City council flips its municipal lid over new Otter Lake legislation

Emergency meeting held over the province's “unprecedented” bit of “political theatre.”

click to enlarge City Hall, pictured in beast mode. - DANIELLE CAMERON
Danielle Cameron
City Hall, pictured in beast mode.

There was “shock and awe” at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, as an emergency meeting of HRM Regional Council convened to condemn the provincial government’s swiftly-enacted controls over how Halifax runs the Otter Lake landfill.

On May 4, Timberlea-Prospect MLA Iain Rankin submitted a private member’s bill to maintain the Otter Lake landfill’s current allowable cell heights. Nine days later it had gone through three readings and now is all-but-approved save for Royal Assent.

The quick turnaround means the bill took most of city council by surprise, prompting Halifax Peninsula North councillor Jennifer Watts to call Wednesday’s emergency meeting to figure out who knew what and when.

“It seems to me some members of this committee, this council were well aware this was happening,” Lower Sackville councillor Steve Craig said. “How could we be in this position on an issue of such important to all of HRM...that we were not made aware of this?”

Back on the same day the bill was introduced at the Legislature, Iain Rankin sent a letter to the Otter Lake Community Monitoring Committee, which was also CC’d to councillors Reg Rankin (his father), Stephen Adams and Matt Whitman. 

“While CMC has communicated to the community that HRM does not intend to pursue vertical extension, or build new cells beyond the nine cells, it is my observation that past statements cannot always be relied upon,” Iain Rankin wrote. “I have attached the Bill I introduced today and ask for your support, as the Bill moves through the legislative process.”

Councillors Reg Rankin and Stephen Adams were also on hand at the May 10 Law Amendments Committee to present in support of the bill “as the municipal councillors representing the affected community."

Rankin the elder told council Wednesday that he attended the Law Amendments meeting as a representative of the Otter Lake Community Monitoring Committee—an arms-length group comprised of nine community members, the mayor, three councillors and two appointed members-at-large—and not as a city councillor.

Rankin the younger had also apparently informed the municipality (through interim CAO John Traves) and mayor Mike Savage about the bill earlier this month, but both men said they didn't expect it to move through the Legislature as fast as it did.

“Certainly it wouldn’t go that quickly in Ottawa,” said the mayor at Wednesday's meeting. “We need to be better informed on things like this.”

So despite multiple councillors and officials knowing about the bill and its impacts on HRM, the information wasn't shared with the rest of council.

“I’m confused,” said Bedford-Wentworth councillor Tim Outhit. “I hear that staff were aware of this, four councillors were aware of this, the CAO and the mayor received a call from the MLA. I’m not sure we didn’t have an internal communications problem.”

For the most part Bill 176 solidifies into law what council already agreed to back in December when they voted not to vertically expand the landfill’s cells as part of a new longterm agreement with operator Mirror Nova Scotia.

But the new bill takes any future flexibility in that arrangement out of the hands of the municipality. Should the 140,000 50,000 tonnes of garbage annually hauled to Otter Lake increase—and it easily could if the cost to ship ICI waste outside the city goes above the landfill’s tipping fees—then Halifax will need to start planning for a new landfill in the next 18 years instead of the next 40. [Ken Donnelly helpfully points out the tonnage is now 50,000 annually without ICI waste, not the 140,000 it used to be, which is what I originally wrote. —JB]

That unanticipated $85-million cost comes as a result of the province reaching down to impose legislation on a single municipality, something Halifax South Downtown councillor Waye Mason called an unprecedented bit of "political theatre." He wasn’t alone in his fury. 

“Are the residents of HRM so special that we require greater regulation around solid waste than any other municipality in the province?” asked Jennifer Watts.

“Quite frankly, it is a very, very sad day, as it relates to the quote-unquote partnership we’re supposed to have with the province of Nova Scotia,” said Bill Karsten.

“If you ask me, this piece of legislation is overkill,” said David Hendsbee, himself a former MLA. “If you ask me, we were blindsided.”

Reg Rankin stood up for his son and downplayed the concerns of his fellow councillors by saying the province was doing what was best for the public by preserving the municipality’s current Otter Lake policies.

“Let resolutions now converge into law,” Rankin said. “They’re not saying anything more than the resolution, but they’re putting it in law.”

Council eventually passed a motion to send a strongly-worded letter to Nova Scotia's Liberal government on the lack of a consultation process, and the financial and solid waste policy implication of Bill 176.

The motion passed 15-2, with only Rankin and Adams voting against.

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