Drunken deliberations

A campaign of innuendo and whispers is confusing Halifax councillors' public and private lives.

Last week, someone walked into the Chronicle-Herald offices and gave the paper a memo from mayor Peter Kelly, which castigated municipal councillors for being drunk in public and warned of the dangers of driving while intoxicated. True to non-committing form, Kelly didn't actually name any councillors. Kelly subsequently announced he had once taken the car keys from a drunk councillor, but again he refused to name that councillor, so the effect was to paint all councillors with the broad brush of innuendo.

There's long been a whispering campaign that several councillors are habitual drunks---and have been appearing drunk at official meetings and functions, apparently driving away afterwards. Other councillors have increasingly called my attention to the situation.

But it's maddening for a reporter to be in this position---I've had nothing but hearsay. I clearly have an ethical duty to connect charges of impropriety to documentation, to quotes from people willing to go on the record, to substance. Yet beyond whispers from the shadows, I've had no evidence of councillors drinking and driving, and I've never witnessed a clearly intoxicated councillor, say, voting wildly on budget matters, or drunkenly getting somebody fired. I've been on the lookout for real evidence---drunken driving arrests, whatever---but haven't found any. You couldn't help but be in City Hall and be hyperaware of the issue, so I was keeping my eyes open, but the allegations never rose to the level of reportability.

I should note, however, that there was handwriting on the back of the memo given to the Chronicle-Herald; when the paper scanned the memo in and posted it on the internet, the handwriting bled through and was visible. That copy of the memo was taken down after a couple of hours and replaced with a cleaner version, but in the interim a Coast reader downloaded the memo and forwarded it to me. The handwriting clearly names one councillor, and says that councillor "has been observed many times by mayor + clrs + HRP to [drive to] mtgs + arrive at meeting impaired." But, still, I have no idea whose handwriting it is, and so even this document is questionable hearsay.

Kelly's memo is actually about four councillors. I know who they are. My sense is that for two of the councillors, the allegations are simply malicious gossip, relating that they enjoy Halifax's celebrated nightlife. So what? I'm not aware that either drives afterwards, and they are sober when on official duty. As for the third councillor, I simply don't know---readers have related allegations of the councillor appearing drunk at meetings, but I don't have any personal experience that can back that up.

I suspect, but don't know, that the fourth councillor, the one named in the handwriting on the back of Kelly's memo, is indeed often driving drunk, and it appears that several decades of very hard drinking are catching up. I should stress I've never come across this councillor clearly intoxicated, so it could be something else entirely, an unrelated health issue.

That's the problem with this conversation---it falls in that weird intersection of councillors' private and public lives. I've never been much interested in councillors' personal lives; I don't care if councillors have kids caught up in the court system, or are going through messy divorces---those private tragedies are part of the human condition, but fall entirely outside of my job, which is to report on the public business of governing.

It's true that a councillor's drinking problem might express itself in poor job performance, but councillors have a range of abilities, from shitty to pretty good, reflecting all sorts of personal traits: parochialism, egoism, ideology, varying levels of intelligence and insight...and reflecting all sorts of personal issues: distractions from those messy divorces, exhaustion from working two jobs, personal vendettas, et cetera. Frankly, taking council as a whole, drinking is very low on the list of factors affecting job performance. Voters, of course, can and should determine whether any given councillor is doing a good enough job, for whatever reason.

This can end in a good place. If councillors need help, they should get it. The rest of us should then give moral support to people in need, and get back to public business.

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