Boxes Aside… Benefits of Community Councils and How to Save Small Municipalities
I was going to write a quip about the things I uncovered while sorting through the 12 years of reports, thank you letters, requests, and material brought back from conferences, but I have decided to change gears due to two opinions that were made regarding how our municipality should be governed and the issues towns throughout Nova Scotia are facing.
The first opinion was tweeted last night. It thoroughly enraged me as the comments were completely incorrect regarding the role/governance, and use of Community Councils. Many may ask “what is a Community Council?” A Community Council is a smaller body of Regional Councillors which represents areas which are physically adjacent to each other or have similar planning, geographical, and community similarities. For example: on the peninsula the former four districts (11, 12, 13, and 14) were known as the Peninsula Community Council. The four Councillors met once a month publically to discuss the areas of concern for these four districts on topics such as variances to the Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) with respect to development or additions to dwellings or planning applications for their area, concerns brought forward by businesses or residents of these Districts or Staff related files within the areas (such as park upgrades).
Although these meetings were public, not many residents or businesses attended unless they had a beef with a development or a neighbour’s proposed request for a variance. Some groups did take advantage of the ability to present their questions, comments or requests to the Community Council, but it was never a packed house.
The abilities of a Community Council over the past 16 years have not been modified nor used to its potential under the Municipal Government Act (MGA) or the Halifax Charter (basically a carbon copy of the MGA with amendments focused on Halifax and its required need for changes to the legislation to allow for better governance on matters such as planning (example HRM by Design).
What irked me regarding the tweet last night is the person basically said it was “another level of government that we do not need”. Well, I absolutely disagree; in fact, this IS the type of government we need, but has been underutilized, never fostered, or funded properly to make it all of what it should be, the venue for community engagement, citizen consultation, and local grass roots governance.
While studying the different forms of local government, I learned about several models of governance under which Canadian municipalities can govern. The closest comparison to what Halifax Regional should be governed is; Toronto. Unfortunately, William Hayward (the bureaucrat charged to design the governance for Halifax Regional in 1995-96 by the Provincial Government of the time) didn’t go into great detail on the aspects of governing, only to point out that the Chief bureaucrat shall have ultimate authority over the operations of the Municipality, Regional Council (including the Mayor) would be like a Board of Directors dealing with the adoption of policy and amendment requests to the Province. Hayward’s approach to the use of Community Councils was quite vague, thus the proper usage of this government body is weak and not as effective as it could be.
Toronto on the other hand, uses its model of Community Councils properly or I should say better than Halifax Regional. First of all Toronto is set up as a Two Tier system ( Halifax Regional is 1 Tier) which gives authority and the ability for Community Councils to actually work. Instead of compiling the Community Councils by geographic likeness, Toronto broke them in to categories: Urban, Suburban and Rural. Toronto also allowed these Community Councils to establish budgets for localized work operations (parks, neighbourhood improvements etc.) as opposed to everything going to the full Council ( Halifax does this currently). We have all witnessed how polarizing effects of Urban versus Suburban /Rural over the years have caused controversy at Halifax Regional, so I won’t delve into that drama.
How will the Community Councils evolve for this new Council? I’m not privy to any information, but I hope that they decide to do it correctly and follow Toronto’s example. Furthermore, I hope the Provincial Government with get off their butts and start working with the Halifax Regional on revising/ amending the Halifax Charter to allow for a better form of governance that will be for the betterment of all areas of the municipality.
The second opinion piece that grabbed my eye was published in the local newspaper. It described the failing towns of Nova Scotia in the more rural areas. Interestingly enough, the Province has been aware of this issue since the early 1970’s (Graham Report). During a Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities’ conference, the state of the province’s population shift was presented and demonstrated their forecast, and the issues that would arise within the next 10, 15, 20 years. Basically, the population would be attracted to the more urban areas and this would cause financial hardship to the smaller municipalities. As stated in the opinion piece, Canso was the first victim and more to follow if a creative solution is not incorporated.
The “A” word (Amalgamation) is not the answer, but joint service agreements between small towns and counties may bring a little relief. This would allow for communities to retain their identity, and share resources, manpower, and establish joint capital projects to enhance the quality of life for the current and/or future businesses and citizens.
There is a huge need for creative solutions: tax breaks to companies to relocate to an area or a main street. For this to succeed, our Province and Federal Governments need to accomplish a few things: the connectivity whether it be digital or physical must be made a top priority. The Broadband rollout promised years ago must be completed, and stable transportation choices (buses, train, and roads in good state of repair) must allow residents and businesses to transverse without the fear of delay or safety issues. It’s a sign of the times; no one will relocate to an area that does not offer such minimal living requirements.
Ok, enough ranting. I have a linen closet to clean out.
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