Two years ago marked a major shakeup at Halifax council. The Utility and Review Board reduced the number of councillors from 23 to 16, and long-serving mayor Peter Kelly had finally stepped aside, making room for Mike Savage to take his place. Meanwhile, chief administrative officer Richard Butts, who was hired in 2011, was cementing his consolidation of power in city hall, jettisoning a lot of the old guard bureaucrats and starting to micromanage council itself, by making what should rightly be publicly debated policy issues behind a single closed door–his own–and controlling what did and did not come before council. Council chambers itself was renovated and rearranged, removing any hint of how things used to run.
In the face of such changes, last year's council was a frosh class, a bunch of bright-eyed, anxious and socially awkward kids trying to make sense of a new school. How does this place work, anyway? Who's in charge? How do I become part of the cool kid clique? With our 2013 report card, we recognized the novelty of the situation, and were forgiving, not too hard on councillors. We overlooked a lot of stuff, gave some social promotions and were guilty of grade inflation, handing out a few "A"s, even.
But this is council's sophomore year. Councillors know how it works. They know the layout of the building, how to bullshit their way through pop quizzes, who might be open to fooling around in the woods after a long meeting, where to score a little dope. That's all good, but we're getting annoyed by the not-taking-school-seriously part of the equation. Merely showing up for class isn't enough at this age. It's time to buckle down, put the nose to the grindstone with the homework, become an adult. And stop just going through the motions.
Mostly, councillors have been coasting, letting staff direct things and getting along to get along. Not all of that is bad. For example, council has rubber-stamped some much-needed staff recommendations for improvements in transit, including ordering a new ferry, buying more buses and beginning the process for bringing the bus fleet up to modern technological standards.
On the other hand, because it refused to seriously engage the issues, this council has a major policy failure on its hands–the new convention centre. Previous councils (and governments) started the trajectory of bureaucratic delusion that is leading to the convention centre, which will end up costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars—money that won't be going to roads or cops or parks or fixing potholes. But while decisions were made in the past, this council had a responsibility to seriously vet those decisions, and it did not. There was no fresh examination of the need for the convention centre, even though the provincial auditor general called out the bogus delegate projections put forward. There's no management model in place for running the convention centre, even though the city has committed itself to funding it for almost $7 million annually—before losses. This council also exempted the convention centre from the rules that apply to every other development, and it is now being constructed without a development approval in place. It would have been one thing had council done its due diligenceand ended up taking these same non-actions, but it did nothing.
Council is badly mishandling two other important issues. First is the "five-year" review of the regional plan, now taking place on year eight. It's too early to tell how this will play out, but there's a serious attempt in the works by suburban and rural councillors to gut the most important sprawl-restricting elements of the plan. If they're successful, we'll end up with more pollution, less transit and kissing greenhouse gas reductions goodbye.
The landfill is also being mishandled. Long-term operations are a billion-dollar proposition, so doing it right matters. To be sure, there are much-needed improvements to be made in our waste collection system, and council has begun the process of adopting such sensible policies as requiring clear garbage bags and eliminating grass and box board from the green bins. But these right moves have been conflated with irresponsible attempts by Butts to both export our garbage outside HRM, and to extend to extend the life of the landfill past the 2025 closure date promised the community that accepted it, as well as with operational changes at the landfill that will make it stink, all in the name of cost savings. But let's not blame Butts–most councillors are on board with the proposals.
There are the everyday bad decisions, like the unanimous approval to build a new Lacewood Terminal in exactly the wrong place instead of hearing out a proposal for a creative redesign of the Clayton Park Shopping Centre to better serve both businesses and riders. For council, it was simply too much trouble to engage the urban planning students who wanted to make that happen.
Finally, with a handful of exceptions, there's a disappointing lack of vision among councillors. We're in very real danger of losing a pristine Birch Cove Lakes-Blue Mountain Wilderness Park because council is playing a befuddled game of Monopoly with four large development companies that own land within the proposed park boundaries, instead of simply appropriating the land outright and moving forward with the park.
Consider Solar City, a program for helping residents install solar water heating systems on their houses. The city provides technical assistance and help with financing through a revolving loan fund. Solar City, conceived by two overworked staffers but very much cheered on and approved by past councils, is now installing 1,000 systems a year, and Halifax will soon have more solar water heating systems than the rest of Canada combined. That's vision. "Vision" for this council is an absurd obsession with rebranding—a PR campaign claiming vision, instead of developing actual vision.
And council has cut its meeting schedule in half this year. Councillors will object that they go to more subcommittee meetings and have more constituents in their bigger districts, but we're simply not seeing the work product. Compared to past years, what is council achieving? Not debating stuff? That's not an achievement. That's a dereliction of duty.