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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Do-nothing council: more pay but less work

Review of meeting agendas shows dramatic decrease in issues before council.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 6, 2012 at 8:58 AM

click to enlarge city_hall.jpg
City councillors recently received a bump in their pay, and are now receiving just over $77,000 annually. The work load at city council meetings, however, has been slashed to unprecedented lows.

In the four meetings since the October elections, council has dealt with just one significant issue: the Skye Halifax proposal. Otherwise, the collective council agendas lack depth: over four meetings council approved building a break water in Cow Bay, made minor technical adjustments in a union agreement, reviewed a couple of insignificant staff reports, approved a staff plan for energy retrofits in some city buildings, made some council appointments to committee, complained about Heritage Gas tearing up streets, allocated the hotel bed tax to festivals, and gave a developer more time to get started on a project.

Compare that to just one council meeting from November of last year, when council held a public hearing on quonset huts in the suburbs, worked out the details of banking and credit card services for the city, approved a tender to fix the seawall on the Northwest Arm, made a set of zoning changes in Bedford, OKed the lease for a Timmy’s in the ferry terminal, extended city water to a mobile home park in Sackville, started the planning process for recapitialization of rec centres, looked at the harbour water cooling of Alderney Landing and requested three separate staff reports on various issues.

To be fair, the bulk of councillors’ work doesn’t take place at council meetings, but consists of committee meetings, reading voluminous reports and, critically, responding to constituents. But the weekly meeting is the most public work of council. The entire city can watch council on TV or in person, as councillors divvy up tax money and make the decisions that determine the future of the city. Until recently, council was rightly the ultimate authority in city government.

The slash in workload appears to be the result of the “agenda forecasting” system that CAO Richard Butts implemented late last year. As we reported in February, the goal was to flag and limit politically sensitive issues that might otherwise work their way up to council level, and to move much of the decision making out of the hands of elected politicians to the control of unelected bureaucrats in city hall. The swearing in of the new council seems to have accelerated the change.

New mayor Mike Savage, however, rejects that characterization.”We can be more involved in doing our jobs if there’s less council meetings,” says Savage. “Everything that has come up to be discussed has been discussed. Perhaps we’re dealing with it a little bit less acrimoniously.”

Let’s compare the meeting agendas from the four meeting since the new council was sworn in, with four meeting agendas from the same period last year:

This year’s meetings

November 13
• building a break water along Cow Bay road
• minor adjustment to wording of transit agreement
• a couple of unimportant staff reports

November 20
• Skye Halifax
• Council appointments to committee
• A general complaining session about Heritage gas tearing up streets
• Festival funding from the hotel tax

November 27
• OKed some energy efficiency projects
• Created new community councils
• More committee appointments
• Gave a developer more time to start construction

December 4
• Made more committee apointments

Last year’s meetings

November 8
• Public hearing on Quonset Huts
• New agreement for banking & credit card services for the city
• Tender to fix the seawall on the Northwest Arm
• Approved a set of zoning changes in Bedford
• Approved a lease agreement for Tim Hortons in the ferry terminal
• Extended city water to a mobile home park in Sackville
• Started the planning process for recapitalization of rec facilities
• Had a staff presentation on energy program at Alderney Landing
• three requests for staff reports on various issues

November 15
• Public hearing on Halifax West high school site development
• Bought four fire trucks
• OKed the fundraising campaign for the new library
• Discussed and OKed a half a million dollar expenditure for new artificial turf at a Sackville soccer field.
• Long discussion and approval of a transit E-pass pilot project for city employees
• Closed session on legal issues around the Occupy eviction

November 22
• Request for banners on Main Street, Dartmouth
• Dealt with unsolicited request to lease the old Fall River rec centre
• Finalized E-Pass pilot project
• FIrst reading of bylaw change to allow property tax-funding for paving project in Sandy Lake area
• OKed two heritage designations
• Festival funding from the hotel tax
• Closed session about selling the city’s soul for Oval naming rights

December 6
• Long debate and then vote to approve the second stage of the stadium analysis
• agreed to sewer extension through Via Rail property
• zoning variance in Cow Bay
• Tweaked granting process
• Update on affordable housing functional plan
• Reviewed the province’s coastal protection plans
* great hilarity to ensue as mayor Peter Kelly pinky promises a new era of open window democracy

Survey Asks

Where are you going to shop now that Target is closing?

  • The ghost of Zellers.
  • Wal-Mart: I bleed blue.
  • I never shopped at Target.
  • Buy local!
  • I'll just continue dreaming about Ikea.

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