Halifax Magazine speaks with the experts to find out what makes a city councillor effective
The list of qualifications to run for Halifax Council is surprisingly short: complete a form including five registered voters’ signatures, prove you paid your municipal taxes, and pay a $200 fee.
But once you win, what does it take to be effective?
“The key is a critical mind and a willingness to spend the time to read and interpret,” says Dr. David Stuewe, a professor at Dalhousie University’s business school who researches government relationships with business and residents.
The biggest investment of that time is at the start, says Waye Mason (District 7, Halifax South Downtown councillor and former deputy mayor). “You feel like you’re drowning for the first six to nine months,” he says. “But after that period, you’re seeing things you’ve discussed before. You have a familiarity with how we got here.”
The city only started officially orienting new councillors after the 2012 elections, and increased the sessions from three to five days. Lisa Blackburn (District 14 Middle/Upper Sackville, Beaver Bank, Lucasville councillor) says she can’t imagine governing without the sessions, which covered everything from understanding Halifax Water to the process for Council meetings.
Understanding the issues is the first step, but Stuewe says a councillor’s goal should be ensuring city services are available to those who require them. “That’s not to say that the majority rules,” he says. “You have to ensure that the smaller interests that might be marginalised for any number of reasons are given the fair opportunity to benefit from city services.”
Dawn Sloane knows that balancing act well. As councillor for a dozen years (representing parts of the South End, Central Halifax, and downtown), she says being accessible to constituents is king. “That means at all hours of the day and night,” says Sloane. “People have problems and they want to talk to you. They don’t want to talk to an answering machine. They want to talk to you.”
Sloane once told journalists she slept with a notebook next to her bed in case constituents called at 1 a.m. But current councillors say they have to draw a line between work and personal time to stay effective.
“This job can consume people,” says Mason. “You could do it 80 to 100 hours a week and make it a four-year death march.” His city-issued cellphone is set to do not disturb at 9 p.m. But he and other councillors have created systems to help their constituents get the face-to-face time they crave.
Sometimes the hardest part of the job, is making an unpopular decision. Sam Austin (District 5, Central Dartmouth) says a councillor has to be more than a mouthpiece for residents. “If that was my job we could just put a button in everyone’s house. Easy.”
This summer he attended what could be called the most contentious public meeting of 2018. Austin voted with the Dartmouth Community Council to allow an eight-storey building at the corner of Prince Albert Road and Glenwood Avenue. He spoke amid shouts of “Good luck getting elected again!” and random expletives. A staff report showed the development wouldn’t affect wind on the Lake Banook Paddling course, which was the main concern raised by speakers opposing the development.
“You just have to be certain in your own mind that you’ve looked at all of the sides,” says Austin of making tough decision to follow the staff report and approve the building, rather than voting with the constituents who opposed it. “I was willing to stick my neck out and take my lumps if I have to.”
A diversity of views is part of what makes council effective, Stuewe says.
Austin agrees. “Looking around the table at council, it’s really helpful to have people with other mixtures of life experience,” he says. “Like having Richard Zurawski to talk about the environment and having Lindell Smith there to remind us of some of the poverty issues that we face in this community.”
While the diversity of views may be in place, Council’s visible diversity needs serious work. Smith is the only black councillor, and there are more white guys named Steve (three) than women (two).
In 1990, the United Nations recommended that women make up at least 30 percent of decision-making bodies by 1995, and 50% by 2000. Halifax has a long way to go.
Council is only 12.5% female, while women make up 51% of HRM’s population, according to the 2016 census. By comparison, women make up 27% of all councillors in Nova Scotia and 38% of mayors, according to the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities.
Three councillors with different approaches to reaching residents
District 7/ Halifax South Downtown councillor since 2012/ Former Deputy Mayor since 2017
Waye Mason is typing an Instagram post as he walks into a city hall meeting room for our interview. He’s sharing a photo of the progress on the Council chamber’s first technology upgrade in decades.
Mason earned his rep as the “social media” councillor. His Twitter following is over 9,000 people, nearly twice as many people as voted in his district in 2016, plus 1,900 on Facebook and 1,700 on Instagram. He blogs regularly about the goings on in Council and in his district, as well as mailing a paper newsletter twice annually for the less tech savvy.
While Mason says his online presence helps him keep up with voters, he rejects the idea that all councillors need to be on every social media platform. “You know who is not on social media? Russ Walker. You know who has been elected for 30 years? Russ Walker.”
District 14 Middle/Upper Sackville, Beaver Bank, Lucasville councillor since 2016
Watching the former CBC Radio newscaster walk through a busy Lower Sackville café greeting many patrons by name on her walk to the counter is a lesson in how well known she is. It also helps that she refers to Apartment 3 Espresso Bar as her office.
“I much prefer to sit and talk to residents like this,” she says gesturing around the busy café. “This is my Sackville office. The Tims by the roundabout is my Middle Sackville office, and the one on Beaver Bank Road is my Beaver Bank office.” She says talking to residents is the majority of her daytime work hours.
“Some councillors told me they don’t go to residents houses ever, ever, ever,” she says. “That’s their style. And that is what’s great about being a party of one, you can bring your own style.”
District 5 Dartmouth Centre since 2016
Sam Austin can turn any outing into an opportunity for resident engagement. He says his wife won’t send him to the grocery store for urgent pick-ups, because he could be back in 10 minutes or an hour.
Recently, the councillor and former urban planner canvassed door-to-door, asking residents’ opinions on the proposed roundabout at Mic Mac Boulevard, Lancaster Drive, Woodland Avenue, and Highway 118.
“Most people say, ‘Oh is it election time already?’” Austin laughs. “There’s a little bit of confusion because people are used to only hearing from you when you’re looking for votes but to be effective you really need to have the grounding with your residents. It’s a huge part of the job.”
A swing and a miss
Not everything our councillors do is a hit. Here are two they missed.
The roll out of the new municipal ban on using tobacco or cannabis products in public was as smooth as a cheese grater.
First the date to ban puffing on municipal property i.e. parks, sidewalks, streets, everywhere–unless in a designated smoking area (marked with a sign and ashtray) moved from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15. But by the last days of September, there was still no way for local businesses to request a designated smoking area.
On Oct. 15, the HRM’s smoking map featured only nine spots, all at bus terminals. Within a week of implementation, the city announced it would put a hold on issuing $25–$2,000 fines, instead handing out cards listings the rules until the kinks are worked out. As of Nov. 15, there are 75 designated smoking areas, with the lion’s share in downtown Halifax, leaving those in low-income areas scrambling to smoke legally.
Systematic racism and sexism
It’s hard to believe our Councillors are shocked to hear about racism within city departments like transit and fire, given that every few years we see a flurry of stories that say this isn’t a problem of the past.
In 2007, HRM gave Randy Symonds, a black worker at the Burnside transit garage a financial settlement for the racial slurs and threats of violence he endured daily for years. Symonds has since died, but his family is still waiting for an official apology.
In 2016, CBC published leaked copies of a third-party Employment Systems Review describing an HRM workforce where racist, sexist, and homophobic comments were common.
This May, 20-some public employees demonstrated in front of City Hall to protest harassment and discrimination within HRM’s workforce.
In June, former city councillors Jackie Barkhouse, Sue Uteck, and Dawn Sloane joined Liane Tessier calling for a public inquiry into racism and sexism within City Hall. Tessier founded Equity Watch after enduring years of sexist bullying as a firefighter at Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency. She reached a financial settlement in 2017.
A bright spot: hot on the heels of the latest protest, Council approved a motion requiring HRM CAO Jacques Dubé to produce quarterly progress reports on racism, sexism, and harassment within the municipal workforce. The first report, issued in September, is available online; it lacks detail on what specific actions HRM is taking to address the issue.
Correction: In the print edition of this story, Jackie Barkhouse’s name was omitted from the section “Systematic racism and sexism,” due to an editing error. She is also a founding member of Equity Watch. Halifax Magazine regrets the mistake.