It’s coming up on three years since this colourful coterie of city councillors was elected to govern Halifax, and the cracks are beginning to show. Maybe everyone’s just smelling that fall 2016 election on the horizon, but personalities are finally bubbling up. Any 17 people forced to put up with each other for this long will eventually drop the charade of civility. If that means some bold ideas get put forward by councillors unafraid to rock the municipal boat, then all the better.
You’ll recall Halifax became bold this past year (or at least deluded itself into thinking as much). The Halifax Regional Municipality became just “Halifax,” with a new logo that saved on ink money by eliminating crossbars from our A’s. Aside from this blessed rebirth, some long-gestating projects (both minor and major) finally made their way through city council’s digestive tract. Africville’s dog park was finally decommissioned. The Regional Plan’s five-year review was approved (three years late). Lawsuits with developer George Armoyan were settled, while lawsuits from Joe Metlege were prepared for. With new garbage laws and the future of the Otter Lake landfill discussed, there was more trash-talk than usual at City Hall.
As far as 2015 goes, so far it’s largely been a song of ice and fire. Several heated budget debates have ignited over Halifax Fire and Emergency Services’ massive operational review. Outside of council chambers the city has been decimated by an inextinguishable winter. Halifax was fed up with inadequate snow clearing even before last month’s demonic blizzards. There’s a lot of work left to do if council wants to dig itself out of that mess.
There are parallels between shovelling snow and the work of Halifax Regional Council. It’s tireless, incessant labour with little reward beyond a faintly more functional city. It’s perhaps not immediately clear, but I have tremendous respect for the job these people do. Even when they’re wrong—and they’ve all been wrong—I can’t help but admire their dedication. There’s not a sliver of doubt in my mind that all 17 care deeply about their residents and want a brighter future for this city. They spend days, nights and weekends advocating for the public. To quote previous Report Cards, “merely showing up and doing the job is kind of impressive.”
I’m sure that doesn’t matter to them, or the readers who will quickly festoon me with charges of incompetence, bias and old-fashioned stupidity. Happens every year. It might all seem pulled out of our asses, but we do take careful considerations of these letter grades. I’ve been imposing myself on council meetings for almost a year, reading the mountains of staff reports and taking notes on who votes which way. For this report card, and because I’m a masochist, I also went back and re-read the last 15 months of meeting minutes.
The grades offered take into account the kind of forward-thinking initiatives we feel will make Halifax better for everyone. The Coast still aims to be progressive, adversarial and speak for the underdogs. Environmental matters matter to us, and we believe respect needs to be earned. Consideration is also given to the councillors’ efforts in representing their constituents, as well as points for effective political action. Now, without further ado, let's get to the grades.
Upon first meeting Barry Dalrymple he expressed annoyance at being misquoted by previous Coast editors and walked away in case I did the same. He needn’t have worried. Unless you have a Fall River fetish, Barry Dalrymple doesn’t offer up too many bon mots. He’s a rural broken record, who vigorously defends the citizens of his district from slights both real and imagined. To his credit, Dalrymple has occasionally been on point. We’re with him on questions about how Halifax will take over the city’s streetlights. Spurred on by Parker Dunham, he also tried to expand high-speed internet to the rural HRM communities that still use dial-up. Ultimately, Dalrymple gets knocked down a grade for his tasteless brandishing of three homicides on Guysborough Road to critique fire chief Doug Trussler’s operational plans. Unless Barry knows some autopsy information that hasn’t been released, using those deaths for budget debates is a disgusting little bit of emotional grandstanding.
At the very least, David Hendsbee does not suffer fools gladly. Prickly on mic and off, Hendsbee’s soliloquies usually result in barbs at his expense. Yes, Hendsbee still often takes the long way towards a short point, but he seems to be choosing his shots more carefully. He stressed Halifax’s obligation to keep HRM waste in the HRM, even while council was voting to ship our garbage to other towns. He also seemed to do great work helping with the Lake Major dam evacuation in January. Still, he voted against the city’s new arts and culture advisory committee, and against moving forward with the Centre Plan. Plus, he’s a Bruins fan. A lot of eyes seem to roll whenever David Hendsbee starts talking, but underestimating the longtime councillor may be working to his benefit.
Want to make Bill Karsten mad? Ignore Robert’s Rules of Order and watch him erupt. “Process cop” is the honourific Karsten’s been saddled with several times. For better or worse, the title still holds. Just this week he blew a gasket when Matt Whitman went out of order. He’s even cited the Wikipedia definition of “guideline” in a meeting, for crying out loud. It’s odd, behaviourally, but useful. Karsten’s laser-like adherence to procedure keeps matters on track. Still, we like Bill Karsten best when he’s human. He used his administrative jiu jitsu for good instead of evil to overturn waste hauling tenders that would have put a longtime small business owner out of work. There’s also his cautious support for daylighting the Sawmill River. Just lose the pent-up rage.
This has been a solid year for Lorelei Nicoll. The RP+5 review she helped shape finally passed. The demolition of the Cherry Brook Community Centre was deferred (pending further community discussions). Plus, she got approval for a new artificial field in Cole Harbour. Not for nothing, she was also elected by her colleagues as the new deputy mayor. So far it appears to be a good fit for the diplomatic Nicoll. Knowing when to speak and when to defer to your co-workers is a subtle skill. It’s occasionally caused Nicoll to sit too quietly at council meetings, but it’s working in her favour as deputy mayor. She’s taking on her new responsibility with gusto—running a tight ship whenever Mike Savage isn’t around. Still, we’re eager to see Nicoll throw a few punches with some of council’s brasher pugilists. Maybe the deputy mayor prestige (and extra money) hinders such scrappiness.
Along with David Hendsbee, Gloria McCluskey was one of only two votes against changing the municipality’s name. She had criticisms of the expense, but really the Dartmouth icon doesn’t much like living in “Halifax.” In every consideration, McCluskey fights for those on the other side of the harbour. That’s vital, considering plans for a revitalized downtown Dartmouth. Her hellfire and brimstone will hopefully prove useful in daylighting the Sawmill River. Too often, though, the train is coming off the rails. Bizarre misfires like quieting whistles and licensing cyclists (both went nowhere) make her an anachronism. In a brassy bit of unprofessionalism, McCluskey voted in favour of an unwanted development on Wellington Street simply because Dartmouth had been saddled with a few bad buildings years before. She’s also been the most sadistic in her criticisms of Halifax Fire’s operational plans, belittling the fire chief and openly questioning his management. The only reason Gloria McCluskey isn’t getting an F is her public call last month to declare a state of emergency. In that at least, she was correct.
More and more Darren Fisher appears to have checked out of council meetings. The former deputy mayor is busy on the campaign trail, ramping up with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to try and take the NDP’s Dartmouth seat from Robert Chisholm this fall. Taking a backseat municipally while a federal election looms is smart politically, but it leaves a noticeable Darren Fisher-shaped hole in many debates. He seems shackled by the election, unable to say anything even vaguely controversial. So his mic will turn on for issues like the impact of Shannon Park’ closure on community groups, or translation services for council meetings. All matters nice and safe and bland. In the words of Ron Swanson: never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.
Waye Mason’s biggest political achievement may be that he got people to shut up and start shovelling again. He rallied most of the peninsula these past few weeks with a can-do spirit and charming colloquialisms like “the arse is out of ’er.” He handled the crisis expertly. But Mason seems to be losing clout with his peers. Despite repeated pleas—and while armed with warnings from residents, staff and the planning committee—he failed to stop the ludicrous Wellington Street development. Likewise, he’s punted the $4-million renovation costs for the Khyber forward a few times now. That may be delaying the inevitable. Still, Mason remains a strong voice for the arts and a giddy fan of downtown revitalization. He’s also made accessibility a goal. For now his grade only slightly falls.
It’s easy for shallow critics to label Jennifer Watts as a “social justice warrior” (as if that’s an insult). Warrior she is, though. Watts comes into every council meeting with complex questions and concerns intrinsic to her gentrifying district—if not the future of the city at large. She alone continues the now ceremonial “fight” against the Nova Centre, moving to defer the development’s amendments in a motion that no one else even seconded. She’s ushered in a new administrative order on open data, and looked into ongoing operations for the African Nova Scotian Affairs office. She also tried—in vain—to get sidewalk clearing taken back from contractors this winter. Watts also remains one of the most considerate councillors in City Hall. She defers to her colleagues, even after they overstep to make decisions for her residents. Consistently she acknowledges the hard work municipal staff put into their reports, even when she’s about to disagree with their proposals. Jennifer Watts isn’t perfect, but through hard work and sheer class she makes the job look easy.
It’s not Linda Mosher’s lengthy fight of a $227 ticket from a hit-and-run incident that earns her a failing grade. Nor is it her quest to eliminate the graffiti scourge she’s convinced the city has. It’s not even her inexplicable intrusion into other district’s concerns, like fighting to get a development onto Wellington Street that the residents vehemently did not want. No, it’s Mosher’s dogged efforts to make contracted sidewalk snow-clearing work that sinks her. To put it mildly, the sidewalks this winter were a nightmare. It’s been two years now of proof Mosher’s grand idea does more harm than good. Yet faced with daily evidence her scheme wasn’t working, Mosher’s instead doubled down. She’s tabled new considerations in case operators can’t meet service standards, proposed blasting the roads with beet juice and done everything she can to prop up this icy loser. It’s OK to admit defeat. The public loves a little political contrition. Maybe it would be best to take a lesson from another leader of a frozen city and let it go. Until then, Linda Mosher remains a failure.
One of the more forgettable councillors, Russell Walker doesn’t speak much and doesn’t speak about much. He pops up every now and then to remind the city about its commitments to off-leash dog park users. That’s really a shame, since he’s a demonstrable force when riled up. Walker’s argument about fire station closures—that the city closed stations before and Fairview hasn’t burned down yet—cut right through the administrative and political noise. He’s also called for HRM’s right-of-way stormwater charge to be moved back to the general tax rate, which will be less confusing. An F last year, Walker tipped dangerously close to a C if it wasn’t for his votes to export our garbage and his stance against reviewing council’s pay.
Stephen Adams certainly attends meetings. He was the only councillor who voted against giving permanent residents voting rights, and is responsible for amending the new garbage laws to keep the current limit of six per household. He also tried to cram the Wellington Street development through by way of last-minute amendments based on some vague promises made by the property owner. Recently he backed tag-team partner Linda Mosher’s efforts in keeping contracted snow removal on peninsula sidewalks. Overreaching and bombastic, Adams mostly stands out for what he gets wrong. Though lately he’s tilted at saving lighthouses, and he’s a bit saucy. So we’ll give him points for style.
Reg Rankin is the only councillor who stands to deliver a speech. He remains so determined in his convictions, so obtuse in his verbosity, that he’ll still steal the spotlight while lost in the weeds. Even when boring, Reg Rankin’s never boring. Like during last summer’s rebranding, when Rankin pointed out he had first motioned to use Halifax instead of HRM way back in 1998. Unfortunately, Rankin’s ornate sermons get in the way of his own arguments. He’s been one of the loudest voices of reason in how council has undercut the fire department’s management, but it’s like no one is listening. He’s staunchly committed to crafting the Otter Lake landfill’s future, but Rankin’s own destiny remains clouded. Reg is facing an impaired driving trial this summer from an accident last spring.Depending on the outcome, it’s possible Rankin will choose not to run in next year’s election. Maybe he’s already decided as much and is taking a victory lap. Time will tell.
Any grade for Matt Whitman has to factor in his Herculean quest to restore career firefighters in Black Point. Despite the chief saying they were superfluous (and the fact that four firefighters are needed to enter a burning building), Whitman’s exhausted pleas were successful and he got his fire crew restored. In all likelihood, it’s the wrong call. But it’s the one his residents appear to have wanted. That he got council to go along with the idea is also impressive. Whitman’s become a little more cocksure in his third year, which is causing him to stand out for more than just his clashing attire. His voting record still seems unpredictable, maybe even haphazard. On the mic though, he’s usually clear on his opinions and full of questions. Plus, he seems to engage well with the city on social media, We almost dropped his grade at the last minute for a wacky plan to introduce an unnecessary reversing lane on the Bedford Highway, but decided to withhold judgement until next year.
Let’s get it out of the way upfront: Brad Johns used public money to buy a $25,000 robotic talking Christmas tree. It’s one of the lesser screw-ups in his year. The frustrating thing about Johns is he remains preoccupied with his district’s minutiae even when he speaks with such spirit about the city’s larger issues. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what he fought for or against. Brad missed 25 meetings last year—about a third of his scheduled time. That’s not counting any time he was late, nor those where he was present but missed votes. Johns told the media he has district and family commitments on Tuesdays. His children are sick a lot, he’s said. We believe him, and so we stop short of a full F in consideration. Family is more important than work. We suggest Johns should focus on his family, and find new work before next fall.
One of the most skillful feats this year was Steve Craig’s fast-tracking a new stormwater system for flood-prone subdivisions in Lower Sackville. It stands out even more considering the many projects this year which required months of debate. When it mattered, Craig was able to cut through the red tape. The District 15 councillor is always pushing for Halifax to run like the big city it pretends to be; effectively, and with accountability. He’s called for Water Commission board meetings to be open to the public, and argued strongly in favour of reviewing council’s compensation. He straddles a fine line between business manager and responsible public servant. We’re going to knock him down a couple points for voting to export waste outside HRM, as well as his handling of community mailboxes. But overall, city council’s a better entity with Craig on it.
Tim Outhit’s kind of a scamp. During some ridiculous speech or another he’ll turn to the gallery, roll his eyes and give a half-hearted chuckle like he’s Halifax’s own Jim Halpert. It’s very Bedfordian. Stoicism might be more respectful to the process, but sometimes it’s hard not to agree with his frustration. In terms of political maneuvers, Outhit splits the difference this year. He’ll screw something up, like helping delay the decommissioning of the Africville dog park, but then goes and speak up about his unease with the city’s clandestine Irving shipyard tax arrangement. He voted to export the city’s waste, but rightfully called for a vote on Wellingston Street to happen directly after the public hearing like it ought to. He’s also been integral in tempering some of the hotheads in the recent fire service debates. Given his strong commitment to a revamped transit system (give or take high-speed rail), Outhit earns his higher marks. Let’s just see some more hustle by way of standing committee attendance this year.
In any other year, Mike Savage would be hitting it out of the park. Halfway through his term after taking over from a less-than-stellar predecessor, Savage has reinvigorated the city’s ichor and positioned himself as an accessible champion for optimistic idealism. He’s rebranded us all with a bold-ish new logo, and has worked hard to at least appear accountable. He’s cut spending in the mayor’s office, and called for campaign finance reform in municipal elections. Savage recognizes Halifax needs more people if it’s to survive, and he’s rolled out the welcome mat for international students while extending voting rights to permanent residents. That wasn’t a popular move, but his passionate, definitive speech on the matter during council showcased a leader who wants his city to be better.
He’s the best speaker in City Hall, with commanding words and an eloquent grasp of both short and longterm visions. Cities build things to make them better places to live, he’s said, not to make money. Cutting both ways, that means he’s not giving up anytime soon on his pet project for a Halifax stadium. It would doom future generations to a financial blackhole, but stadiums are the sort of big-ticket item mayors use to gauge success. Besides, that’ll be the future’s problem to deal with, and there’s no guarentee he’ll get elected to a second term. (Savage has played it coy so far, but there’s little doubt he’ll run in 2016.)
Any other year, and Mike Savage would be doing a hell of a job. But it’s this year, and this winter. The winter that’s pounded anything resembling hope or goodness out of the people in Halifax. It’s not all the mayor’s fault. He doesn’t control the weather. He’s even been stained with some unfair criticisms, like an out-of-context “stupid” radio remark and a boneheaded parking job next to City Hall. He’s come across as unsympathetic to the struggles of his city’s people. Probably, that’s not how Savage really feels. But given the kind of winter Halifax has had, it’s enough for citizens to grab their shovels and storm the castle.
Those are PR problems maybe, but they highlight some real failures. It doesn’t matter that no one could have predicted this weather. The city was facing disaster, and Savage didn’t step up as the bold, forthright leader everyone needed. Whether due to increased efforts or warmer temperatures, the city has since gained some traction. Savage has emerged to see his shadow, promising an autopsy on snow-clearing services in the near future. But the damage is done. Much like the snowbanks along the streets, it’s going to take a long time for Mike Savage’s performance this winter to melt from Halifax’s memory.
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