Bedford Councillor Tim Outhit’s presentation to Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, presented earlier this week:
Mr. Chair and Panel members,
I am pleased and honoured to appear before you this evening to express my concerns and ideas (and those of many who I represent) regarding the size of HRM Regional Council.
My comments will focus on concerns regarding the process undertaken by the HRM, the outcome of the process, evidence that I believe was overlooked, and the concerns and ideas that I hear from residents.
My presentation is not intended to be a criticism of the HRM staff who led the process, or any of my council colleagues. Rather, my intention is to focus on how the UARB can assist HRM with the review process for future reviews, and how I hope you will act to improve governance, forward thinking, representation, and decision making in our young municipality.
My Concerns Regarding the Process Chosen by HRM:
1. The committee established by HRM did not include any members of the public or consultants.
2. The objectivity of many the councillors involved, including my own, is questionable. Some volunteered as a result of a desire to downsize council, to maintain the size of council, to increase the size of council to reduce our workload, or to protect those whom might be affected by a downsizing or boundary shift. These are understandable human desires, but they did not lead to good and objective decision making.
3. Interestingly, after the process was concluded Councillor Debbie Hum brought forward a motion to limit or eliminate the participation of councilors in the review process in the future. This motion passed via a vote of 19 – 1! In mu opinion, this is a clear admission by council that the process was flawed or at least far from optimum.
4. I was a member of the committee for a portion of its existence. During that I time I witnessed decisions and discussions that I viewed as unacceptable and unfortunate. For example, poll results were not considered, newspaper articles and feedback were not considered, and the input from the Chamber of Commerce was questioned and dismissed. I contend that we thus ignored useful evidence and public commentary during the review and consultation process.
5. The public hearings held throughout our municipality were attended by fewer than 400 residents. Of these, almost 50% attended one meeting. Many of the attendees commented during the meeting that they were there for another purpose! Therefore, significant evidence and input was not obtained by the committee via the public meetings. I have heard numerous times that residents didn’t participate, as they had no faith that a committee of councilors would act to reduce their own numbers or employment!
6. As you likely know, there actually is significant support on Regional Council for reducing the size of council. Votes to reduce our size to less than 20 were narrowly defeated, and the vote to reduce it to 20 was a tie vote. This demonstrates support for a smaller council, but also demonstrates our failure to deal with the issue as a tie vote means a motion is defeated. In my opinion, no clear or strong decision or recommendation was made by regional council.
Why do I, and many residents, believe that the size of council should be reduced?
1. I view our participation in Regional Council meetings, as the portion of our job that requires us to act as members of the Board of Directors of an almost $900M organization. Throughout the rest of the week, we councillors are advocates and ombudsmen for our districts and our residents. However, on Tuesdays we are tasked with making regional policy and budgetary decisions for the entire organization. A Board of Directors of 23 plus a Chair is far too large to operate efficiently and effectively. We are different from other levels of government in that there are no parties, no party lines, no party whips, or party policies to provide stability or direction. Democracy is a wonderful and cherished system, but it does not have to be synonymous with paralysis, inefficiency, or anarchy!
2. While our former cities were founded as far back as 1749, the HRM is only 15 years old. I feel that we are still growing as a community and as a governance model and body. I believe that the present size of council, and in particular the number of districts, promotes regionalism, “districtism”, and parochial thinking that interfere with the objective decision making required for significant policy and budgetary decisions. After 15 years of trial and error, it is time for tweaking to improve our representation, effectiveness and efficiency.
3. I believe, as do many residents, that our municipality, province, and region are over-governed for both our size and our economic challenges and our debt. This applies to both the size of the bureaucracy and the number of elected officials. We live in a province of only 950,000 people. I have lived in two cities several times larger than the population of our entire province! In Nova Scotia we have presently 442 elected officials, 55 municipalities, and almost 40% of the population working for government, education, or health care sector. This is not economically sustainable!
There are those in our community and on council that are opposed to reducing the size of Regional Council. Their arguments for growing or maintaining the size of council include:
1. The protection of democracy, control of the bureaucracy, and increased voter participation.
2. The protection of old boundaries or “communities of interest” and community spirit
3. Potentially less access to their councillor.
4. Potentially need to grow the number of support staff
5. The size of our municipal governing body is significantly smaller than the Provincial Legislature
I will quickly provide my reaction to their concerns:
When the number of MLAs and provincial electoral districts in Nova Scotia were increased in the late 1950s, this resulted in no increase in voter participation. I believe that it is a little arrogant and naïve for us to suggest that cities with more councillors are more democratic! The recent so-called concert scandal in HRM happened behind the backs of 23 councillors. In my opinion, it would still have happened if there were 15 or 45 of us!
When Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, and Halifax County amalgamated in 1996 the number of residents served by each councillor increased. Most of the councillors that served both pre and post amalgamation have told me that their increased workload was not overwhelming and was quite manageable. Further, in discussion with my colleagues and with our existing council support staff manager, I have heard nothing to suggest that there will any need for any significant growth in the number of support staff. I have also not uncovered any support for the idea that we would need a one-to-one or two-to-one staff ratio of support to councillor. By nature, necessity, and resident expectation your councillors will continue to be accessible to their residents! We do the job because we want to interact with people and help people!
Unlike the provincial government, there is no Cabinet. Most residents realize that it is Cabinet and a few Deputy Ministers that govern our province and not the Legislature. The entire Cabinet that governs our entire Province is smaller than HRM Regional Council. The entire federal Cabinet that governs our entire nation is only about a dozen people larger than regional council!
What are my recommendations for your consideration?
1. I propose a total Regional Council size of 15 – 17 people, including a mayor. This step will reduce parochial decision making, slightly reduce costs, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the “board” portion of our many responsibilities and duties.
2. By reducing regional council significantly, you can set the stage and help HRM and the province move toward true governance reform. My vision is that we must empower our community councils to better deal with local issues. My suggestion is that we create three community councils comprised of 5 – 6 councillors defined by rural, urban, and suburban location and focus. This, plus added empowerment to the community councils, will ensure that community issues are dealt with and within their “community of interest” and that we maintain community spirit and heritage.
3. I hope that the UARB will recommend that for future reviews that Regional Councillors be either not part of the process, or have at least have their impact greatly reduced by involving residents and consultants both in the process and in the preparation of recommendations. Council is comprised of good and hard-working people who want to help people. Asking us to determine how many or whom of our colleagues (or even ourselves) to layoff is a difficult and unusual task.
4. My hope is that the UARB will also recommend to both HRM and the province that a portion of regional council be comprised of several members elected at-large. Presently, only the mayor is elected at-large by all districts. In my opinion, a few at-large members would further counter-balance the risk of parochial decision-making. I am not suggesting council entirely be elected from at-large candidates.
Mr. Chair, you and the panel are in a wonderful position to help move our community forward with much needed governance reform to promote better and more efficient decision making. I hope that you will do so, and I welcome any questions!