Why does Halifax’s municipal government do so much of its business in secret?
Democracy gasps for airBy Richard Reesh Woodbury | Jul 12, 2012
Tags: HRM Council
Five things HRM Council must do to become more accountable to the people it serves.
Over the last year, HRM Council’s reputation has taken a beating, with it repeatedly being criticized for not being open, transparent and accountable. The handling of the Occupy Nova Scotia eviction, the sale of St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School and the concert scandal all helped play a contributing role.
Things didn’t get any better when Mayor Peter Kelly issued a bizarre press release in November 2011. “Public debate is the very air that democracy breaths [sic],” it said. “We must open our windows as wide as possible to achieve that kind of ventilation.”
If council is truly committed to opening those windows as wide as possible, here are five things it must do.
1) HRM must do a better job of communicating with residents
“The biggest problem I think we have as a municipality is [our] inability or lack of desire to communicate,” says Bedford Councillor Tim Outhit. He says HRM relies on its website and the media to get information out. Not surprisingly, this leads to an information gap. “People love information and we are godawful at getting it out,” says Outhit. “With that gap, rumours and misinformation flourish. That’s human nature.”
To improve communication, HRM should improve the layout of its clunky website, so information is easier to find. HRM also needs to make better use of social media as well. The Twitter account of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi would be a good template to follow as he tweets frequently and chats with citizens.
2) HRM should change its media policy
In May 2011, new CAO Richard Butts changed how city employees interact with media. “To ensure media responses are well-coordinated and aligned across the organization, Media Relations and Crisis Communications functions will be directed to Public Affairs staff…” Butts wrote in an email to senior management staff.
Previously, the media was able to contact city staffers directly, but now reporters must go through the PR department. Policies like this make it harder for the media to effectively do its job and it easier for the city to control its message.
And it just looks bad, says political scientist Tom Urbaniak. “It is unfortunate we’re seeing this tightening up at the local level,” says the Cape Breton University political-science professor. “It has the effect, I think, of only deepening public suspicion and cynicism.” He says it makes people ask deeper questions. “It does leave people wondering, ‘Well, what’s happening? What bigger scheme is being worked on’?” says Urbaniak.
3) The province should make legislative changes for what is dealt
The rules and procedures surrounding what qualifies for in-camera meetings are governed by provincial legislation under the Municipal Government Act. Matters relating to land, legal and personnel are dealt with in-camera.
While there are instances where council is justified in meeting in-camera, the current legislation is too broad. “What needs to happen at the provincial level is a tightening up of the parameters with respect to in-camera or confidential sessions,” says Urbaniak.
He points specifically to the definition of legal matters as an example wide open to interpretation. “The wording of section 22 is somewhat problematic,” he says. “Terms like contract negotiations are used or litigation or potential litigation. In the State of New York, the term is pending litigation, which is a narrower term. The definition of potential litigation can be quite broad. So much of what a municipality does could be subject to litigation, but pending litigation means litigation in the works.” Urbaniak also recommends that there be penalties for violations, which are common in American jurisdictions.
4) Better teamwork
Our Councillors are a fractious bunch. While that might not relate to openness, transparency and accountability directly, if council is going to make better decisions, they’re going to have to start getting along.
Councillor Sue Uteck uses a sports analogy when talking about council. “If I was a coach, half of this team would be benched or cut,” she says. While there is no magic solution to council’s teamwork problem, it should consider creative solutions, like that of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. In January, Nenshi brought in a clinical psychologist to facilitate a meeting between the mayor and council so that the group could assess its working relationships. While some councillors criticized the initiative, the incident displayed a willingness to try new ideas.
“I would find it extraordinary if any member of council did not want to attend a meeting on how council can work together better,” Nenshi said at the time. “But if members of council are interested in a dysfunctional group that is not working well together, it is absolutely their prerogative.”
5) Consistent decision making
One of the criticisms HRM frequently faces is that it breaks its own policies and procedures. Consider the sale of the St. Pat’s-Alexandra school—see page 14. Or take for example the Skye Halifax development. The twin-tower development at the former Tex-Park site is a proposed 150 metres tall, more than double the 66-metre limit allowed under HRM by Design. In February, Council ignored a staff recommendation to block the project.
“It breaks faith with the public because HRM by Design didn’t just happen,” says Jack Novack, an expert in local government at Dalhousie University’s Henson College of Public Affairs of Continuing Education. “I mean, there was public input, there was a whole process of public consultation on it. So what happens is you simply pander to the view that ‘It doesn’t matter. Why bother? They’re going to do what they want anyway.’”
The lesson here is simple: to maintain the faith and confidence of the public, play by the rules when making decisions.