There’s a renaissance of buffoonery at City Hall. Whatever goodwill towards fellow councillors existed two years ago, when this self-righteous clique was elected, seems to deteriorate daily. There are spiteful remarks and passive aggressive attacks, on social media and in front of TV cameras. Some turn the other cheek. More than a few dig in and fight back.
Three months into 2018, this council has had a record number of public complaints lodged against it. A few write those off as the product of overly sensitive social media users. Maybe. But time and again the city’s governing body has shown itself incapable of handling internal strife without resorting to immature balderdash and race-baiting populism. Figure your shit out, dudes.
Here, we present the gospel according to The Coast. It’s a ranking of how mayor Mike Savage and his 16 disciples performed over the last year, presented in order of council districts. The grades are The
District 1 (Waverley–Fall River–Musquodoboit Valley)
Previous grade: D+
What we said last year: “He’s that nostalgic uncle spitting out parables of back in the day”
Weighing the Willow Tree development’s incongruent height on Quinpool Road, District 1’s Steve
District 2 (Preston–Chezzetcook–Eastern Shore)
Previous grade: F
What we said last year: “Hendsbee’s fossilized hokeyness appears more obsolete by the day.”
He appears lost. Agitated by new viewpoints that tarnish a history David Hendsbee clings to for ballast. There was his interruption of the mayor’s Aboriginal Day acknowledgement; the futile suggestion to move the Cornwallis statue to the top of Citadel Hill; Hendsbee’s imploring of council to investigate alternative narratives about Chanie Wenjack. Publicly, he’s called Indigenous protesters “hotheads on the warpath.” Privately, he jokingly wondered why the blanket used to temporarily cover Cornwallis last summer wasn’t red and questioned if reconciliation efforts would end with white Canadians handing over the keys to their homes. But it’s his own history Hendsbee most wants to change. After 20 years he’s just now decided to get in on the municipality’s pension plan. A request for HRM to help pay for his mistake was demolished by council and the public. No one’s perfect. Certainly not David Hendsbee. But if the councillor is contemplating his autumn days, he should endeavour to end his public life as something other than a bruise on Halifax’s credibility.
District 3 (Dartmouth
Previous grade: C–
What we said last year: “He’s a wet blanket, sure, but sometimes that’s useful”
Bill Karsten stands on precedent. He respects process. He demands apologies for breaches of decorum. He runs tattle-tale to the mayor at the slightest whiff of insult. But if things don’t go his way, Karsten is the first to undercut his fellow councillors via off-mic remarks—speaking out of turn or cracking jokes with his chum Hendsbee. It’s bratty. The conduct prompted a tense moment when Karsten and Mancini traded angry attacks about council ethics while debating plastic bags. The longtime councillor showed a more tolerant facet of himself, however, when it came time to tear down Cornwallis. Speaking about the soul-searching he’d done, Karsten reassured the public it’s OK for people to evolve on an issue. It was a bright spot for the city in an otherwise shameful year. Here’s hoping Karsten continues preaching personal reflection at City Hall. It’s needed.
District 4 (Cole Harbour–Westphal)
Previous grade: C
What we said last year: “Nicoll’s unobtrusive. Her questions are narrow. Her arguments concise.”
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup again last spring, which is about all we remember from Lorelei Nicoll’s year. At least the District 4 representative didn’t push forward with any more Crosby naming ideas. It’s perhaps not a fair criticism because Nicoll isn’t exactly inactive at council. She recently put forward motions to examine police staffing levels and look into adding free wifi to Halifax Transit buses. Along with her council neighbour Sam Austin, she was one of only two votes against Shawn Cleary’s increased Willow Tree height. But in these fights she’s remained staid. Her emotions never betray her. Nicoll registers neither anger nor delight when speaking to staff. She engages in vicious debates with a perfunctory politeness befitting the driest of corporate boardrooms. It’s all very inoffensive, but not particularly inspiring either.
District 5 (Dartmouth Centre)
Previous grade: B–
What we said last year: “Easily the best of council’s new crop of rookies”
A planning nerd using his powers for good instead of evil, Austin has risen to the top of council’s current garbage mire through smart policy decisions, the conviction with which he backs his ideas and a willingness to call people on their bullshit at City Hall instead of online. During Cleary’s Willow Tree pitch, Austin was Frank Grimes: Stunned that barely anyone else seemed aware of a process he deliciously called “the epitome of ad hocery.” The fight didn’t go Austin’s way, but his fury was well-targeted. In success, he’s had no shortage. Sawmill continues to see daylight and everyone seems to love the increased ferry service. He added several accountability mechanisms to the Integrated Mobility Plan and helped rally HRM to not subsidize Ambassatours’ rinky-dink road train. Despite the technocratic expertise, Austin’s arguments always remain fundamentally humanistic. His words never crescendo into polemical tirades or deflate to appeasement. He simply comes to council with the quiet confidence of someone prepared to do his job. Funny how rare that is.
District 6 (Harbourview–Burnside–Dartmouth East)
What we said last year: “Mancini’s time on the mic is a bathroom break”
The award for most-improved councillor has to go to District 6. Tony Mancini transformed over the past year from milquetoast backbencher to
District 7 (Halifax South Downtown)
Previous grade: B+
What we said last year: “On his bad days Mason has a technocratic snideness.”
Mason is having absolutely none of it these days. It was the downtown councillor who first called out Matt Whitman for retweeting an
District 8 (Halifax Peninsula North)
Previous grade: B
What we said last year: “When Smith speaks with conviction, it connects.”
Smith’s meteoric success has him in high demand. Along with a National interview last summer, he was recently chosen as the only Canadian for an international leadership summit down south. The three-week trip meant Smith missed a sizable chunk of budget season—along with the surprise discussion on Cornwallis. He was also dealt a blow—no fault of his own—when the province once again failed to step up for Bloomfield. Barely in the fight for Willow Tree, Smith ultimately sided with Cleary’s increased height in hopes of some small number of affordable units. All these misfortunes wouldn't register if as much applied to Smith’s bootless colleagues, but we know the young councillor is capable of fire. He brought forward plans for a social policy lens in HRM, against the protests of his fiscally tight-butted coworkers. With a single tweet, Smith shut down Whitman’s racially charged rants. It was potent, though exhausting it even needed to happen. Friendly and humble, no one has a bad word to say about Smith. We’d just love to see him show some teeth for something more than a smile.
District 9 (Halifax West
Previous grade: C+
What we said last year: “It would be nice if Cleary got over the nervousness and came out of his shell”
We wanted Shawn Cleary to let loose and join the show. Be careful what you wish for. Cleary’s sudden and severe efforts to get a 25-storey version of Armco’s Willow Tree tower approved by council on the basis of a handful of affordable housing units has been unsettling. The councillor ignored staff’s advice and walked away from millions in public benefits to reverse-engineer a density bonusing formula that gave the developer exactly what it wanted. Quinpool’s businesses will evaporate tomorrow without more people, reasons the councillor. It was all so much awkward nonsense. Cleary is the mirror universe Matt Whitman; engaging in online fights, attacking staff’s job performance to the point of apology and never short on hyperbole. One of the year’s lowest moments was when the two combative white councillors and grown adult men voluntarily engaged in a multi-day flamewar. Cleary felt it was racist to use the word “marijuana.” Whitman thought it impossible to be racist to Mexicans. No one, least of all the public, won that war.
District 10 (Halifax–Bedford Basin West)
Previous grade: D
What we said last year: “A feckless presence in meetings...a less-sympathetic Oscar the Grouch.”
Sheer entropy gave District 10’s Russell Walker one of his rare victories this year. The inflated fire budget pushed a $1.3-million deficit onto HRM’s books last September, and the eternal councillor didn’t miss his chance to say “I told you so” for the brash decision made two years ago not to close down the city’s superfluous fire stations. He also recently called out Whitman’s crusade against Halifax Water, accusing the garish councillor of peacocking for TV cameras. Otherwise, Walker remains the same flummoxed, frustrated, blustering worrywart that is his trademark. Constantly fearful of unintended consequences, Walker spends his time on the mic dreaming up slippery slope answers to questions no one’s asking. Each week it feels like fewer and fewer people are listening.
District 11 (Spryfield–Sambro
Previous grade: C–
What we said last year: “Adams’ patented move is making a
On the borders of forgettable stands Stephen Adams. The councillor has had a remarkably unremarkable year. Credit for that should really go to his cartoonish compatriots, whose schoolyard antics easily drown out Adams’ highbrow botches. He’s stood up for some of the city’s biggest developers by routinely dismissing the Centre Plan as an urban legend, rather than the city’s nearly complete planning bible that council has been guiding along for years. He worried Indigenous experts on HRM’s failed Cornwallis panel would be under “immense pressure,” and called for a pointless amendment demanding they use “fact-based decision making.” During the January meeting to decide the statue’s fate, Adams actually printed off and read aloud the Dictionary.com definition of reconciliation. Yet all that seems mild compared to what’s happening three seats over. It’s not that Adams is right, but his white boutonniere just doesn’t stand out as much against the current styles clash inside City Hall.
District 12 (Timberlea–Beechville–Clayton Park–Wedgewood)
Previous grade: D+
What we said last year: “If Richard Zurawski prays at the altar of evidence-based decision making, then the evidence so far suggests he’s kind of a jerk.”
An adherent of evidence-based decision making, the District 12 councillor’s arguments often are the result of anecdotal experience. He’s deduced the number of dogs in HRM based on barks heard campaigning and estimated carpool data off his morning commute. In meetings, Zurawski is more inclined to try and prove his own intelligence through $10 words than push for progress. His science advisory report came back recommending HRM consult experts “when appropriate,” igniting an irate Zurawski to blather on about how “science” is always appropriate. He also claimed Mancini’s code of conduct improvements were born from “post-modernist” efforts to limit free speech. So he’s one of those academics. Despite the ego and undergrad understanding of municipal government, credit where it’s due to the nutty professor. He made damn sure the historic Black community of Beechville wasn’t once again steamrolled by greedy developers. If only he could be that effective on climate change. Zurawski rarely seems to comprehend his job. Either that, or he’s demonstrably useless at it.
District 13 (Hammonds
Previous grade: F
What we said last year: “His mouth cannot be opened without the councillor stuffing his foot into it.”
Nominally, Matt Whitman is a Christian. But his prideful attitude and petty interactions tell a different tale. Nothing is ever Whitman’s fault, except for everything. The councillor’s bread and butter is attacking Halifax Water, propagating Cornwallis panel conspiracy theories and decrying #MeToo. After retweeting a white supremacist group, then deleting the move after public outcry, Whitman proudly told reporters he still stands by the organization’s message that European peoples are being dismantled. He holds some kind of record for public apologies, stemming from the dozens of complaints lodged against him. He’s the reason council ordered itself into cultural sensitivity training, after Whitman claimed it was only possible to be racist to whites and “negroes,” not Mexicans. Whitman didn’t have a single comment about the Integrated Mobility Plan—one of the most important documents discussed all year—but did ring in later that same meeting to fight for his buddy’s Segway business. Approaching 50, the councillor regularly engages in online pissing matches more befitting a 13-year-old. He used to lash out, then wave off complaints with feigned regret. Now he eagerly courts the attention, dismissing his enemies as opponents of free speech. He’s the closest thing Halifax has to a cargo-cult, soft-serve failure of an alt-right political demagogue and he’d be halfway to dangerous if he was able to keep up the act offline. When he’s not running from reporters, Whitman produces garbled half-points and non-sentences while sweating profusely under the lights. He’s a reactionary populist, but you know, bad at it. Easily triggered; utterly hopeless. A contemptuous, opportunistic troll who’s time and again demonstrated he’s an outright embarrassment to public office. Proverbs teaches us that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Whitman should watch his step.
District 14 (Middle/Upper Sackville–Beaver Bank–Lucasville)
Previous grade: C+
What we said last year: “She’s still learning the ropes, and doesn’t lean heavily on the mic button to wade in on every rote agenda item”
The most quotable councillor. We presumably have Blackburn’s career in radio and journalism to thank for her way with words during council meetings. “Statues are not how we record history,” she said of Cornwallis. “Statues are how we glorify history.” In response to David Hendsbee’s pension plea, Blackburn dropped the mic with a staccato, “No way; no how; not on my watch.” Aside from the snappy dialogue, the District 14 rep’s also stuck to her guns defending the IMP against Spring Garden Road merchants unhappy with bike lanes and spoke out about the racist emails she received from white residents who feared a planning change that put their suburban homes inside new boundaries for Lucasville. We only deduct a few points for Blackburn’s recent return to the airwaves to deliver the morning news on Q104. Temporary position filling in for a friend though it may be, surely the former journalist is aware of the ethical optics when a sitting councillor delivering the news.
District 15 (Lower Sackville)
Previous grade: B+
What we said last year: “Helping the [police] board grow a backbone couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Calling for improvements to accessible transit, Craig took the mic last year and began a long story about meeting a woman waiting for an accessible taxi outside Walmart. When Craig left the store hours later, the woman was still waiting. Her cab had broken down and no other accessible taxis were available in HRM. Craig was frustrated with the system and disappointed with himself for not being able to help. That’s his oeuvre, it would seem—strong parables, spoken softly, about the hazards HRM needs to address. The councillor’s wisdom during even the most heated debates this year grounded otherwise ludicrous outbursts. Meanwhile, he’s continued overhauling the Board of Police Commissioners during a year of escalating cop shop scrutiny and a contract increase that saddled city hall with some tough budget pressures. Having been elected to two terms, Craig announced in passing at a meeting last year he would retire from council in 2020. Shame to see him go.
District 16 (Bedford–Wentworth)
Previous grade: B–
What we said last year: “Outhit remains an above-average councillor at City Hall, but just barely.”
The councillor’s dream of a commuter rail is nearing reality. Someday, Outhit’s train will pull into the station. But for now, there are other engines to keep on track. While he voted against Mason’s plan to bring back public housing to HRM—citing the extreme cost to city coffers—Outhit has made a reliable habit out of defending the upcoming Centre Plan from those councillors eager for a little last-minute rezoning. He was flabbergasted at the messy logic used to extend the height on Willow Tree—a development staff shot down twice, which council was then asked to judge based on unseen corporate financials. He alone seemed to realize that if the proposal was rejected and Armco made to start over, the Centre Plan doctrines would result in nearly double the amount of affordable units. Outhit’s penchant for dad jokes and puns easily wins him HRM’s most groan-inducing councillor. But don’t assume he’s not taking this all very seriously.
Previous grade: B–
What we said last year: “Savage is an elder statesman for this chic new batch of progressives. Hopefully, that inspires, rather than depresses the mayor.”
The mayor’s mother used to always tell him to consider how a decision settled in both his head and his heart. Savage’s brain has been busy all year, cooking up schemes to get Halifax on the innovation map; pandering to the semi-evil CFL and fully evil Amazon to come pillage our shores and take our money. His heart, meanwhile, has been working towards reconciliation—gathering approval for a Downie Wenjack Legacy Room at City Hall and ultimately doing what should have been done a year ago when council finally voted to (at least temporarily) cast the dented visage of Edward Cornwallis down into the dirt where it belongs. “This is not about rewriting history,” said Savage. “It is about acknowledging that it is not cast in bronze.” Only took them all of a decade and 10 months of protest to figure that out. There was a chance to pull down the statue last summer and shove it into storage. Instead, the mayor urged calm and council offloaded the decision to an external committee which ended up DOA. Reassurances about the importance of proper government process mean nothing when this past January shows just how quickly HRM will act on a coordinated response from the people it represents; how much louder direct action rings in their ears. That’s the unfortunate reality of Savage’s mayoral climate. He steers clear of conflict that he can’t contain. It comes off as leadership when the arguments are without merit. It feels cowardly when they’re justified. Halifax Regional Council loves to have hard conversations but refuses to make hard decisions. A good captain should navigate his crew beyond such timidness. We hold out hope Savage can right the ship. “We are all a product of our history, but we do not have to be a prisoner of it,” says the mayor. It’s an axiom to guide this city and its council.