Saturday, October 20, 2012

Election Day in Halifax: The Start of a new Era?

It's election day in Halifax, and there is only one certain outcome: Halifax will have a new mayor.  It's the end of the Peter Kelly era, as the man who has held the mayor's chair for the last twelve years exits under a cloud of scandal.

The assumption seems to be that former Dartmouth-Cole Harbour MP Mike Savage is a shoo-in to replace Kelly.   Most of the polling showed him with a decisive lead over his closest competitors, retired police officer Tom Martin, and business owner Fred Connors.  It remains to be seen if either Martin or Connors has been able to close the gap in the last few weeks of campaigning.

Regardless of who assumes the office of mayor, they face a number of challenges.  Halifax's violent crime rate is among the highest in Canada.  An infrastructure deficit means taxpayers could face a significant tab (estimated by Halifax Water to be in the order of $2 billion) to fix crumbling water and sewer infrastructure in the next several years.  Halifax continues to underinvest in its downtown and urban core, and the city continues to sprawl at an unsustainable rate, failing to meet even the modest goals of its own 25 year regional plan.

However, the biggest challenge the mayor will face may be trying to get council on the same page and moving the city in the same direction.  The previous council was described by many observers as "dysfunctional".  Some councillors continue to put narrow parochial interests, no matter how small, ahead of the good of the municipality.  Council has reversed its own decisions, and then sometimes reversed again, on more than one occasion.  Council has been highly criticized for making many decisions behind closed doors in "in camera" sessions.  And there is often a lack of public consultation on key issues: the costly Bayers Road/102 widening appears to be proceeding, despite a complete lack of public engagement or even a proper council hearing on the project.

Reality is that there will likely be many familiar faces on the new council.  Barring a few upsets, due to the new district structure, some of the toughest races involve incumbents against incumbents.  It is likely that the new council will look allot like the old one.

If Savage wins as expected, he will need to demonstrate the skills in working across political lines that he showed as an MP.  If he can pull off the upset, Martin will need every bit of the street smarts he learned as a police officer.  Similarly, Connors will need to show he can win over councillors with his ideas and enthusiasm.

Haligonians will need to temper their expectations with the reality that we have a weak mayoral system, which does not provide much power and authority to the mayor.  He will have only one vote amongst 17 on council, and although his role as chair gives him some ability to control the agenda, that power is limited.  The exercise sometimes looks a bit like herding cats.  It remains to be seen if the new, smaller council size makes this task any easier.

The mayor will also have to deal with CAO Richard Butts, who in the year and a half since he joined the municipality from Toronto, seems to have carved out a large sphere of authority for himself.

Although some people have been underwhelmed by the mayoral campaign itself, I think there is one positive thing we can take from it.  As an observer, I have seen a huge upsurge of new energy and new ideas around how to move this city forward.  There is a sense that Halifax has tremendous potential and opportunities.   There are numerous ways citizens can engage in moving the city forward, including the regional plan five year review, which is ongoing.

Regardless of who sits in the mayor's chair, or any other seat in council chamber, as citizens it is up to us over the next four years to hold their feet to the fire and ensure that we seize some of these opportunities, bring some of these new ideas to life, and see Halifax realize on its tremendous potential.

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