councils must be stronger.  Local issues should be dealt with locally.  Business improvement, playgrounds, local priorities and designing and approving local planning inside of the regional plan should happen at this level.  Local bylaws should be allowed.  Maybe cat bylaws make sense downtown, but they don’t make sense in the Eastern Shore!  Let each community solve its own problems.

Community Councils need to have some money to spend on capital and other projects based on the taxes each community generates.   This will ensure that money is available for sidewalks in Burnside or improvements on Quinpool, but only if local Community Council wants it.  It will be easier to point fingers and assign responsibility if Councilors can no longer blame the “uncaring distant regional council.”  Councilors will have to own the decisions they make for their communities.

We’ll eliminate geography from the design of our regional decision making structures.  Right now the Executive Committee of Council is made up of the Mayor and the Chairs of the community councils.  This is a recipe for regionalism and fighting based on geography.  Most other Canadian municipalities have Executive Committees made up of the Chairs of important standing committees, so they can properly coordinate regional issues and management.  When we talk about regional issues we need to look at the whole municipality, not through a local lens.

Take steps to strengthen the role and independence of Council.  In other cities, the Clerk, the Treasurer or CFO, Legal and other officers we don’t even have, like Lobbying registrars and Ombudsman, they all work for Council, not the CAO.  Councilors have more staff support so they can do their jobs more effectively.  This is often lead by the Mayor’s office.  In Toronto the Mayor is actually named as the CEO of the city, while the city still has a senior manager, the same role as our CAO.  We need to give Council these tools it currently sorely lacks.

It is hard to imagine Council has the energy or drive left to do any of these things before the next election. The goal now has to be to elect a new Mayor and new councilors who believe in an agenda for change.  Elections have great power, and would allow us to stop the endless rounds of ignored consultation and move boldly and wisely to create the city and the region we all know Halifax should be.