Start praying for a warm winter, because not a lot has changed in how Halifax deals with snowstorms.
Yesterday’s Committee of the Whole was an eight-hour brawl with HRM’s management over winter operations. Before the city was this review of the past winter’s snow-clearing services. At question was who to blame for Halifax crumbling into an impassible hellscape of snowy nightmares.
The report—which builds off an $80,000 review by consultants Grant Thornton—makes modest recommendations for improving strategic directions and tells council to ask for another report by end of year on improving sidewalk clearing. With a focus on bottom-line practicalities, the report would have read tone-deaf even if the city’s elected officials didn’t spend the next several hours eviscerating it.
“God help us, another report,” said Matt Whitman (Hammonds Plains—St. Margarets), who called out staff and Grant Thornton for not meeting with councillors and accessibility advocates while compiling the report. His fellow elected officials called the report “sloppy,” and chastised it’s scope, lack of alternative options and ignorance of accessibility recommendations.
One of the most bizarre revelations to come out of the report was clarification on the timeframe workers have to clear residential streets up to municipal “service standards.” Normally the city or contracted workers would have 24 to 48 hours to plow the roads (depending on their priority levels), but that's 24 to 48 hours from the end of the last snowfall. Should another snowstorm happen within that time period the clock just resets. A street could thus be covered in snow three times in one week while never once being plowed and it would still officially meet service standards.
“Standards are fine, but they’re meaningless if they’re not met,” said Stephen Adams (Spryfield—Sambro Loop—Prospect Road).
Winter operations manager Darrin Natolino took repeated blows from the councillors, even as they expressed admiration for his work ethic and dedication during an outlandish year. It was executive management, lead by chief administrative officer Richard Butts, that many wanted to blame. What particularly offended several councillors was that they had wanted to discuss these very issues before the budget was finalized in April, but staff (and the CAO) recommended waiting until after this report was finalized. That decision ultimately tied the city’s hands on what it could accomplish yesterday.
“We really can’t make the changes we want to make because we’ve already passed the budget,” Tim Outhit (Bedford—Wentworth) said. “After the budget’s passed, we now get the two reports we need.”
Multiple councillors took turns yesterday directing their anger at Richard Butts, both in Committee of the Whole and later during Regional Council when four winter street-cleaning tenders had to be passed.
“There’s no good alternative,” said Reg Rankin (Timberlea—Beechville—Clayton Park West) about passing the tenders, while calling the current city hall culture foreign to anything he’s experienced in his public career. Staff, Rankin said, should not be proceeding with what they believe is best for council. “That is not good government.”
“I actually like representing my people, and today I haven’t been able to do that,” Outhit said as the meeting stretched into the night.
“Sometimes when you have a gun to your head you have to fight back,” he added. “You have to say enough…we’re still in control around here.”
The changes in winter service operations were ultimately passed and include recommendations to improve 311 call centre responses during winter storms, more closely monitor snow plow operations and provide stiffer enforcement of the winter parking ban.
Linda Mosher (Halifax West Armdale) also requested a new report from staff, looking at revising and pricing out alternative standards for sidewalk, bus stop and priority-two street cleaning. That report will come back in November, but by then it'll be too late. It’s already August, and there’s not much that can be changed before the weather turns cold.
“I want to be clear to people that our ability to come back with any recommendations that could be implemented this winter are very, very low,” said Butts.
Halifax won’t be able to renegotiate the peninsula’s performance-based sidewalk clearing contracts until they expire in 2016-17.