- Bianca Müller
The past year has been the most eventful 12 months for Halifax councillors since The Coast started handing out annual grades in 2007. This year, council dealt with many highly contentious issues---and screwed up each and every one of them.
The 2011 report card was still on the stands in May, when council agreed to give $145,000 to a non-profit fronting for the O'Neill sportswear company, in order to supposedly hold a "cold water" surf competition at Cow Bay in September, when surfers find the warmest water of the year. No one at city hall had bothered to check out the non-profit, but after The Coast reported that the non-profit had no legal existence, and that Halifax had been played as a dupe in a bidding war with Tofino, O'Neill killed the competition. That embarrassing event was the start of this reporting year. Everything went downhill from there.
In June, auditor general Larry Munroe issued an exhaustive report on the concert loan scandal, detailing how Trade Centre Limited president Scott Ferguson, top city bureaucrat Wayne Anstey and mayor Peter Kelly had conspired to secretly funnel millions of dollars in improper loans to concert promoter Harold MacKay. Anstey had been the fall guy in the scandal and was forced to retire in March 2011, but neither Ferguson nor Kelly were held to account, even after Munroe's report came out. Councillor Sue Uteck did attempt to get council to censure Kelly and suspend him for a week. Outrageously, Kelly was allowed to preside over the vote, and only Uteck, Jim Smith and Darren Fisher voted for censure. The council majority couldn't even muster a symbolic slap on the wrist for Kelly.
After the summer vacation, council first refused to cut the number of council seats down from 23, then had to deal with a UARB order to shrink its membership by seven (see "Pressing council's reset button," page 12.)
Come fall, council got to business seriously screwing up. Way back in 2010, council had asked officials at Trade Centre Limited to advise it on pursuing a stadium project in conjunction with a bid to host some games of the non-competitive teams playing in the 2014 FIFA Women's World Cup. TCL's advice: don't do it. Council rejected that advice and pursued the stadium and bid anyway, throwing good money after bad for two stadium reports, even after both the federal and provincial governments said they weren't going to play ball. Last fall, council doubled down on the stadium stupid by asking for an extension on the bid deadline, and in March 2012 the whole thing imploded spectacularly. All told, council spent a half-million dollars for nothing.
Stupid is one thing, shameful another. In November, councillors dishonoured themselves, the city and veterans by disgracefully ordering the Remembrance Day eviction of the Occupy Nova Scotia group from Victoria Park, where they had moved to allow veterans full use of Grand Parade.
Through the rest of the year, council tripped itself up over the issue of naming rights to The Oval and the accompanying events plaza. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether naming rights are appropriate, and there's nothing wrong with extended council debate, or with council reversing itself, as it did when it first refused to name the plaza for a beer company, then changed its collective mind. But the controversy brought out another recurring theme at council: the unnecessary and ultimately counter-productive secrecy. Had council simply put the naming rights out to bid, it would've avoided the mess entirely.
In December, council voted to pull the Hydrostone out of the nascent North End Business Improvement District. The disassociation reflects the historic racial animus of the far north end toward the Gottingen Street district, as well as similar attitudes on council. That was borne out in January, when council secretly agreed to sell the former St. Pat's-Alexander school site to be developed as condos, instead of entertaining other uses by non-profit organizations, which was required by council's own policy. A judge has put a freeze on the sale until a June hearing, when the fate of the sale will be decided.
In February, Halifax transit workers went on strike. The city issued press release after press release vilifying bus drivers as unreasonable and greedy, and six long weeks went by as council refused to intervene, letting the bureaucrats take the lead on negotiations. In the end, the union lost considerable ground in the new contract. Council argued that it needed to reign in costs, but while council forces regular working people to bear the brunt of belt-tightening, city managers are seeing their salaries skyrocket. Our city government takes care of the well-heeled, at the expense of the working person.
Earlier in the year, council voted to allow both the Roy Building and Zellers department store (Discovery Centre) redevelopment projects, which critics say will undermine the Gottingen Historic District, an important component of HRM By Design, by placing giant skyscrapers right in the middle of it. Then, in March, councillors voted to set a public hearing for the Skye Halifax project, a proposal for two 49-storey buildings on Granville Street that utterly, spectacularly, violates HRM By Design. HRM By Design was five years in the making, involving thousands of citizens and costing millions of dollars, and council is prepared to chuck the whole thing. The majority of onlookers, downtown business organizations included, see Skye as a horrific project, sabotaging all the good work that's been done to reposition downtown. And approving Skye is not just bad planning. Because HRM By Design brought thousands of people into the planning process, breaking it now serves to further increase public cynicism of government.
But while council took some atrociously bad actions over the past year, councillors' most egregious failure was what they didn't do.
On February 16, The Coast detailed Peter Kelly's failure as executor of Mary Thibeault's estate, including the fact that he has transferred over $160,000 from the dead woman's personal bank account to his and his son's control. In the wake of that story, Kelly announced he wouldn't run for re-election, but just as with the concert scandal, he has not been held to account---councillors have made no move to censure Kelly and no attempt to remove him from chairing meetings. Councillors continue defer to Kelly with the honourific "Your Worship."
It says something ugly about this council that it can sic 40 cops on some campers for violating a bylaw, but it can't take even symbolic action against Peter Kelly for what look like far greater crimes. Put simply, council has lost its moral bearings.
It's comprised of the exact same people who were at council last year and the year before, but given their multiple opportunities to screw up in ways they couldn't had in the past---and councillors' success in screwing them up---this year's edition is without a doubt the Worst. Council. Ever.
The grades for councillors follow on page 8. For marking purposes, because of their collective misgovernance, all councillors were dinged considerably from even last year's rotten grades---last year saw the most Fs since we began these report cards. We looked for excuses to bump the marks up, but they were few and far between.
As usual, we stress that this is an inexact science, and subjective. Readers are free to disagree and post their own thoughts at thecoast.ca, and voters can make those opinions matter in the October city election. —Tim Bousquet