For local politics, downtown Halifax is the place to be this year.
In the battle for media attention, Halifax elections lag behind coverage of the American and Canadian federal elections, and what press coverage locals do get is mostly focused on the mayoral race between Peter Kelly and Sheila Fougere. But the most dynamic and interesting local election is arguably the council contest for District 12.
That four-way race pits incumbent Dawn Sloane against Jerome Downey, James Stuewe and Cameron Ells. Sloane is a singular presence on council, both lauded and criticized for her outspoken, take-no-shit style. Downey is an account executive and grandson of Graham Downey, the long-serving African-Nova Scotian councillor who represented the north end in the old city of Halifax and into the amalgamated HRM. Stuewe is a university student who comes from the ambitious young professional networking scene. Ells is an environmental consultant.
Those varied personalities are vying to represent a similarly varied constituency. Bounded by North, Robie and South streets and the Halifax Harbour, District 12 contains the working class neighbourhoods of the north end, the urban chic condo district around Bishop's Landing and the historic Schmidtville, an increasingly vocal community of professionals.
Of late, the highest profile and most contentious issues in the district have revolved around development of high rises, which Sloane has generally opposed. But in interviews, each of the candidates speaks of a broader range of issues, from violence to community parks to transit. And while they are reluctant to directly criticize each other, each insists he or she is the best person for the job of representing District 12.
"It comes down to proving your track record of being able to achieve things," says Sloane. "Everything from getting the cars out of the Grand Parade and turning it back into a park, to sponsoring events in the Grand Parade like Tunes at Noon, working on things like saving the day care curbing violence in the community by getting more beat cops."
Like her opponents, Sloane is frustrated by the dynamics of a council that brings together urban and rural representatives---"some of these individuals have never even walked the streets of downtown Halifax, and have no idea about the eclectic areas." She proposes a structural reform of council processes by empowering three community councils that would represent rural, suburban and urban areas of HRM.
"They don't fit," Sloane says in explaining her votes against the Trillium, Keith's and Waterside projects. "We deserve better. I'm passionate about this because I believe our neighbourhoods have to be walkable, they have to be pedestrian friendly, they have to be lively on the bottom floors and we have to look at design. There are some really ugly buildings out there."
Sloane says the development process has run roughshod over established planning policies. "When you make exceptions for every damned thing---everything---then you've no longer made an exception, you've made it the rule." She says desired high urban densities can be achieved with infill development, and faults developers for leaving lots undeveloped until property values increase. She further argues that new developments should be mandated to provide affordable housing.
"I have a track record, and I've worked hard for this district," she says. "I care about the whole community, not just a faction of it. You run on what you are and how you are, and hope that people believe in you. I am what I am."
"Making the decision to run for council---to be honest, it was something I've planned my entire life," says Downey. "I grew up in a political family, it was what I was raised on. I can remember tossing a ball and walking through the hallways of City Hall."
Downey went to Mount Allison University on a scholarship, and now works as an account executive at a financial institution downtown.
When he gets elected, he says, "the first thing I'll do is clean up our streets." He underscores quality-of-life issues---replacing parks that have been removed, providing better lighting, more trees, etc. He'll use his council seat as a bully pulpit to oppose school closures in the neighbourhood.
Gottingen Street has been ignored and "is nothing more than an exit ramp to the Macdonald Bridge," says Downey. "Ultimately, my goal is that when you come off the Macdonald Bridge, I don't want you to know which end of Halifax you're in. It's about addressing the issues and helping the people who need help the most."
"It's the 21st century," Downey says when asked about development issues. "I'm pro-development, but I'm not just about chucking high-rises up just to have them, they have to be cohesive. But you can't disagree with a development just because it doesn't make you feel good. It's not about you, it's about what's better for the city."
Downey offers that he is "saddened" that the Midtown development didn't get council approval and considers Purdy's Wharf "the most beautiful building in Canada."
"I want to get this city moving," says Stuewe. "Promote a clear vision for the downtown, to get a city where my kids can grow up in, live in and be successful."
Stuewe wants to "do things in a more sustainable way," which he says means bringing more people downtown and creating more of a mixed community. "There's a lot of talk," he says, "but it's time to move forward and take action."
He sees himself as council's "new interpreter." "All we've done for the last eight years"---Sloane's term on council---"is we're banging heads, banging heads, over and over. Let's bring the community around the table, and decide what this community will look like."
Asked about development, Stuewe says he will oppose any "mediocre building." As for the Trillium building recently approved for South Park, "I would have worked a lot harder to make a better project---it wouldn't have gone to council like that." The Keith's project also "wouldn't have gone to council like that." But were he councillor, he would vote for the Waterside development next to Historic properties.
"I recall laughing into my breakfast when I heard about the third harbour crossing proposal," says Stuewe, because it destroys opportunities for increasing transit use. He is supportive of a late night bus service.
On the crime front, "it's dealing with the root cause. The traditional thinking is you need more boots on the ground, more cops on the street. But you've got to deal with the root causes---poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, teenagers with nothing to do."
"It's a four-year problem solving contract," says Ells of winning a council seat. "Twenty years in the private sector---engineering and environmental consulting---it's essentially professional problem solving: go out and sort out the issues, find background information, bring some recommendations or conclusions to the table."
Being on council "isn't like being a king," he says. "But there are opportunities to be a useful influence on folks, especially if you have the capacity to put forward a persuasive argument and have others agree with you and work together."
He'll bring an environmental perspective to council, says Ells, especially on issues related to climate change. He wants a "sophisticated integration of climate change adaptation into the municipal decision making."
Ells is supportive of tax reform, believing that "there should be an award" for people living in energy-efficient urban districts. Asked if that means taxes will have to increase for suburbanites and those living in rural areas, Ells says that he "was focusing on District 12."
"There's worse problems to have," than having lots of developments coming before council," says Ells. "The challenge of getting it right is what's there." But are recently approved developments "right"? "I think that's probably better for those folks that have been close up and studying it to answer that," replies Ells. "I can't really comment on the decisions that has made in the past, because she has sat down and looked at and studied these projects in a way that I haven't. With respect to what might happen in the future, or if the two of us were looking at the same information at the same time, would I come to a different opinion? It's possible. Might. Might not."