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No account council 

This election season let’s make “accountability” part of our political discourse.

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Summer's over and it's time to get serious about city elections. We've set up a blog at thecoast.ca/VoteHRM and I will post each day until the October 20 vote, exploring issues like transit, the creation of a greenbelt and the cost of housing.

But it makes no sense to talk about the nuts-and-bolts of running the city until we first discuss the most glaring omission on the local political scene: the lack of accountability.

The most obvious example of non-accountability in city government is the concert scandal. Mayor Peter Kelly and associates violated the city charter, ignored long-established financial reporting rules and, most importantly, hid their malfeasance from the public and the city council that is the ultimate authority in running the city. In the process, they funneled $5.4 million in taxpayer money to a failed concert promoter.

The concert scandal is serious shit. We either have rules of governance, or we don't. We're either a democracy, or we aren't. We either have accountability, or those in connected places can get away with whatever they want.

So what was council's reaction to the fundamental violation of the rules of governance shown in the concert scandal? A big fat yawn. In a just world, in a world of accountability, Kelly would have been removed from office and hauled before a magistrate. But in our world, council rejected a toothless but symbolic censure motion. Outrageously, council even allowed Kelly to preside over the debate. It went nowhere.

Kelly has other accountability problems. He removed over $160,000 from a dead woman's bank account, and no one seems to care. In this case, there are multiple institutional failures in accountability---the courts, the police and the justice department have lost all credibility in terms of holding all people, regardless of stature, equally accountable before the law.

But I can't imagine the mayor of any other city in a western democracy doing what Kelly has done without atleast some response from city politicians. In Halifax, however, no councillor has even publicly mentioned the Mary Thibeault estate, much less suggested that Kelly's mishandling of it should result in a response from council. The message is clear: Kelly cannot only ignore the rules of governance, he can ignore the legal requirements of civil society, and no one will do a damn thing.

It's no wonder that there are rumours Kelly, a man with no sense of shame, is reconsidering his promise not to run for re-election.

Still, lack of accountability runs much deeper than Peter Kelly. Consider the Washmill underpass fiasco, $8 million over budget. Or the Mt. Hope interchange fiasco, sticking taxpayers with a $7 million bill. Or the Commonwealth Games fiasco, which could have left the city open to $200 million in liability, but luckily cost us "just" $3 million. No one received even a sternly worded letter for any of those screw-ups.

Then there's the convention centre, where city managers and councillors wrote themselves an accountability-free card. Even if (read: when) the convention centre fails to meet the absurd financial returns they say the project will bring, the bill won't come due until 2027, long after all of them are retired or dead. The costly convention centre they've foisted on us will be someone else's problem.

More specific to council itself, there are many other instances of non-accountability. To mention just one, council was told directly by representatives of Trade Centre Limited (not exactly a conservative organization when it comes to spending taxpayer money) that building a stadium to chase a bid to host the FIFA women's soccer championship would be a ridiculous waste of money, but councillors rejected that sensible advice and then went on to spend half a million dollars only to find out that, yep, it would be a ridiculous waste of money.

So what do we do about the lack of accountability? At bare minimum, accountability needs to become a regular part of our political discourse: incumbent councillors running for re-election have to explain themselves, and tell us why they voted against holding Kelly accountable. Challengers should be asked what they would've done, had they been on council at the time. From there, after the election, we can begin to institutionalize accountability in meaningful ways, starting with giving council the power to remove wayward mayors.

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