HALIFAX – Life in a post-amalgamation world. This seemingly perpetual challenge lingered in the realm of subtext during Wednesday night’s public meeting on Halifax Regional Municipality’s Governance and District Boundary Review. Poised for completion by Dec 2010, the Review aims to assess and improve our municipal governance structure, looking primarily at the number of electoral districts; their size and boundaries; and the size, number, and scope of power of Community Councils. What this really means: how many councillors should make up Regional Council, what population of HRMers each councillor should represent, and how the geographic structure of their governing authority might shift.
Chaired by Mayor Peter Kelly, Wednesday’s meeting— the fifth of seven meetings taking place across Community Councils through mid-March — gave HRM residents and representatives of the business community the opportunity to voice their opinions, musings, and concerns about the current governance structure and make a case for change.
As I entered the room, I was surprised to see it less than full. Without exception, at every other consultation I have attended at Halifax Hall, I have found myself perched atop a ledge or sill for lack of sufficient seating. As I settled into my cushy chair on Wednesday, it struck me as odd that the urban chickens controversy should become a recurring joke — fueled largely by District 21 Councillor Tim Outhit, who commented on how we might better expel these sorts of silly issues from the political agenda — when last month’s consultation on backyard laying hens drew a crowd almost double the size. And as Mayor Kelly’s ‘Bueller’-style last call for speakers fell on restless silence after only 10 commenters had taken the mic, I was further baffled. This is the structure of municipal governance we’re talking about, and the room clears out after just 40 minutes? And we think the chickens are foolish.
It could have had something to do with the less-than-gripping title and rather disengaged meeting structure. ‘Governance & District Boundary Review,’ while factual, is not the City’s most concise of headings, and unfortunately the meeting was just about as convoluted as its title promised. With a 20-minute slideshow presentation and a stack of Peninsula Council reports introducing us to HRM’s governance structure, it was no surprise when one commenter noted that there was simply too much dense information thrown hastily at the audience to inspire confident and diverse comments. A later speaker asked for better clarification on what kind of tangible impacts the Review would have on Halifax as a “progressive” city.
Let’s try to make some sense of it.
There are four potential scenarios presented in the Review package, each of which is based on a different number of proposed districts and councillors, ranging from 15 to 26 (23 being the current number). Each scenario contains within it a number of sub-scenarios based on how these districts might be divvied out into Community Councils.
While the scenarios propose some drastically different Community Council delineation strategies — some tracing the amalgamation-based geographic divisions we’ve already got, and some taking it in entirely new directions, drawing new lines along an urban, suburban, and rural basis — conversation rarely touched on the boundaries, but instead focused on representation. Councillor to citizen ratio was a key issue, as was governance efficiency.
Comparisons were made to the larger Canadian cities of Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary, where the ratio is much higher, but later critiqued with reference to the increased staff and budgets these constituencies are granted. Perhaps too predictably, those who self-identified as representatives of the business community tended to advocate increased efficiency and a smaller Regional Council (i.e. larger representation ratio), while those who identified as residents or community members tended to stress more heavily the need for a diversity of opinions and the importance of a personal relationship between councillors and their constituents. This wasn’t consistent across the board, however, and, despite affiliations, the majority noted a desire for more dynamic Council debates, better information leading up to debate, and a focus on quality rather than quantity.
If you want to weigh in, but can’t make the final meeting on March 1oth at the Lawrencetown Community Centre, there are still opportunities to do so through an online survey or written submission. Council will decide on a governance model in the spring, gearing up to commence the second phased of the review in the summer, redrawing district boundaries. A second round of public consultations will take place in the fall in response to the proposed new boundaries and any other adjustments, for final submission to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board in December.