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Dear Mayor Savage 

An open letter of advice from The Coast to Mike Savage, Halifax’s new mayor

click to enlarge PAUL HAMMOND

Congratulations on winning election as Halifax's new mayor. We wish you the best of luck over the next four years, and hope that your term will be productive and fruitful, and that with you at the helm, Halifax becomes a nicer place to live.

You should be proud that a clear and convincing percentage of voters checked the box next to your name. But more important, you should also remember that an overwhelming majority of citizens decided not to cast a ballot at all, even though voting itself was just a mouse click away, as easy as liking something on Facebook. All other measures aside, the next four years will not be a success unless you work to engage that large block of people who felt it was pointless to vote.

From the moment your campaign started, you were seen as the most legitimate candidate because of your connections to the right people. Insiders from all three political parties endorsed your candidacy. Business owners gave your campaign big money. The managers and professionals at the institutions and organizations that run this city put Mike Savage signs on their front yards. The near-universal consensus of those considered important was that Mike Savage should be mayor, and yet barely one in three people cast a vote at all. Of course, you don't need the people who didn't vote this last election to come on board. By keeping to a middling political ground and by not being obviously ethically compromised, you can maintain the support of the powers that be, and probably cruise to re-election four years from now, eight years from now, until whenever you want to move on or retire. But is it enough for you to be the consensus mayoral choice of the tiny minority of people for whom city politics already works, or do you want to build a new kind of politics that brings the neglected majority into the process? Mayor Savage, how you answer that question will determine your legacy. This is an existential issue for you.

We suggest that most people are disengaged because city councillors and mayors have chosen not to pursue actions that have significant impact in people's lives. For a lot of people, the biggest hardship in life, the thing they spend over half their working hours addressing and all their waking hours fretting about, is figuring out how to pay the monthly rent bill. And yet city politicians have completely ignored that hardship, not even bothering to draft the "affordable housing functional plan" that was called for in the 2008 regional plan.

Certainly the connected businesses that wrote your campaign $1,000 and $5,000 cheques stand to benefit hugely from the new shipbuilding contract. And theoretically at least, at some point in the future the contract will lead to some job opportunities locally, although who gets those jobs and at what wages remains to be seen. But whatever theoretical benefits may accrue to the future, the contract awarded to Halifax's Irving Shipyard has had one immediate concrete effect: A speculative housing bubble has hit the peninsula, already pushing rents up by $100 per month in many instances. The housing crisis is happening right here, right now. People are hurting. Neighbourhoods are hurting. True, the crisis is hitting hardest the people who are not engaged in politics. Do you care about them? What will you do to help them?


There was a lot of talk this past election campaign,

much of it coming from you, about "affordable housing." But you know and we know that most of that talk was simple blather. The very term "affordable housing" was usually left undefined. When it was defined, it meant that an apartment is affordable if it costs less than a third of someone's income, so an executive making a half-million dollars a year and renting a $12,000 per month apartment in the Trillium building makes that apartment "affordable." This is nonsense.

You need to talk about "affordable" in ways that are material to the working poor. For someone working a minimum-wage job to spend no more than a third of their after-tax income on housing, the monthly rent can't be higher than $460. You should refuse to put your signature on any bylaws or policies passed by council that don't use that definition.

In the campaign, you also supported "density bonusing," the idea that if a developer commits to making a certain number of housing units "affordable" (left undefined), she will be rewarded with the opportunity to construct a new building a little taller than the bylaws otherwise allow. We're not opposed to that idea, but it still leaves the creation of new affordable housing as a simple business calculation for the developer. If there's a way to used the possible increased height to tweak the building this way or that to stick in a few smaller affordable units and increase the profit potential, she might do it. If there's no way to make more money from building affordable housing, she definitely won't build it.

Our society imposes all sorts of demands on businesses. Drug companies are required to sell their pills in child-proof bottles. Car companies must install seat belts. Dairies have to pasteurize their milk before sending it to market. All these requirements are costly, and take away from the businesses' profits, but we've judged that the social benefit of the requirements outweighs the loss of profit to business. In exactly the same way, we need to require that all developers who want to do business in Halifax must build strictly defined affordable housing into each of their projects. This should not be a decision that the developer makes only if she can figure out a way to make more profit. It should be the law, period. Mayor Savage, you should demand it.

And don't dismiss rent control. Yes, we know, it's a political hot potato, one that no doubt offends the real estate and property management firms that gave lots of money to your campaign. So far, you've avoided the rent control issue, saying it's a provincial matter. But the province won't act if the mayor won't champion the cause.

People are hurting, right now. Communities are being destroyed, right now. We could, for example, introduce you to a single parent of two kids who grew up in social housing in the north end, but who has applied herself and has made strides on a good career track. She now finds, however, that she can't afford to rent family housing in the neighbourhood, and has to move out to Clayton Park, disrupting her children's school and social lives, and breaking long-held community ties.

Or we could introduce you to a retired blue collar worker who never made enough to buy his own home, but lived well in a close-knit community while renting, until recently. He too has been priced off the peninsula, having to shift ever outward, now landing at least for a while in north Dartmouth. He's lonely and afraid, worried about where he'll have to move next.

Then there are students, our best and brightest, agreeing to the societal bargain that says if you study hard you'll get a piece of the pie after you graduate. But many of these best and brightest are facing unwinnable calculations, weighing the costs of unbearable loans to pay for housing near school versus the lost study time of adding an hour and a half to the daily commute in order to reach affordable apartments in the suburbs.

Mayor Savage, your social group—the people who contributed to your campaign, the business owners and professional managerial class you know so well—exhausted itself extolling the benefits of the shipbuilding contract, but neglected to mention the costs: the speculative housing bubble, the increase in the cost of living, the hardship for those who won't or can't benefit from the arms industry largess eagerly anticipated by the connected. We're here to tell you that that hardship is real, immediate and wide-spread.

Is rent control a draconian measure? Yes, it is. But these are extraordinary times. The situation calls for draconian action, just to bring some level of stabilization. We recognize that long-term, overly broad rent control can sometimes become a problem all of its own, but that's no reason not to impose an emergency "soft" rent control that gives temporary protection to at least long-term tenants with low incomes. We can work out the long-term policies later. Let's protect the most vulnerable immediately. Champion that cause, Mayor Savage.


There are lots of ways that you can help protect

neighbourhoods, but one of the most threatened neighbourhoods in town is the low-income area around the former St. Pat's-Alexandra school site. A judge has ruled that council must give community groups in the neighbourhood proper consideration for what should happen to the school, but that doesn't mean the groups have won their battle. They now have 90 days to put together a proposal for the site, but council might still reject that proposal and sell the school for development.

We are particularly worried that the same bureaucratic and political forces that squeezed out the community groups last year are again setting them up for failure. The groups have the backing of their community, they are professionally run organizations with a long history of financial success and they have a coherent vision for the future delivery of needed services in a neighbourhood that will benefit from them. What they haven't had, however, is a sympathetic ear at city hall. As the community groups put together their proposal, they require full cooperation and assistance from city government, in a meaningful and substantive way. City staff must be directed to bring their expertise to helping the groups develop their proposal. Mayor Savage, you should use the power of your office to the fullest extent to see to it that the community groups that want to make use of the school can do so.


After paying the rent, the biggest hardship and worry

for many people is simply getting around town, to their jobs and other commitments. For a lot of people, that means taking the bus.

You've underscored a commitment to transit, and we very much thank you for that. We realize that working out the details and financing of transit expansion is the purview of the bureaucratically and politically inclined, and we trust that you have some skills in this regard. But understand that for the regular bus riders, the biggest frustration comes from the disregard they feel from Metro Transit. There are lots of reasons for this, but one stands out: The managers at Metro Transit don't take the bus, and so cannot understand how their decisions affect riders.

For this reason, we think one of the best things you could do for transit users is to personally take transit to work. From your house, the most convenient way to get to City Hall would be to take the #54 to Alderney Landing, and then take the ferry across. The #54 leaves your neighbourhood every half hour in the morning rush hour, but be warned that if you leave after 9am, you'll have to wait a full hour between buses. Sometimes the bus comes late, but especially frustrating is when it comes early, so try to get to your stop five minutes ahead of schedule.

Oh, and the connection at the ferry terminal can be tricky. If everything's on schedule, you have seven minutes to walk across the pedway and back down to the ferry, but if there's heavy traffic on the bus route, you may have to wait a half-hour for the next boat. And the #54 isn't the most crowded bus by a long shot, but you're healthy, so even though you'll get a seat because the route starts near your house, you should give up your seat to the elderly passengers down-route. Standing can be a bitch, especially when the brakes are overly sensitive. Welcome to our world.

We're not being facetious. As New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has learned by riding the subway daily, taking transit is an excellent way to lead by example, to learn what the transit system is all about and to rub elbows (and other body parts) with the kind of people who generally don't attend political fundraising dinners. You'll become a wiser mayor, riding the bus, and regular people will see you've got some skin in the game.


We've spent so much time on housing and transit

because they aren't talked about nearly enough and because both are in a crisis or near-crisis situation. However, let's not ignore the importance of simply making this a nice city to live in. Much of that involves the boring bureaucratic oversight of the delivery of needed services, like trash pickup, filling potholes and cutting the grass in the parks. But a couple of other issues stand out.

First, you've done an excellent job speaking to the importance arts and culture play in the community. Unfortunately, much of that talk is couched solely in economic terms—arts as a business driver. While we don't want to discount that aspect of arts in the community, we fear it can be over-emphasized. Please, mayor Savage, support art simply for art's sake. The business of art aside, an arts-minded community is just a better place to live, creating a funner city, a more insightful city, a smarter city.

Moreover, in a lot of cities, big-name foundations with highly paid staff get the bulk of city arts grants. You've said that you'd like city funding for arts in Halifax increased dramatically. We hope that you're serious and that you're successful, but you must ensure that arts money reaches the groups that need it the most, and that much of it is spent on developing new talent that may not have the connections or expertise to easily navigate granting bureaucracies.

Incidentally, one of the biggest needs for struggling artists is affordable studio space. A revived arts and cultural policy must address that situation.

Secondly, another route to building a nicer city is to dial down the often-heated political rhetoric directed at critics of the powers that be. Through your campaign, you positioned yourself as a conciliator, someone who could bring people together, but then in one of the first interviews you gave after getting elected, you castigated opponents of the convention centre. A true conciliator would recognize that people who are opposed to the convention centre, like people who support the convention centre, want what is best for the city of Halifax. People disagree.

There's nothing wrong with strongly felt political positions, and a whole lot right with them: it means people are engaged. It's especially refreshing to see vigorous debate at council, as elected officials are advocating on behalf of constituents who themselves have different opinions, values and goals. So it worries us when we see council debate chastised as "bickering." Debate among elected officials is otherwise known as "democracy," and we hope that you will encourage it, rather than try to stifle it.

Of course, there's vigourous debate and then there are personal attacks and flat-out misogyny. We've watched time and time again as female councillors who had the floor at council meetings encountered constant interruption, got talked over, were subjected to catcalls and guffaws and otherwise disrespected by their male counterparts. In any other workspace, this behaviour would be grounds for discipline and even dismissal, and a company that tolerated such behaviour would be at risk of lawsuit. But not at Halifax council.

We especially worry with the newly elected council because female representation has gone down from nine of 23 councillors, or about 40 percent of the last council, to just four of 16 councillors, or 25 percent of the new council. We also worry because one of the re-elected councillors, Bill Karsten, was the primary source of the inappropriate behaviour. Your predecessor did nothing to put an end to this disgraceful display. Mayor Savage, we insist that you put an end to it, immediately.


The Coast has long advocated for a more open government,

and you have agreed to most of the points in our proposed Sunshine Ordinance. You have stated you will make the mayor's schedule and guest book part of the public record, and we will hold you to that. You have said you'd like to see all city contracts made public, and we'll hold you to that. We also want to see a sea change in the operation of city hall, with a public accounts system created, a big reduction in secret council meetings, changes in meeting notification and agenda posting and a host of other initiatives to open up city government. The presumption should be that information is public, not secret.

We believe that you will indeed take strong steps to open up city hall, but a new era of openness alone is not enough. We need accountability, not just into the future, but also for past failures. Your predecessor secretly signed onto a deal that saw $5.4 million of city money loaned to a concert promoter, absolutely in violation of the city charter and the usual financial controls of city hall, and without the required approval of city council. That deal resulted in a loss of nearly $400,000 to taxpayers, and at one point the risk to the city was approaching $6 million. We have good reason to believe there are numerous other questionable dealings involving your predecessor's involvement with city finances. For that reason, Mayor Savage, we call on you to implement a professional third-party forensic audit of the mayoral office over the past 10 years.

It's impossible to talk about accountability in the concert scandal or the ticket scandal without mentioning the role of Trade Centre Limited and Fred MacGillivray, who was president of TCL when, without proper authorization, that organization took over the city-owned Metro Box Office ticketing agency. There is still unresolved business related to the ticket scandal. In coming months the city and TCL will negotiate a resolution of the scandal—potentially involving repayment by TCL of millions of dollars to the city, and definitely involving the control of millions of dollars in future ticket sales. 

You and MacGillivray go way back. Your father saw to it that MacGillivray was hired at TCL. You and MacGillivray are in the same family, social, philanthropic and church circles, and even after the ticket scandal and MacGillivray's role in it become public knowledge, you praised MacGillivray as a "great leader." 

Mayor Savage, you are simply too close to this issue. You must remove yourself from all negotiations over the resolution of the Metro Box Office issue, and you must recuse yourself from all discussion or votes over the matter at council.

Demonstrating that you can act ethically and above-board in office is vital because you made the bad judgement call of paying yourself $10,000 per month out of your campaign funds. There are two big problems with this. First, it underscores a sense of entitlement on your part.

You seem to think you deserve to get paid while campaigning. But consider the public servants—Gail McQuarrie, a bus driver, and Tom Lavers, a firefighter—who by law had to take leave from their city jobs, giving up $8,000 or so in pay each, in order to run for council. Or consider those city workers who couldn't run for council at all because the financial sacrifice was too great. And, really, $10,000 per month? You're simply underscoring the economic divide between the people for whom city government works, and the people it doesn't reach. There's one set of rules for bus drivers, firefighters and other regular people, and another set of rules for Mike Savage.

Second, It certainly looks like you have been in the direct employ of the developers and others who funded your campaign— people who will have business before council—and not working for the city as a whole. Understandably, your decision to pay yourself out of campaign contributions has raised people's suspicions, and already citizens are beginning to distrust your office. Is this a new insider network in creation?

That's why we're worried about the new convention centre. For better or worse, the city has agreed to pay for half the construction and operational costs of the convention centre. Moreover, the city will soon be asked to sign a management agreement for the convention centre, and that agreement will almost certainly see some re-formation of Trade Centre Limited as the operator. The new convention centre will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 25 years.

It is essential that negotiations over management of the convention centre are squeaky clean and avoid even the appearance of back-room deals, nepotism or self-serving insider arrangements. The ethical concerns raised in response to you paying yourself out of your campaign funds must be put to rest. Therefore, you must make sure that all negotiations concerning the convention centre are made in public, that all draft agreements and discussion papers are put before the public immediately and that the public has ample time to read, consider and comment on any proposed deal, with those comments taken seriously.

Further, you must not allow your personal relationships with people who have worked or are working at TCL cloud your judgement while a convention centre management agreement is negotiated. Your first priority— your only priority—is to the city of Halifax and its residents. If standing up for the best interests of the city means antagonizing your friends or even losing them as friends, that is what you must do.


Over the next four years there will be many issues that

you will be involved in, and which we will report and comment on. We will criticize you when necessary. We will investigate city hall. We will probe the financial dealings and other relationships between the city and organizations like Trade Centre. We will advocate for people not found on your lengthy list of campaign contributors. We will bring up unpleasant truths, and raise issues you wish would go away. This is what an adversarial press looks like, and The Coast takes its role seriously.

But a good mayor shouldn't fear an enterprising press corps. On the contrary, you should welcome it as a pre-requisite for a healthy democracy. It is one of the ways in which you can begin the hard struggle to reach the two out of three people who felt it was pointless to vote.

We truly do wish you all the luck in the world. You're going to need it.

Sincerely,

THE COAST

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