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Five candidates vie for District 15 council seat 

Steve Craig, Janet Langille, Stephen Taylor, Curt Wentzell and Ian Wilson each say they'll best represent Lower Sackville.

With the retirement of long-serving councillor Bob Harvey, the Lower Sackville council election promises to be a must-watch.

All five candidates cite their long association with Sackville and collectively they have an impressive charitable record, working with non-profits and community organizations. I talked to four of the five Friday (Curt Wentzell didn't return my call, but if he does, I'll update this post), and I found them each to be engaging and likeable.

But, ya know, being a great person isn't a good enough reason for people to vote you into City Hall. I'll have more to say about this in another post I'm writing, but there are a couple of dozen candidates in this year's city elections who basically don't know anything substantive about city government but that think they deserve to get elected because they pushed some kids on the swings at the rec centre or picked up garbage at the annual beach cleanup.

Good for you, seriously. I'm sure you're a great neighbour, an upstanding citizen, your parents are proud, your kids on the straight and narrow. It's a better planet because you're on it. But if you don't know diddly squat about the regional transit tax, or that councillors have no say in how the cops spend their budget or even what a councillor's job consists of, just stay the fuck out of City Hall, please.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have citizen-politicians. On the contrary, we should: it's the only thing that's going to save us. City government isn't rocket science. Any reasonably intelligent person can study it for a year or two and figure out the ropes, what councillors might accomplish if they apply themselves, and with that knowledge provide an important—essential!—check on the managerial class that runs this place into the ground time and again.

But the candidates I'm talking about seem to skip over the whole "study it for a year or two and figure out the ropes" part of this, and instead of convincing voters to elect them through a persuasive discussion of issues, they rely instead on, "Well, my granddaddy lived here, and I help out at the library, so vote for me, eh?"

I could talk all night about the problems this city faces precisely because ignorant nice people get elected to city council. We've got issues, things to get done, but because these councillors don't know shit about government, the bureaucrats and managers run circles around them, and together with the more tied-in slicker politicians can advance secret agendas, inside deals and simple mayhem time and time again.

Seeing the lay of the land, supposed "reformers" start talking about turning council into a corporate board of directors, that is, doubling down on the insider managerial class running amok and giving up entirely even the concept of a citizen-politician watchdog. It's like saying we've got problems with a publicly regulated Nova Scotia Power, so let's let Enron run the show.

Councillors get paid north of 70,000 bucks a year. I don't begrudge them that salary, but good golly, I expect someone who wants the job to be able to give sensible answers to simple questions about municipal policy. I'm not asking you to agree with my view of those municipal policies—people disagree about stuff—but I want you to know what the fuck you're talking about. I want you to be able to hit the ground running, to be successful as a councillor, to not be gobsmacked by bureaucrats pulling the wool over your eyes, to not sound like an idiot on Eastlink TV, to not be my next over-the-top Twitter live-blogging caricature.

All of which is to say, there are only two viable candidates in Lower Sackville: Steve Craig and Stephen Taylor. Both are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me, having been associated directly or closely with the Progressive Conservative Party.

Is that rude to the other candidates? I don't mean it to be. Like I said, I enjoyed talking with them. I'd drink with them. If I had kids, they could watch them. I'd trust them with the backdoor key when I'm on vacation, and they could water the plants and rummage through my closet. All good. But they shouldn't be running for city council.

click to enlarge Janet Langille
  • Janet Langille
The first candidate I spoke with was Janet Langille. She's a program supervisor at Community Health Services, who by the way is Bob Harvey's daughter, so in the Nova Scotia way, thinks she's entitled to the seat.

"I want to continue my father’s involvement in municipal politics," she tells me. "I decided to go with my married name because I’m my own person, but I want to continue to bring my father’s integrity, principles and hard work to the job."

Asked what issues she finds important, she says childrens’ issues are important, mentioning playgrounds and “outside stuff” associated with schools. Also, she says connecting and improving the community’s sidewalks is a priority, especially completing the sidewalk network that leads to First Lake trail.

She also mentions Metro Transit, and says she will work to get service on the 82 extended past 8pm, because there are “a lot of shift workers need to get up to Cobequid.” Additionally, she says there are missing links in the transit system, such as no direct connection between Sackville and Mumford terminal.

But, as with all candidates, I ask lots of open-ended questions about, for example, taxes, and get nothing. There's no understanding of the power dynamics at city hall, no sense of what power councillors have and don't have. It's as if she thinks she can go to council and say, "we need sidewalks in Sackville," and that'll be that, there'll be sidewalks in Sackville.

Before ending the interview I ask her if there's anything I've missed, or something she finds important that we haven't discussed.

Langille thinks for a while, then tells me she’s learned a lot from her father. “I lived with him for half my life. From dad I’ve learned it’s a 24/7 job. Having dad in my back pocket to draw on will make me a better councillor.”

click to enlarge Ian Wilson
  • Ian Wilson
Next was Ian Wilson, who is president of the CUPE local that represents support staff at Halifax Regional School District schools. I have a lot of respect for union organizers, who are fighting the hard fight in the face of a lot of bullshit rhetoric in these sad political times, and another former union organizer, Jackie Barkhouse, has become an excellent councillor. Additionally, a couple of months ago, before he officially announced as candidate, I had a fun conversation with Wilson about the history of cooperative housing in Sackville. (He told me that in the post-war years, a lot of soldiers couldn't afford the high housing costs in Halifax and Dartmouth, so started coops in Sackville. That's a neat history I'd like to learn more about.)

So I had hoped I'd find a good solid lefty candidate who might have a chance to do some good if he's elected to council. First question: Why are you running for city council?

"I was raised in Sackville," starts the answer, and my eyes glaze over until he gets to the "I'm a firm believer in practicing what you preach" part of the glib answer.

Like Languille, Wilson didn't have much to offer in the way of understanding of city hall. I ask him what issues he finds important. "The overwhelming response I get when talking to people," he says, "is 'where are the tax dollars going?' People want to know."

So where are the tax dollars going? I ask. I get no coherent answer.

Wilson seems to want to take credit for the soon-to-be-built Sackville-Burnside connector, which will be constructed during the term of whoever gets elected. He says he wants more buses.

We talk about accountability and transparency. "That should be accepted by any candidate," he says. "It should be implied with the position." Well, sure, but what does that mean—how does it translate into real policy at city hall? Apparently that's a discussion that will wait for two or three years until after Wilson will hit his head against a bureaucratic wall, and then maybe he'll come up with some ideas.

So what makes Wilson a better candidate than all the other people running for council? I mean, why should people vote for him instead of Bob Harvey's daughter or PK's right-hand man, who is also running?

"It's not that I'm any better than any other candidate," answers Wilson.

Wait. You're not better than other candidates? Isn't that the whole idea of elections: you get a range of candidates and people pick the best? No, no, Wilson continues:

"It's just my experience in the community. I feel that I have a perspective on what makes Sackville a community.,, and inside view of what Sackville is."

I guess the election is a sort of beauty pageant, and voters will pick the person with the most authentic Sackville-ness. Like in a beauty pageant, the contestants all love each other and cry and kiss and clasp hands at all the events, and never say anything bad about each other, at least not in front of the cameras. All contestants are equally wonderful and equally worthy, but one will be more equal than the others, not because she's better looking, is more seductive in a nightgown or fills a bathing suit in a more appealing manner, but just because of the magic of the universe. Then, somehow, that person will miraculously also be the most competent to teach children how the hard work of preparing to win a completely random competition is the best preparation for taking on city hall, so study hard and don't take take drugs, red ribbons forever, except when it's pink or yellow ribbon time, and support the troops.

Now let's get to the two serious candidates, who know what they're talking about, who might, for better or worse, have the ability, knowledge and understanding to affect change at city hall.

click to enlarge Steve Craig
  • Steve Craig
Steve Craig was a manager at MTT for 30 years. He ran unsuccessfully as a PC candidate for MLA in 2006.

“I was always the guy who took on the bullies," he tells me, saying that when he started at MTT, there was a lot of theft and sexual harrassment at the place, and he challenged it.

Who are the bullies at city hall? I ask.

"The people who won’t take on the right issues," he answers, and I fear we're getting into another hour-long conversation about nothing at all, but Craig surprises me by talking about what he sees as the biggest failure at city hall: the lack of coherent management from council.

He says the city is in a sort of post-amalgamation malaise. “Amalgamation is here and not going away,” he stresses. But as he sees it, what's come after the municipal merger has been a management failure, where intergrating the various bureaucracies from their parent predecssors hasn’t worked out that well. Councillors have no experience working with staffs, and that’s where his knowledge and leadership skills come in, he tells me.

“You need to set the plate so everyone knows what the agenda is, and everyone feels good about it.”

I want to explore some issues in more detail with him, but I've noticed that Craig's website isn't very helpful in that regard. He explains that he recently had a health scare, a blood clot on his lung that sent him to the hospital and laid him low for a bit, but says he's now in good health and is catching up on updating the website and otherwise putting the campaign into gear. Still, he's happy to talk issues with me. I ask him about Peter Kelly, who as we'll see figures largely in this election.

"Peter’s a nice guy, put in a lot of time," answers Craig. "I know him, he went to school up here. But you know, leadership means you step up to the plate whether it's your fault or not. If something goes wrong, you take responsibility. Yes, you delegate, but you don’t abdicate." That's not much, I admit, but it's the strongest criticism I've heard of Peter Kelly on this campaign trail, from any candidate in any district.

On the open government front, Craig says he wants council's in camera minutes released, and specifically mentions making the Occupy eviction in camera minutes public.

On transportation issues, Craig has the same basic understanding that the other candidates have, or indeed the same understanding any resident of Sackville has just from living in the place. He talks about neighbourhood transit, wants a bus down Sackville Drive, a bus from First Lake to Downsville Mall, and talks about how people who live in trailer parks and such don't have good transportation options.

The conversation is going well so I try to engage him in a conversation about tax reform. Everyone thinks "reform" means their taxes will go down, I say, but obviously that can't be the case. I found it sad that a CRA poll found Sackville residents were overwhelmingly in favour of "tax reform" even though the proposal on the table would've raised almost all Sackville residents' taxes...

You know," interrupts Craig. "I‘m envious of people like you and Rick Howe who get to delve into these issues. You’re more knowledgeable on the issues."

It's more than a little disheartening that a candidate for office doesn't know the basic fact that a fee-for-service tax system will adversely affect almost everyone living in Sackville. But I've found that to be the case across the board in all the districts. Like I said, everyone thinks "reform" means their taxes will go down. It's only when they get into office and see the stark reality that we get a re-think.

Craig brings up on his own wasterwater issues, and flooding problems in Sackville. He criticizes council’s decision to make Halifax Water a separate entity, not accountable to council.

I tell him I think it’s fair to say that that decision was made so that politicians wouldn’t be held responsible for hefty increases in water bills, and he agrees with that analysis. I ask him if that means he would want to reverse the arrangement, and put Halifax Water back as a city department that answers directly to council.

“Yea,” he says. “No one cares what the organization looks like. No one cares who the manager of Halifax Water is. What they want is answers, why is it that water rates has gone up, but we still have 40-year-old water pipes that are leaking and storm sewers that don’t work. Who’s responsible for that?”

I ask him who is responsible.

“I don’t know,” he answers, "but I’d like to nail him to the cross.”

In our conversation, Craig repeatedly gets back to having management skills, and the ability to make an organization work.

“Someone else has the skills and the organization to get on council,” he says, making a clear reference to his opponent, Stephen Taylor, without mentioning him by name.

I ask him if he’d like to elaborate on that, but he declines.

click to enlarge Stephen Taylor
  • Stephen Taylor
Next I call Stephen Taylor. His campaign volunteer answers the phone, and very sloooowly spells back my name. "D-I-M?" he asks. T, I say. "G?" T, as in Tim. "Jim?" We go through this routine also with my last name, and then the phone number. So I'm surprised when Taylor himself calls back rather promptly, evidently dialling the correct number and calling me Tim. I ask him why he's running for council.

“Im fed up," answers Taylor. "We’ve got a situation where we've got dogs catching chickens."

Hmmm. What are the issues, I ask him.

"The service standards are not being met," he says. "I can show you case after case, photo after photo, stop signs, debilitating sidewalks, ditches overflowing, walkways not trimmed..." he rattles off more examples, but too quickly for me to catch it all.

I ask him if these problems are specific to Sackville, or if it's a general problem for all communities?

"It’s overall leadership," says Taylor, then interrupts himself: “I’ll cut through the bullshit, Tim. This city has some severe leadership problems."

Coming from Taylor, this claim interests me greatly, so I ask him how he's different than the other candidates.

"Why am I different? I’m not going to talk about dogs, cats and chickens."

Evidently, Taylor thinks ridiculing council about dealing with animals resonates with the electorate. Maybe it does. But I tell Taylor I think it's a cheap shot, that I think council can talk about animals and the more important stuff at the same time. The cat bylaw came up because one councillor had two of the stereotypical crazy cat ladies in his district—people who had hundreds of cats. What would you tell people in your district who complained...

“I’ll talk to them about responsible pet ownership,” he interrupts.

Everyone agrees we should have responsible pet ownership, I tell him. But what do you say to a resident who comes to you and says, "hey, the crazy lady next door has 150 cats, her house smells and it’s nauseating to walk by her house, the cats are digging up my garden"—what do you tell that person?

“I’ll tell them I won’t be bringing it to council," he answers. "If she wants that, she’ll have to vote for someone else. I’ll go to the SPCA, and do other things, but I will not bring that issue to council."

Moving on, we talk about development issues. "I’m voting for development," Taylor says, and says an anti-development attitude has hurt the businesses on Sackville Drive.

I ask if it's possible that Sackville Drive business are struggling because council approved develpment of the Bedford Common—that is, that the new nearby big-box stores are hurting the small businesses on Sackville Drive.

Taylor sidesteps the question. "I don’t think any businesses are involved,” he says. “There’s no conduit for anyone out there.” He goes on to explain that city staff should be promoting Sackville as a destination for businesses coming to town.

Like Craig, Taylor wants Halifax Water to be brought back under council control. "They’re not doing non-revenue generating service, ditching and maintenance," says Taylor of Halifax Water.

Remarkably, Peter Kelly just last week urged the same thing. I find this remarkable, first of all because as mayor, at no point did Peter Kelly ever object to taking Halifax Water out from under council's control and establishing it as its own quasi-public agency not answerable to city hall. In fact, Kelly presided over that discussion and all the votes necessary to make it happen, so his current objections come off sounding, well, idiotic.

Second, Kelly's campaign manager through the time that Halifax Water was being separated out from council control was none other than Stephen Taylor. After managing Kelly's campaign (and contributing over $2,000 to it), Taylor went on to work directly in the mayor's office, alongside ghost-busting former newspaper columnist Peter Duffy as a communications person.

So while Taylor was Kelly's right-hand man, Kelly was both overseeing the establishment of the independent Halifax Water and presiding over the cat bylaw deliberations, and now Taylor points at both issues as reason why he should be in City Hall.

I point out to Taylor that he makes no mention of his association with Peter Kelly on his campaign website.

"No, I don't," he answers, "but I have a lot of political connections. If I was to list them all, we’d be talking all day long. I’ve worked for all three levels of government. I know a lot of people."

But wasn't he working for Kelly when the cat bylaw was agendized?

"Yes, and I took all the complaints," he says.

So is that a criticism of Kelly?

"It's not criticism," he says. "I want positive change."

So here we are back in the accountability-free zone. No one's ever held responsible for past performance, or past associations that weren't condemned at the time. If Taylor didn't like the cat bylaw, or the separating out of Halifax Water, he could've, you know, not worked on the campaign of the guy who oversaw both.

But apparently he thinks he can avoid that connection entirely, and perversely rile up anger at the very city hall he represented by ridiculing cat debates. Maybe Taylor thinks he's dealing with a bunch of low-information voters who are easily duped, and who see the election as a beauty pageant, voting for the most equal of equals.

Thing is, he might be right.

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