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City Council Report Card 2016 

Emotional decisions trump reasonable policy as HRM sails towards an election.

click to enlarge The report card is The Coast’s annual editorial assessment of city hall’s effectiveness. For the second year in a row we’ve opened up voting to the public. Over the past few weeks, more than 500 people grades were cast for the mayor and councillors. Don’t agree with the results? Tell us why below. - THE COAST
  • The report card is The Coast’s annual editorial assessment of city hall’s effectiveness. For the second year in a row we’ve opened up voting to the public. Over the past few weeks, more than 500 people grades were cast for the mayor and councillors. Don’t agree with the results? Tell us why below.
  • The Coast

The mild winter must be making us soft. During last year’s frozen hellscape we chiseled grades out of sidewalk ice and wrote the councillors’ names in the snow. But in preparing the 2016 City Council Report Card we can’t help but think it hasn’t been that bad of a year for HRM. The municipality’s growing, the budget’s in decent shape (for now) and tentative steps have been taken towards some smart policy changes these past 12 months.

Sadly, most of those efforts have been polluted by immature squabbling inside City Hall. The last year has been punctuated by a litany of shameless calamities: The ceaseless Dartmouth branding debates; council angrily declaring its pay formula needn’t be touched; everyone knowing the best way to staff fire stations; the Irvings getting a plum tax deal and the rest of us getting donairs.

Can you tell it’s an election year?

Come November there will be more than a few new faces at City Hall. Three sitting councillors have already announced they won’t re-offer, and more are rumoured to follow. New candidates are trumpeting reform while the grandstanding predictably ratchets up. Here, at the end of its four-year term, this council has shown itself eager for a fight.

So let’s start one.

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Along with Jennifer Watts and Gloria McCluskey, Barry Dalrymple is the third councillor (so far) who’s announced he won’t re-offer in October’s election. He picked a good year to go out on. Dalrymple had a major win in finally getting new development regulations passed for properties next to the airport—a result seven years in the making. When some of his fellow councillors were horrified at the prospect of relying on volunteer firefighters, Dalrymple defended those first responders for saving his life after a heart attack several years ago. He also rallied against the proposed Fall River quarry (though councillor-turned-MLA Andrew Younger would ultimately save the day on that file). Other than that, Dalrymple’s been a little quieter than normal at meetings, give or take his routine complaints about rural service standards. We imagine he’s counting the days untill he no longer has to make that long commute downtown.

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Last year we wondered if David Hendsbee was getting wiser or if it was some kind of optical illusion. Well, the results are in. Hendsbee had a few hits this year. He’s pushed for improved rural transit, voted in favour of fire chief Doug Trussler’s staffing proposal and is immensely proud of his hand in approving Lake Charlotte’s new boat launch. He also drew criticism from residents with his non-response to Kiann Management dumping demolition debris in Lake Echo. Peppering those larger stories have been bizarre suggestions like putting a bridge toll on cyclists, or when he floated the idea of charging people for renting movies from the library in order to help small video rental stores. His efforts to find a new town crier—long a passion project for the councillor—fell flat when nobody applied for the job. He’s also the only one sticking up for the continued presence of HRM’s Edward Cornwallis statue. The premier has called for the statue’s removal, but Hendsbee’s instead suggested moving it to a busier space, next to the ferry terminal.

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It’s becoming hard not to love the exhausted annoyance Bill Karsten exudes at the whimsically casual way some of his colleagues treat council procedure. He’s the Felix to Matt Whitman’s Oscar, and Karsten’s distaste for the deputy mayor’s impish hijinks has been palpable in several meetings. His loathing of treacly matters like the donair report cut through everyone else’s puns to aptly demonstrate the inherent cringe-factor of that official food endeavour. But we have to downgrade Karsten for buckling to public pressure on firefighter staffing, using the absurd reasoning that the perception of public safety is equally as important as actually keeping the public safe. No, it’s not. It’s really not. While many of his follow councillors were fanatical in their belief against chief Doug Trussler’s proposals, Karsten merely gave up trying to convince residents and went where the winds were blowing. To quote mayor Quimby, let no one say he does not also blow.

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Nicoll spent a decent chunk of the past year as deputy mayor before letting Matt Whitman slide into our DMs. Her time as number two suited the diplomatic councillor well, and what meetings she did preside over were chaired with a steady hand. But since moving back down to the cheap seats Lorelei Nicoll’s been entirely too forgettable. Her biggest play of late was trying to get HRM to change its deed transfer tax. Staff pretty clearly outlined why the current system was fine, but Nicoll and a few others fought against that recommendation under the ridiculous notion that city council should be in the business of boosting the real estate market. Still, that was the liveliest Nicoll’s been in months. We’d love to see her unleash a little more in coming weeks, though hopefully for smarter causes.

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At 84, Gloria McCluskey is more engaged and more present than councillors half her age. The former Dartmouth mayor is retiring from public life this fall, but boy is she ever going out with a bang. McCluskey’s a hard-swinging pugilist who’s spent the past year fighting for the former city across the harbour like Dartmouth’s very own Boudica; fanning the flames of ideological oppression to restore Dartmouth’s name while publicly ripping into HRM’s managers, staff, even fellow councillors. At times it’s been an uncouth, even petty abuse of council’s limited power. But there’s no denying McCluskey’s popularity nor her dominating presence at City Hall. She’s championed daylighting the Sawmill River, helped approve $41 million to construct the new Dartmouth four-pad arena and ushered the municipality into stewardship of Dartmouth’s languishing heritage museum. For better or worse, there’s never any mistaking where Gloria McCluskey stands. It’s time for her to step aside, but we can’t say she won’t be missed.

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Tony Mancini won this winter’s by-election for Darren Fisher’s seat—vacated after the former District 6 councillor hitched his wagon to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal juggernaut last fall. He campaigned on improving taxation for small businesses, better transit options and a more welcoming municipal environment for new immigrants. Maybe some of those ideas will materialize, though so far Mancini appears to have inherited Fisher’s inability to speak at meetings. Kidding. Only a couple of months in, Mancini’s still getting accustomed to the role. We’re withholding a grade until he’s a little less green around the gills. But the councillor may want to make his presence known sooner rather than later. That election is just over the horizon, and if he’s not careful Mancini could find himself keeping District 6’s seat warm for whoever wins in October.

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After several failed attempts, Waye Mason seems to be losing interest in trying to convince his council opponents to come around. Instead, the niceties have given way to some incendiary sermonizing. He rightfully called council out on its salary bullshit, pointing out that complaining about $80,000 a year is tasteless when a hell of a lot of people in HRM are working hard for a lot less. The motion to review council’s pay structure was defeated, but Mason at least scored a moral victory. He also finally, maybe, probably helped find salvation for the Khyber building, overturned staff’s recommendation against side guards on HRM trucks, called for a municipal lobbyist registry and paved the way for new construction mitigation guidelines downtown. On the other hand, his resigned support of council’s unavoidable tax break for the Irving shipyard was regrettable. Also, his futile efforts to explain this whole Dartmouth signage thing didn’t win him any friends across the harbour. Pick your battles carefully, Waye.

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Confident but never cocky, Jennifer Watts comes prepared to every meeting she’s at with targeted questions and a graceful mind for alternative paths to civic success. She never dresses down staffers, or rebukes her fellow councillors, even when their opposing viewpoints derail conversations. In her last year in office she’s sadly had to watch Housing Nova Scotia drop the ball on the Bloomfield redevelopment, but has continued to advocate strongly for affordable housing. Watts voted against the Irving tax deal, against using Shannon Park for a stadium and against selling St. Patrick’s Alexandra to Jono Developments. Out of all those decisions, and countless more from the past eight years, it was passing HRM’s statement of reconciliation with First Nations communities that Watts said was the most important vote she’s ever cast. After two terms, she’s stepping down in October to (hopefully) make room for a more diverse regional council. That’s an admirable goal. It’s just a shame it comes at the cost of the best councillor in City Hall.

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Like or lump it, Linda Mosher’s past year is largely defined by donairs. The Halifax West Armdale councillor said she didn’t want a staff report when bringing forward the idea of making the sweet and greasy drunken mistake HRM’s official food. But after several weeks and some inglorious national media attention, that’s what we got. All so HRM could bestow an entirely ceremonial title on a meal most of the municipality vomits up during the next morning’s hangover. Mosher and supporters claim all that press about donairs are proof of the item’s tourism-driving potential. We’re not holding our breaths. It certainly ended up as a lot of free publicity for King of Donair, though. Elsewhere, Mosher tried to conjure a plebiscite during the election this fall on high-level matters like a new stadium and sidewalk snow clearing. The idea was thrashed by most of council and dead on arrival. She was also critical of rejiggering council’s pay structure, which wins her no points in our books.

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Surly and irascible, Russell Walker has been getting charged up more and more this past year. It’s a pleasant break from the usual dour decorum. He speaks his mind with conviction—he’s just often wrong. Walker was the driving force behind flipping the stormwater right-of-way charges onto property taxes instead of Halifax Water bills. Arguably, that’s less transparent and a worse choice, but it’s apparently what residents wanted and council deferred to its angry voters. He was gobsmacked that councillors would jump in with their own ideas on how to staff fire stations, and was one of only a handful who voted in favour of chief Doug Trussler’s staffing proposals. At the same time, he loathed that recent council compensation report and spent far too much time blubbering on, whining about his pay and how hard he works. We so say those efforts cancel each other out and we’re splitting the difference with Walker’s grade, cautiously optimistic he’ll have a better 2016.

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Kudos to Stephen Adams for voting against the shipyard tax deal. Council was between a rock and a hard place on whether to approve the 35-year agreement or likely face the Irvings in a lengthy court battle. Adams, along with Watts, Whitman and Johns (and Outhit on the second reading), at least recognized the ugliness of shorting taxes for an operation that’s already had no small amount of public money poured into it. Other than that, we’re struggling to think of much else Adams has done these past 12 months. He was soundly in favour of Glad’s “donation” of clear garbage bags, granted in exchange for promoting the brand on HRM’s website. He also helped assemble the Domestic Animal Advisory Committee as a way to help the city’s feral cat problem. Maybe Adams is more of a cat lover than a people person, given his suggestion that municipal money was better allocated towards police budgets and snow removal than efforts to relocate Syrian refugees.

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The crowning moment of Reg Rankin’s year was undoubtably HRM’s agreement to extend the life of the Otter Lake Landfill. Rankin’s been advocating for area residents for years now, and the deal council ratified in December appears to be a win-win: The community doesn’t have garbage towering over their homes, and the municipality saves millions it was going to have to spend finding a new dump. He was also one of the only voices of reason during the firefighter staffing debates, as he lectured council for overstepping its authority. If we’re being completely honest, another big win for Rankin was having his 2014 drunk driving charges dropped. The crown said there was no likelihood of a conviction. We won’t comment on that, except only to hope Rankin’s personal battles are behind him. The longtime councillor says he hasn’t made up his mind if he’s running again this fall. If he does choose to walk away from city hall, Rankin can’t say his last year wasn’t unproductive.

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Even Matt Whitman would likely admit that a year in which council ordered him to publicly apologize for his tweets maybe wasn’t his best effort. The positive thinker never met a publicity stunt he didn’t embrace; whether that’s free transit on election day or trying to regulate flyer delivery (which HRM has repeatedly been told it does not have the authority to do). His enthusiastic embrace of his deputy mayor role and the smiling fascism with which he conducts himself when taking over from Mike Savage has been fascinating to watch. He’ll cut off other councillors when they still have time to speak, even interrupt city staffers when he finds their answers boring. He strongly opposed the fire chief’s staffing proposal, and complained that his $90,000 salary was low for the work he puts in. Over a third of Coast voters gave Whitman an F, but he’s popular with many residents and it’s unlikely—though not impossible—he’ll lose his seat this fall. We hope he treats his job a little more seriously if he does get re-elected, and tones down the populist buffoonery.

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For the second year in a row that we’ve been counting, Brad Johns is the councillor with the worst attendance record at City Hall. He’s spent what time he was at council meetings criticizing come-from-away fire chief Doug Trussler, or opting for easy vote-winning schemes like free parking downtown for anyone with a veteran’s license plate. He’s vigorously defended his $25,000 purchase of a robotic talking Christmas tree in 2014 and maintains it’s bringing in record-breaking donations for Beacon House. That’s great. We really need to stress this, though: Johns missed 22 percent of the meetings he’s paid a not-insignificant amount of public money to attend. Last winter Johns blamed his 2014 absenteeism on family commitments and so we held off on giving him an F. This year, Johns explained his poor attendance by saying his time is better spent at seniors’ dinners and calling BINGO. Fuck outta here with that noise.

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Steve Craig tells us there were only two occasions he’s been annoyed at City Hall since being elected, and one was last month when council rejected a report to reform its pay system. The often stoic, sometimes borderline robotic Craig tried all manner of explanations and alternative efforts so his fellow councillors wouldn’t flush away an objectively fairer method to calculate the salaries of elected officials. It didn’t work. Always one for strong management and fiscal prudence, Craig’s methodically pushed forward changes over the last year to the way HRM paints its street lines and removes its snow. That’s all well and good, but we’re hoping the Lower Sackville councillor soon realizes good ideas alone aren’t enough to cut through the demagoguery of an election year. An animated, dare we even say pissed off Steve Craig might be more effectual in the months to come. At the very least, he’d be a lot harder to ignore.

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We downgraded Tim Outhit last year for his ironic detachment during council meetings. One horrible falafel pun aside, he’s either taken the criticism to heart or the past four years of middling municipal decisions have finally caught up to him. On several occasions—from imposing its will on fire station staffing levels to killing changes to the deed transfer tax—Outhit has left chambers ranting about council’s slipshod decision-making process. Sure, he’s implored the media to write about the “good news” budget that HRM just passed, but he’s also forlornly praised how effective council used to be back during the Peter Kelly days. Rose-coloured glasses there, we’d say. We’ll see how Outhit handles Halifax Transit’s new route network when it comes forward in a couple weeks, but we imagine he’s crossing his fingers that the Trudeau money train will finally put commuter rail on the fast track. Otherwise, Outhit may decide its time to cut his losses and head back to the private sector.

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The public rightfully turned against Mike Savage last winter, but the cheerful mayor has nicely rebounded these past 12 months and continues his efforts to improve city hall both inside and out. Savage’s push for campaign finance reform has been approved by the province, although it’s unclear whether anything will be enacted before this fall’s election. He also understands the importance of inclusion: Some of the mayor’s brightest moments this past year were aimed at reaching out to all of the municipality’s residents—even its newest ones. He spoke passionately about the moral duty to welcome Syrian refugees, and offered a heartfelt statement of reconciliation to HRM’s First Nations communities. We’d love to see Savage put more of those words into action. The city’s facing an affordable housing crisis, and drastic improvements are needed in accessibility. Progress on any of those fronts will be a far better legacy than the faded dream of a stadium. Until recently the mayor’s been coy about his future plans, but there were never really any doubts. Polling data released this week claims 72 percent of the municipality wants him to run again. He presumably also has a healthy war chest built up (if not funds left over from the $342,000 raised last time) and the only name tossed out as a potential challenger just frigged off to Charlottetown. All those friends in Ottawa aren’t going to hurt his chances either. He’s the Dartmouth boy running Halifax, and come October it’ll likely be Savage’s race to lose. We suggest he put his money where his mouth is this time around and post any campaign contributions well before election day. Voters on both sides of the harbour deserve a mayor as transparent as their garbage bags.

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