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.

 

  • One early comment is that this proposal would cost too much.  Will it?

    Community Councils must be stronger. –  There will be some staff costs, but this can be done thriftily, more in line with a rural town in Nova Scotia than HRMs profligate spending.  Plenty of towns have staffs that number in the half dozen or so.  Two, three support staff per council, four or five councils.  HRM employs thousands.  For the rest, re-org the rest of the HRM to support Community Councils, so it is work, but it is not new cost.

    Community Councils need to have some money to spend on capital and other projects based on the taxes each community generates. – Not new taxes, just take say 10% of business tax and 5% of residential tax in a Community.  This means redoing the regional capital budget to accommodate this, but this is not new money, its the same money spent differently.

    We’ll eliminate geography from the design of our regional decision making structures. – no cost.

    Take steps to strengthen the role and independence of Council. – well, what is the cost of democracy?

    1 – The Clerk, the Treasurer or CFO, Legal already work for HRM, this is just a reorganization.
    2 –  Lobbying Registrar and Ombudsman, so 500-750K, but think of the savings and community engagement having staff covering these roles.
    3 – More staff would be a realocation of staff currently working for HRM, as addressed above.

    This would cost about 1% of HRMs budget.

  • Great read Waye, we certainly need some change here, hopefully this is a step in the right direction.

    Logan Hudak

  • Joanne

    My concern is who is driving this bus for change and what special interests do they have in mind for Halifax?

  • Issmat A.

    Thanks for this. Common sense all around.

    Mayor position shouldn’t be ceremonial. He/She is the only person with a mandate from the entire city’s electorate, so s/he should have the executive authority to implement the promises/vision/platform that the city elected him for, as the CEO of the city.

    That way, the electorate can hold the Mayor accountable for non-performance or non-delivery. Right now, everyone is pointing the finger away from themselves. The bureaucracy blames the democracy, and the democracy blames the the bureaucracy.

    My information may be outdated (or completely wrong), but I believe I heard a while back that the city doesn’t actually keep track of expenses by district. If you wanted to know how much was spent on city services in a particular district during period x (or better, have that info broken down by each service), I don’t think that information is available.

    Someone from the Municipality would have to make it a project to put together the numbers from a variety of different sources to estimate the answer for you, and they’ll need Council to ask them to do that, or the CAO. But this is not part of the budgeting exercise as far as I’m aware, but I’ll be happy to be corrected on that front.

    • Issmat A.

      Of course, if the Mayor is going to wield power, the Charter needs to provide council with the ability to impeach/remove him in order to keep that power in check.

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