Tuesday's HRM council meeting recap

City staff play games, more sewer plant debacle and bus taxes

Framing

City staff has evidently embarked on a new strategy of controlling the contours of debate and press coverage: Don’t give councillors documents to discuss until the very moment an issue comes before them, and don’t give reporters the documents until after council discusses them. That way, no one can study the documents in advance or otherwise form an independent view of things.

That, anyway, is what happened with Tuesday’s council meeting. With the press corps left squinting at fuzzy computer screens across the room and bumming paperwork off councillors during the meeting, you gotta wonder why we even go through the motions of covering council meetings. Maybe staff ought just create their own state media and sic the cops on anyone who dares independently report anything.

(Bull)shit storm

The staff presentation, three months after the event, on the failure of the Halifax sewer plant, is a perfect example of such framing. Council was first given the PowerPoint presentation in closed session, lest councillors ask any impertinent questions, then the whole thing was repeated before the public. Only after the encore presentation, at 9pm, was the media given printed versions of the PowerPoint slides, which daily reporters could dutifully transcribe just in time to meet midnight deadlines.

The meat of the matter---what the heck happened at the sewer plant?---was contextualized within a much longer lecture about “myths” and “misconceptions” that were irrelevant to the matter at hand, and one-sided, besides. I was inclined to be sympathetic about the plant failure---shit happens, ya know?---but with all the message management going on, I can’t help but think there’s something being hidden.

For what it’s worth, staff says they still don’t know what happened at the plant, but they’ll be cracking open the plant’s “black box” next week to help figure it out. They say the cost of the repairs should be more than covered by $66 million in insurance and $35 million in construction bonds, but there’s no doubt there will be legal challenges to both. Oh, and the plant repairs won’t be complete until the spring of 2010.

Bus taxes

Earlier in the day, staff talked an uninformed council (because they were only handed the paperwork at the meeting) into adopting an abbreviated form of the larger tax “reform” proposal to fund transit.

Along with other hilarity, staff continued its game of shifting focus--in December, council was told to not overly worry about a motion of intent, because they could later change their minds. Two weeks ago they were told they needn’t reconsider that motion because it could all be worked out at budget time in May. Tuesday they were told they had to absolutely pass the new tax structure because they passed a motion of intent in December and staff has been working on it and needs still more time to work out the details by May. See how that goes?

Having myself not gotten the paperwork until after the meeting, I can’t do that very complicated issue justice in the short time before my deadline. I’ll have a full report here in a day or two.

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