Last year was a low point for Halifax city politics. "Council dealt with many highly contentious issues---and screwed up each and every one of them," we wrote in our annual report card. We went on to award a record number of F grades---five---and for the first time, flat-out expelled one politician, then-mayor Peter Kelly. Our headline was "Worst. Council. Ever."
What a difference an election makes.
We're happy to report that this year's council has, well, maybe "improved" isn't the right word, but council doesn't suck quite so much as it used to. Which is saying something, because most of the councillors this year were also councillors last year.
So what happened? To begin with, there were substantial structural changes. The unelected Utility And Review Board reduced the number of councillors from 23 to 16, and then re-drew district boundaries in such a way that in the October election, sitting councillors had to run against each other in four of the new districts. Still, 13 of the 16 new council seats were won by incumbents. The other three seats are held by newbies Steve Craig, Waye Mason and Matt Whitman. Mayor Mike Savage, of course, is also new to the municipal stage.
Does the not-so-sucky council validate the move to a smaller council? The jury's still out, because there are so many moving balls. Consider, for example, the biggest recent change at city hall. Top bureaucrat, CAO Richard Butts---a Toronto resident who flies into Halifax every Monday morning, runs this city for four days and then, on Friday evening, flies back home to Toronto---has consolidated power.
Butts has ordered city workers not to talk to the media or even to city councillors, lest they fall off-message. Like some banana republic version of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, the city's PR department has ballooned in size, and now employs more people than any newsroom in town, vetting and spinning every conceivable government interaction with its citizens.
In terms of city council, Butts' office micro-manages even the tiniest issues facing city government, such that anything with the remotest possibility of becoming politicized is red-flagged, massaged, slowed down or killed outright. As a result, the flow of staff reports and action items to council has dropped to a trickle, and councillors simply don't do as much as they once did. Even then, some of the most interesting things discussed this year at council were issues councillors brought forward directly to their colleagues, bypassing both Butts and his staff.
Without direction from council, Butts tried to cut the number of council meetings in half. Councillors rightly objected that they had not been consulted on the change, and so we still have weekly meetings, but Butts' tight control of agenda items still means that this year's council does maybe an eighth of what last year's council did.
So, yeah, taken together, the changes mean we have a nice group of councillors mostly getting along, mostly voting unanimously in favour of the few Butts-vetted issues that appear before them. There's no longer much of that dreaded "bickering" at council or, put another way, not much democratic debate about things that matter. Think of the directors of a bank sipping cocktails in joyful harmonious banter at the country club, while their nominal employee, the bank manager, is back at the office running the corporation for his own purposes, and you've got a rough idea of what's happening at Halifax City Hall.
The Russians speak of Potemkin villages, a series of two-dimensional fake villages, like ghost towns on the sets of western movies, built in order to deceive the Empress Catherine II as she rode by. In Halifax, we have, for the most part, a Potemkin city council, built by Butts to deceive the citizenry into believing they have true representative government.
That said, the tiny trickle of issues that have come before council since the election have some import. The most significant was the Solar City initiative, which got to council, councillors tell us privately, over Butts' objections. Solar City is a revolving loan fund that will provide upfront financing and advice to help 1,000 homeowners every year to install solar water heating systems.
There were other important issues. The ill-conceived Skye Halifax development, which council rightly killed. The mean-spirited suggestion that the province do away with half the recyclable deposit---the half that bottle collectors and charitable groups depend on---which council approved. As well, a Butts-driven proposal to fundamentally undermine how HRM prevents recyclables from entering the landfill, which council happily entertained before the province put the kibosh on that horrible idea. Council continued expanding the suburban business parks, and put more money into storm water systems.
For sure, that's a slim list. Deciding how to grade councillors this year was a head-scratcher. In the end, we decided that as councillors find their sea legs in the new climate, these past few months is something of a honeymoon period for them, in terms of this report card. Just as it's bad form to be overly critical of a newlywed couple's, er, amourous performance, at least until they've learned what pleases whom and have established some safe words, so too must councillors in these new power arrangements do a little political dance and experiment with some new positions, before we know for sure if they're giving us that sweet, sweet love or merely screwing us over.
In other words, uncharacteristically, we're going easy, and giving most councillors the benefit of the doubt. Heck, approving the Solar City program by itself earns council a lot of well-deserved good will.
We expect that soon enough, probably in the coming year, councillors are going to confront the power shift to Butts. That's going to be a fun battle to watch, and we're already stocking up on popcorn. In the meanwhile, though, here are this year's grades. As usual, they are completely subjective and, as usual, readers are free to disagree and offer their own comments at thecoast.ca.