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Build accountability into civic life

There is no sin so great that a Halifax politician or bureaucrat is held responsible for it.


So far, I’ve listed just one issue on our election Candidates and Issues page: A sunshine ordinance, which from my perspective should be the primary concern for citizens this election season. I’m preparing to dive into a number of other specific city issues that need to be discussed by candidates—concerning “green-belting,” transit and more—but as I’ve been driving around the country thinking about it (I’m on vacation, exploring the backroads of Quebec and Ontario), it’s occurred to me that as important as the nuts-and-bolts of running the city is, those discussions are essentially useless if we don’t first demand accountability from our government.

There’s one recent and glaringly obvious example of non-accountability in city government: the concert scandal. Mayor Peter Kelly and his close associates participated in a scheme that utterly violated all the rules of municipal governance that have been painstakingly put together over the 160 years since Joe Howe called out a previous gang of politician grifters who thought they were above the law. Kelly and company violated the city charter, ignored long-established financial reporting rules, claimed they had legal approval of loan documents when they didn’t and, most importantly, hid their malfeasance from the public and even the city council that is the ultimate authority in running the city. In the process, they funneled $5.4 million in taxpayer money to a failed concert promoter. By comparison, Joe Howe had detailed just £30,000 misspent over 30 years.

The concert scandal is serious shit. You can’t just wave it away as yesterday’s news. We either have rules of governance, or we don’t. We’re either a democracy, or we aren’t. We either have accountability, or those in connected places can get away with whatever they want, the citizens be damned.

So what was council’s reaction to the fundamental violation of the rules of governance shown in the concert scandal? A big fat yawn. In a just world, in a world of accountability, Kelly would have been removed from office and hauled before a magistrate. But in our world, councillor Sue Uteck suggested the weakest possible hint of accountability, suggesting to council that it censure Kelly and suspend him from chairing one meeting. For this, Uteck was labelled a flaming radical, a miscreant bent on a personal vendetta against Kelly. Worse, underscoring the absurdity, council allowed Kelly to preside over his own censure motion. It went nowhere.

Abusing the public trust, one. Accountability, zero.

Kelly has other accountability problems. He removed over $160,000 from a dead woman’s bank account, and no one much seems to care. In this case, there are multiple institutional failures in accountability—the courts, the police and the justice department have lost all credibility in terms of holding all people, regardless of stature, equally accountable before the law—but I can’t imagine the mayor of any other city in North America doing what Kelly has done without a least some response from city politicians. In Halifax, however, no councillor has even publicly mentioned the Mary Thibeault estate, much less suggested that Kelly’s mishandling of it should result in a response from council. The message is clear: Kelly can not only ignore the rules of governance, he can ignore the legal requirements of civil society, and no one will do a damn thing.

We criticize China for failures in the rule of law, but truth is, Nova Scotia isn’t far behind.

Kelly’s improprieties are the most obvious examples of non-accountability in Halifax, but the problem runs deep. City hall screws up in major ways all the time, and there’s never any accountability. Consider the Washmill underpass fiasco, $8 million over budget. Or the Mt. Hope interchange fiasco, where taxpayers are stuck with a $7 million bill. Or the Commonwealth Games fiasco, which could have left the city open to $200 million in liability, but luckily cost us “just” $3 million.

Then there’s the convention centre, where city managers and city councillors wrote themselves an accountability-free card: even if (read: when) the convention centre fails to meet the absurd financial returns they say the project will bring, the bill won't come due until 2027, long after all of them are retired or dead and gone. The costly convention centre they've foisted on us will be someone else's problem.

More specific to council itself, there are other instances of non-accountability. To mention just one, council was told directly by representatives of Trade Centre Limited (not exactly a conservative organization when it comes to spending taxpayer money) that building a stadium to chase a bid to host the FICA women's soccer championship was a ridiculous waste of money, but councillors rejected that sensible advice and then went on to spend half a million dollars only to find out that, yep, it was a ridiculous idea.

More generally, there's a repeated failure at council that is a sort of mission creep. It works something like this:

1. Council grapples with some pie-in-the-sky project. Proponents argue that "we should at least study it... if you don't like what you see, you can vote against it later."

2. Council passes a non-binding resolution to spend X thousands of dollars to "study" the pie-in-the-sky project, in order to pass "fully informed" judgement on it at a later date.

3. Staff and other proponents of the pie-in-the-sky project load up the committees and groups "studying" the project. Anyone who expresses any skepticism is prohibited from being on the committees or having real input, and the committees go on to produce a bogus studies justifying what they wanted in the first place.

4. The issue comes back before council. "You already voted in favour of this," say proponents, "and if we don't approve it now we just wasted X thousands of dollars!"

5. Not enough councillors exhibit the political backbone to call bullshit, and the bogusly studied pie-in-the-sky project gets approved.

This happens time and again at council. I've seen it play out dozens of times. It's an insidious form of non-accountability, a slow-motion moving of the goal posts so that no one can ever be said to advocate a failed policy. No one pays a political price.

So what do we do about it? I don't have a complete answer to that. I think, however, that "accountability" needs to become a regular part of our political discourse. Incumbent councillors running for reelection have to explain themselves, and tell us why they didn't vote to hold Kelly accountable. Challengers should be asked what they would've done, had they been on council at the time. All candidates should put forward ideas on how to build accountability into the political and governance processes.

After the election, we need to institutionalize accountability. The media should hold politicians accountable for their failures, and when the media fail to do so, citizens should hold the media accountable for that failure. At the council level, when CAOs or middle managers fail spectacularly, councillors need to call them out, by name, publicly, for their failures. Just as mayors or councillors should lose their positions when they abuse the public trust, bureaucrats who lose or waste millions of public dollars should get fired.

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