Thoughts on the NSUARB Decision
Well, the verdict has come down from the Utility and Review Board. Halifax Regional Council should be cut to 16. What does this mean and how will it affect you as a citizen?
Let’s first look at the issues that have arisen regarding good governance. Framework and structure may not be sexy, but they are the foundation on which any level of government exists. When the Halifax Regional Municipality was formed in 1996, it was done in a hasty manner with only one year to re-align what had taken almost two centuries of elected municipal governments to achieve. The new structure was written non- elected person. I’m sure he had good intentions, but with no regard for our existing communities, no insight to all the unique communities, how could he understand his civics of this proposed new municipality? Therefore, we, as a newly formed regional municipality were doomed to have a bureaucratically-favoured governance model.
There is a need for a better framework and policies to foster democracy – effective decision making on behalf of the residents and businesses. Right from the get-go, the Regional Council should have requested a better governance model that would give the six Community Councils more authority and jurisdiction over their areas. In doing so, the Councillors could work with the residents and staff to foster better relationships with business, development, municipal services and the quality of life for all involved (students, seniors, low income etc.) Instead, the Council was preoccupied with trying to maintain a level of governance they were so accustomed to prior to amalgamation. For 15 years this has been plaguing the municipality. There needs to be change, and those elected need to comprehend that it starts with them requesting changes to the Halifax Charter that will allow for dramatic changes that would in fact aid in better representation to their constituents.
Does the size of Council matter if it’s the structure that is currently in place is truly faltering? No. There could be 23, 20, 15, 5 elected individuals around the table and the same issues will bog down the Council meetings. The changes needed are in the Rules of Order, the Halifax Charter and the most important part that everyone is forgetting the STRUCTURE. I’ll use an analogy to describe the graveness of this: if a group decided to play football and the fans chose the captain, but didn’t give that person the ability to give directions and the coaches were from the opposing team were give more authority, how do you think the game would go? This is basically what is strangling the democracy of Halifax.
Now, let’s look at how Halifax Regional should setup their Community Councils for an effective governance framework. Toronto is a good example to adopt as they have 4 community councils. These Community Councils deal with all municipal issues within their jurisdictions but planning. This is the total opposite of Halifax Regional Council. The Toronto model seems to be more fitting for our regional municipality because it allows those areas that are alike to work together on like issues. Each Community Council decides on what projects or areas of concern should be advanced to Regional Council for the Annual Budget as well. Amendments to the Halifax Charter could achieve this, but only if the Provincial Government agrees with such changes as they oversee the municipal level of Government.
What really concerns me is the falsehood that a cut in the number of Councillors will be a monetary savings to the residents, better decision making will occur at Regional Council meetings. This is not so. The reduction of Councillors will not be a monetary savings, nor will it be a guarantee that there will be better decision making. Currently, Councillors share one support staff (typically 4 Councillors to 1 Councillor Support Person) which is challenging as not all Districts are equal with regards to the makeup of the district ( some have commercial areas which have unique demands as opposed to a more residential area). With the proposed 16 Councillors scenario, each Councillor may need their own assistant which would cost approximately 65k x 16= 1,040,000.
Some Councillors have suggested their desire for a District Office in their community. The cost at the present time for those with such amenities are supposedly absorbed by HRM, but let’s cost this out: (Being very conservative here) rent, furniture, phone, power, and office supplies = +<- 1500.00 a month. 1.5k x 16 x12 = 288,000. Factor in general expenses of 100.00 x 16 x12 = 28,800. So in total the cost maybe 1,356,800. Factor in the need to change literature, business stationary, web presence and other municipally related information and contact stock = approx. 50,000. Add in the changes required for Council Chambers = 50k. Approx. 2 million. (15% +/-contingency).
Furthermore there an increase in Councillor’s pay is hooked to the amount of citizens a Councillor would represent and that would increase the Councillors pay to 90k a year. 16 x 90k = 1,440,000, (not including the Mayor’s Salary or expenses like mileage) The cost is close to 2 million before work has even begun.
As for better decision making, that all depends on who are elected and their ability to understand their role as decision makers and policy makers for the whole municipality. The issues that many find mundane and trivial are part and parcel to the position. They may sound ridiculous and absurd, but that’s municipal grass roots politics!
Another concern is the ability for any Councillor to be accessible to all their residents, businesses. High demand areas like the urban areas may see a change in service which they have been told will not change. This is a demanding position and there is not a lot of downtime so whoever decides to run in the next election better be prepared for a different lifestyle!