Matt Whitman’s deafening silence | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Matt Whitman’s deafening silence

The councillor thought it was better to remain silent on Halifax's Integrated Mobility Plan, then open his mouth about Segways and prove himself a fool.

click to enlarge Matt Whitman’s deafening silence
Whitman, pictured in one of many social media posts riding a Segway.

Confronted with the single most important planning document for the future of transit, walkability and accessible living in the entire Halifax Regional Municipality, councillor Matt Whitman had nothing to say.

When it came time later in the same meeting to protect a niche tourism business, the Hammonds Plains–St. Margarets representative couldn’t stop talking.

Whitman didn’t ring in once during a lengthy discussion about the Integrated Mobility Plan that took place at Tuesday’s Regional Council meeting. He was the only councillor without questions about the city’s new bible for active transportation planning. Even Lindell Smith, who was in Toronto at the National Black Canadians Summit, passed along questions for his colleague Tony Mancini to ask in his stead.

The document and its 137 “actions” for making HRM more accessible to walk, cycle, bus and otherwise get around without using private cars was met with applause from council and transportation advocates gathered at City Hall. It’s a massive blueprint for making “complete” communities that took months of public consultation and an army of staff to compile.

The sort of thorough, long-term planning tool that will define how the next generation of communities are formed, the IMP quite literally impacts every single resident in the HRM. And Whitman had nothing to say about it.

Ben Wedge, formerly with the Halifax Cycling Coalition and current executive director of It’s More Than Buses, isn’t impressed.

“If I lived in his district, I’d be upset,” says Wedge.

In a since-deleted tweet directed at Wedge, the councillor stated he didn’t contribute to the discussion because his colleagues already raised all his points for him. Wedge doesn’t buy it.

“He never even put his name on the board,” he says. “Was his initial strategy going into it to just stay there with his mouth shut and at the very end of the debate, if all his points were made, that was good?”

Whitman previously hasn't shied away from voicing his opinion on dozens of other, less-important transportation matters—including crosswalk safety, bike lane installations, bus route planning, traffic congestion and racialized emergency preparedness exercises. He also had a lot to say on Tuesday about Segways.

Following up on unsolicited feedback offered at the last Transportation Standing Committee meeting, Whitman repeatedly went to bat for the continued use of Segways on Halifax Transit ferries.

The councillor spoke out against the recommendation of staff, who found the novelty devices pose a needless hazard on harbour vessels. They also seem to be used entirely by Segway Nova Scotia for its tour group rentals.

“The current configuration of the seating on the ferries precludes the safe and efficient use of Segways, as a result, they consume a great deal of space, block doors and can be a tripping hazard,” reads the staff report. “Unlike other devices travelling on the ferries....the Segways observed do not appear to be privately owned or used for personal transportation, but are part of a commercial operation.”

That operation in question is co-owned by Max Restelli, who lives in Whitman’s district and appears to be friends with the councillor. Whitman has been pictured using the vehicles repeatedly on social media and even decked out Segways with his campaign signs during last fall’s municipal election.

The councillor stated during the last transportation committee meeting that he doesn’t own a Segway himself (despite previous media articles stating as much). He’s also dodged questions posed to him by The Coast about who does own the vehicles he’s so often pictured using. Neither Whitman nor Restelli replied to requests for comment.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Whitman demanded the scooters remain legal on harbour ferries and fought against the compromise suggested by his colleagues for a supplemental report to break the Segway issue out of the larger discussion on limiting bicycles during ferry crossings.

He also took issue with staff’s comment about the vehicles being owned by a commercial operation.

“Most of them are owned by a business, and they’re tourists that are taking them,” said Whitman. “Tourists, business, that we’re trying to help do business in Nova Scotia. Reduce the red tape, and do business here and succeed.”

Finally broaching the subject of the IMP, Whitman argued Segways offer an alternative transportation model for HRM residents.

“I’m asking people to help us integrate and implement Segways, rather than discriminate against them,” he said.

Dartmouth Centre councillor Sam Austin didn’t see it that way.

“I’m still awaiting emails from the people of Dartmouth who ride Segways to be up in arms about being cut off from using the ferry,” the councillor mocked. “But my inbox is empty because nobody uses these in this way.”

Wedge agrees “it makes no sense” to pretend this is an issue impacting anyone beyond Segway Nova Scotia. That said, he doesn’t outright have a problem with Whitman fighting to defend his constituent’s business operations.

“As long as he’s honest about it so that we can know that’s him sticking up for a friend, and not necessarily sticking up for the greater good of the municipality,” he says.

“But that he has nothing to say on a transportation plan that affects 100 percent of the residents in his district, it just surprises me that he has nothing to add.”

The motion for a supplemental report on Segways passed, against Whitman’s protests, 9-7.

Staff will now begin work on a report nearly half of council didn’t want, and which will largely contain the same information already presented on Tuesday.

It’s exactly the sort of frivolous request that earlier in the day Transportation and Public Works director Bruce Zvaniga told council to avoid if they want any chance of implementing the IMP’s bike network and transit priority corridors in time for an accelerated 2020 target.

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