Tuesday’s Halifax Regional Council meeting got off to a late start — well, for the public, that is.
Shortly after convening at 10:30 a.m., the council passed a motion to move three in camera items to the top of the agenda. Booted out were the media and visitors no sooner had they shaken out their umbrellas and plugged in their laptops.
Three hours (and plenty of malicious tweeting and lunch-eating) later, the doors of HRM’s ‘transparent’ municipal government were reopened.
The decision to push the in camera discussions, which consisted of a citizen appointment to the Advisory Committee for Accessibility in HRM, the Chief Administrative Officer personnel review, and an update on the Halifax Regional Police contract negotiations, to the beginning of the meeting signalled yet again the council’s unaccommodating nature when it comes to the public and the media’s participation in its proceedings.
The Halifax Regional Council meetings used to take place during the evening, typically beginning at 6:30 p.m. This timing changed, without public consultation or much warning, last year. Now, meetings begin at 10:30 a.m. or 1 p.m., during what is many Haligonians’ working or schooling hours.
More than that, Tuesday’s postponement of the publicly open portion of the meeting demonstrated a lack of consideration for those visitors who had taken the time, possibly only the few hours they had free in the day, to visit the council chambers or check out the live video streaming online. With the council meetings made so inaccessible and, thus, alien to many HRM residents, it’s no wonder the City has to drag them to the polls on election day.
Facing a hefty Metro Transit contribution to HRM’s growing budget deficit and low ferry ridership (of 400 spots on the ferry, on average 170 are taken), city staffers recommended cuts to the service.
On the docket was a proposal to reduce the Alderney Ferry's frequency to 30 minutes from noon to 2 p.m. on weekdays; remove service after 10:30 p.m. on weekdays, Saturdays and holidays; and eliminate trips before 11:30 a.m. on Sundays. The Woodside Ferry would lose its 9:37 a.m. weekday trip going to Halifax, and its 9:52 a.m. weekday sail leaving in the opposite direction.
In response, several councillors took the pro-public transit stance, like Dawn Sloane and Jackie Barkhouse, who not only advocated for keeping the current ferry schedule but also encouraged the City to improve the service and better promote it. “Where’s the campaign ‘use it or lose it?’,” asked Sue Uteck.
Others were more fiscally conservative. Councillors Reg Rankin and Bob Harvey were opposed to keeping the service as is and thus making this council the cause for a big contribution to the city’s budget deficit.
Rankin added that saving the ferry shouldn’t be prioritized in the face of many municipal service cuts, especially when so many bus routes have already been sacrificed. Councillor Darren Fisher then asked a city staffer if buses that had decent cost recoveries were cut. The answer was “No.” The ferry has a 68% cost recovery, which only six or seven bus routes can boast of as well.
In the end, the ferry service was partially spared. The council did not approve the initial proposal in its entirety, opting to keep the late ferry service on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The question remains: If people are against cutting the ferry service, why aren’t they using it more?
Metro Centre gets the stink eye
The council voted to allocate $50,000 to a review of the Metro Centre operations following the Auditor General’s report on the eyebrow-raising transfer of box office workings from the centre to Trade Centre Limited.
Whether or not this review leads to any legal action should it dig up some dirt on the Metro Centre or Trade Centre Limited is yet to be determined. The council, at the time, seemed unaware of its power or lack thereof in this matter.
Old Macdonald got a makeover
Wait, that’s not how it goes. Anyhow, it turns out HRM’s old Macdonald (the bridge, that is) is in desperate need of new decking. Having been shown images by city staffers of rusting, separating and repeatedly re-welded bridge decking, the council couldn’t really argue against the proposed repairs, but it took issue with some of the construction period side effects.
The bridge is set to get its facelift from the beginning of 2015 through 2016. During this time, it will be closed to motor traffic 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Cyclists and pedestrians? Their lanes are being temporarily scrapped due to the bridge being narrowed for workspace. A 24-hour shuttle service is supposed to accommodate all active transportation users in the meantime. Hey, it’s better than the thing collapsing.
Tell me what you want, what you really, really want
The 2012 HRM Citizen Survey was conducted early this year to gauge how well council’s actions are matching the desires of the population it represents, and to give it a guide for the coming year.
The majority of respondents consider quality of life in HRM as “good.” Most believe this quality has remained the same over the past five years, and think public transit service, public safety and the environment should be on the top of council’s minds for the next half decade. Public transit is also deemed a major spending priority, as well as investing in attracting and retaining young workers.
Just over half of those surveyed consider they get “somewhat good” value for the taxes they pay; 16% said they get “very good” value. Most want to keep tax rates the same but redistribute where their money is allocated, with increased spending going toward public transit and police services.
On the topic of law and order, the majority of respondents feel “mostly satisfied” with peace and order, and the quality of policing, in their neighbourhoods. They also feel, for the most part, safe. These results somewhat contradict recent Halifax Regional Police surveys, which demonstrate a public reported decrease in police visibility, and declining feelings of safety in residential, commercial and workplace environments.
When it comes to infrastructure, maintenance is king. Overall, those surveyed want to see streets and roads maintained, while younger respondents (aged 18-34) desire better active transportation. Improving existing recreational facilities is prioritized over a new stadium. Above all else, though, focusing on renewable energy projects is foremost in citizens’ minds.
In terms of planning and growth, respondents unsurprisingly want more (read: free) parking options in downtown HRM and better public transit servicing the area. Middle-aged and older residents want to see more attention to the beautification of the downtown core, while the younger generation hopes the downtown becomes more affordable for new businesses.
Of the over 12,700 households randomly select for surveying, only 1,241 residents replied. This number of respondents falls within the ‘normal’ range, according to the staff report.
Questions on two recent hot topics — the Nova Centre and accessibility — were not addressed.
In other news
Although apparently not used, the ferry is getting new propellers. Sources say they are of the Honey Wheat Ale, Extra Special Bitter and Growler variety.
Remember that falling-apart bridge deck mentioned way up there? Well, its old sidewalk deck panels are going to be reused as active transportation bridges: right on with survey respondents’ desire for recycling. Yeah!
Following testimonials from bingo night leaders, a kid’s dance DJ, two small children, and pastors from two different churches, the council agreed to sell a building in Porter’s Lake to its Community Service Association at less than market value. Equally awww-inducing is the cheap sale of a Fall River building to the area’s Firemen’s Association.
And the council’s heart grew three sizes that day.
The next Halifax Regional Council sits Tuesday, August 14. Follow @wordpuddle, and #hfxcouncil for live tweeting updates.