On November 24, 2008, the Nova Scotia legislature debated Bill 179, which, if passed, would give the Halifax Regional Municipality its own charter, giving HRM powers that other cities and towns in the province don't have. No longer would the city have to ask the province for permission every time the city needed to undertake large projects.
One of those large projects, for example, is the expansion of Metro Transit's Bridge Terminal. Because the present tiny terminal can't handle any more buses, the expanded terminal is a lynchpin in Metro Transit's growth plans: with it we get more buses running more often; without it, we get the same lacking service we've become accustomed to. An amendment to Bill 179 would have changed the Dartmouth Common Act so that the city had permission to use up to six acres of common land for the expanded terminal.
As Bill 179 was being debated, then-opposition leader Darrell Dexter rose to speak. "I think that in a very lengthy bill there is always going to be pieces or clauses of that that are going to give you pause for concern," said Dexter. "But generally speaking, the idea of a charter that is going to provide the framework for which the municipality is going to be run is worthy of support, Mr. Speaker. I certainly intend to support it.
"The whole point of putting in place this charter is to define, for the Regional Municipality of Halifax, their jurisdiction," continued Dexter. "I want to just go on record as supporting the notion that once we empower the municipalities, allowing them the freedom to make their own decisions, and sometimes the freedom to make mistakes, is an important part of having a democratic level of government like a municipality.
"The members of this House are certainly not going to agree with every single decision that gets made by a municipal unit but we do, I believe, have to respect the right of the municipalities to make those decisions to find their own way on behalf of their citizens."
Dexter's arguments were convincing. Bill 179 passed the Assembly on a voice vote.
Fast forward to 2010. The city was moving forward with plans for the Bridge Terminal, but part of the nearby Dartmouth High School community objected to the plan---the terminal would come too close to the school, they said, and they didn't want to see Common land used for a terminal at all. Last month, city council deliberated the issue, and decided to OK a staff plan that took some of the Dartmouth High concerns into consideration---the terminal would remain on Common land, but was moved farther away from the school and would occupy just 3.5 acres, not the six acres it is entitled to. Moreover, the new plan digs the terminal into a hill so as to provide a sound and light buffer to the school, doubling the costs of the terminal to a whopping $9.5 million.
It is, clearly, a difficult issue. I live nearby, and I worry construction blasting will crack the foundation of my house. And the encroachment on Common land can be seen as just more HRM neglect for Dartmouth; as one anti-terminal advocate asks, "Can you imagine a bus terminal being placed on Common land next to Citadel High? It's not possible."
Still and all, with just three no votes HRM council approved the plan. No one was completely happy with the decision, but the council made the hard choices they were elected to make---they found their way for the citizens they represent.
Now-premier Darrell Dexter, however, has "concerns" with the plan, and seems set to derail it. "I have no doubt that [the city's plan] fits within the amendment [allowing the expanded Bridge Terminal on Common land]," Dexter admitted to me last week. "But that's not the question. The question, of course, is one of relationship between the government of Nova Scotia and the government of the city."
Indeed, that is the question. Two years ago opposition leader Dexter was all for the city making its own decisions, even making mistakes, as "an important part of having a democratic level of government." But now premier Dexter wants to interfere with the city making those decisions. Which is it, premier?