Council's secret "public meeting" on tax reform

The meeting on tax reform was public. Council just didn't tell anyone who wasn't a city employee where it was held.

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Today, Halifax council met for a “workshop” on so-called “tax reform,” a proposal to jettison the time-honoured system of assessment-based property taxes and replace it with a fee-for-services system.

When the workshop was discussed by council last month, assurances were given that it would be open to the public. And it was, nominally. Only problem is, the public wasn’t actually told about the meeting: there were no press releases announcing it, no forewarnings at previous meetings, it wasn’t posted on the HRM website page listing council meetings, there was no notice to the press. To be sure, a loose agenda was posted on the “tax reform” page on the HRM website---at 4pm Friday afternoon. But no one would know to look for it there (certainly I didn’t). Basically, council just held a “public” meeting that was entirely conducted in secret.

It’s true that I found out about the meeting, but only because a councillor told me about it, seemingly on the sly. I didn’t get confirmation of when or where it was being held until Sunday afternoon. Absolutely nobody else who doesn’t receive a pay cheque from the city knew about it.

The city has several dozen recreation centres and other facilities to hold meetings in, including Halifax Hall in City Hall, right downtown, but some bureaucratic genius decided that for hosting the workshop it made more sense to rent a conference room in the basement of the butt-ugly Quality Inn overlooking the BiHi in Hammond Plains.

I ran into councillor Gloria McCluskey in the parking lot, and she immediately began cursing generally and bitching particularly about the cost of renting the QI. “I didn’t even know where this place was,” she screeched. “And good morning to you, too,” I replied.

Into the lobby and a teenager directed us down the stairs, through a doorway signed as the men’s washroom, past a meeting of the Carpenter’s Union and, finally, to a dumpy little room at the end of the dark, dank hallway.

I will say this, however: whatever architectural and urban planning sins Quality Inn has visited upon the citizens of Halifax, the hotel has managed to achieve that which escapes the city’s normal catering company---the breakfast and lunch spreads passed the all-important reporter-without-an-expense-account test. The muffins were downright moist, the sandwich meat was piled on beyond a wafer’s thickness, the pasta had real spices and the after-lunch chocolates provided enough excuse to wander the room occasionally instead of staring at PowerPoint presentations. I hate to quibble in the face of such surprising adequacy, but things could have moved right on up to the “competent” category had the beleaguered teenager brought more coffee.

And no, reviewing the food at city functions is not besides the point, Mr. Get On With It Already. There’s no justification whatsoever for it, but taxpayers shelled out real money for my lunch, and the very least I can do is report that there was some value returned for the expense. The point is especially relevant, considering we’re talking about a meeting nominally about taxes.

Oh yea, that reminds me, the meeting.

Well, it kind of wandered around a bit, covering old ground with abandon. The wise guy who booked the Quality Inn also shelled out some taxpayer dough for two “faciliators”---a cop named Bill Moore, and Cathy Somethingoranother, whose day job involves trying to whip provincial employees into order. They were nice enough folks, and of course came equipped with flip charts.

I wish I could tell you something substantial happened, but I think the entire point of the workshop was to bore councillors into submission. There was a brief flare up between Steve Streatch and Dawn Sloane, each yelling at the other to “shut up!” but otherwise it was people laughing at their own jokes, councillors congratulating each other for not behaving like douchebags and a bit of a gassy atmosphere resulting from the adequate lunch spread.

None of this is to say the workshop was unimportant. It’ll be matched by another one next week, and then the “tax reform” issue comes before a for-real and possibly announced public meeting of council, sometime in mid-December. I’ve written at length about the issue before (here, here and here), and when the issue comes front and centre, I’ll spell out exactly what it means for you, yep, you, personally.

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