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Size matters when it comes to city councillors

A big city council with lots of politicians arguing with each other is good for democracy.


Every few months, there's talk in the air about radically transforming the structure of HRM or of the Halifax council---de-amalgamate, cut HRM in two, adopt right-wing American libertarian-style tax policies (i.e., "tax reform") or, most recently, reduce the number of councillors. This last idea is now the subject of a council subcommittee and, in typical non-committal, finger-to-the-wind fashion, mayor Peter Kelly has announced he's neither opposed to nor in support of the idea, but might come around one way or the other, after everyone else has made up their minds.

Well, since Kelly's not going to demonstrate leadership on the issue, it's left to the rest of us to tell him it's a rotten idea.

There's a notion that council spends much of its time bickering over petty issues and so reducing the number of councillors will reduce the bickering, and this will all be for the better.

But in real terms, shrinking council means less democracy: councillors would represent more people, and so the distance between people and their government increases. If you think getting the sidewalk in front of your house fixed is difficult now, just wait until your councillor lives clear across town and has twice the number of constituents.

More to the point, "bickering" is an essential part of the political process. We elect councillors so they can represent our concerns at council. If all citizens had the same concerns, and the same point of view on all the issues, then we would only need one councillor for all of HRM. But we live in a diverse municipality---there are urbanites, suburbanites, rural folk; rich people, poor people; conservatives, liberals; transit lovers, car commuters; people who care about cats, people who don't; and on. Representatives of each sort of people bring unique concerns and unique contributions to council. A full hashing out of views---the much-maligned "bickering"---makes council better, not worse.

Reducing the number of councillors necessarily means reducing the number of people whose concerns are heard at council. And who's that going to be? You guessed it: poor and marginalized people. The best financed and most connected citizens already get heard before the rest of us, a trend that will only get amplified if each councillor represents a larger population.

The continual cry for radical structural change of council represents a failure, not of the system, but of the councillors and mayor themselves.

No matter where we live in HRM, we interact with each other in all sorts of complex and interdependent ways, impossible to separate out with arbitrary lines on a map. We're all in this together. Amalgamation and the establishment of a large municipal council was therefore a good thing---it created a political entity that reflects the social and economic reality of the city-state of Halifax.

Real political leadership would rise to the occasion---make sure that each area's specific concerns and needs are fully represented within a mosaic-like city-state that is moving intelligently, as a whole, into the future.

Rural areas already provide our water and give us a place to dump our waste, and they are our potential foodshed, a resource that is woefully underused. Imagine what kind of economic transformations could occur if city government worked to promote the eating of seafood processed in the fishing villages of HRM and livestock and crops from the Musquodoboit Valley.

Suburbs have economic significance far beyond the stereotypes used to disparage them---their residents provide both the customers and the work force for local businesses. The suburbs were built in the era of cheap oil, and enormous challenges lie ahead in converting them to more dense, transit-friendly population centres; failure to do so will pull the rug out from under those businesses that sustain the entire city-state.

The urban core provides over-arching identity and community focus, and should therefore be celebrated and developed with that identity in mind.

Real leadership would help all residents of HRM realize a common purpose. Unfortunately, we have only timid politicians discussing reduced representation and handing governance over to a power elite with a narrow, selfish agenda.

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