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Municipal Politics and Halifax's Mayor

...and citizen participation

by Michael Lightstone

So the mayor is in.

To no one’s surprise, Mike Savage has laid his cards on the table and announced he’s running for re-election for Halifax council’s top job in October’s municipal vote.

“I feel like I am making a difference, and can make a difference,” he told Local Xpress earlier this month. (Local Xpress is the news website operated by journalists who’ve been on strike at The Chronicle Herald since January 23.)

Well, time will tell. The jury’s still out on your difference-making ability, Mayor Savage.

I’ve covered a handful of mayors in Halifax, back when The Daily News existed and for The Herald, and can recall one of them “making a difference” in how the municipality was being managed: the late Ron Wallace. It always seemed the person actually running this town was the chief administrative officer, or city manager, of the day.

Wallace was initially elected in 1980, and spearheaded a “pay-as-you-go” fiscal plan a couple years later. Upon entering office, the city’s debt was around $123 million; it had dropped to about $57 million when he resigned honourably 11 years later, according to reports.

Any mayor, of course, is a big civic cheerleader and the main traffic cop during sometimes-testy council sessions, but he or she only has one vote. When Wallace was in the mayor’s chair at stately city hall, in the pre-municipal merger days, he could vote solely in the event of a tie.

Yes, a mayor in any jurisdiction can show some backbone and, by virtue of that, perhaps “lead” by example. More often than not, however, it’s a progressive council’s collective leadership that translates into doing something terrific for the community it serves, such as righting a historic wrong or making a prudent budget decision to live within the municipality’s means.

Policy decisions are ratified by a majority-rule vote of Halifax council, not made by one elected representative. While individual councillors (including the mayor) can request an item be placed on a meeting’s agenda, the subsequent approval or disapproval is the result of the will of council.

There are behind-the-scenes activities that city hall reporters would not be aware of, or be barred from—I was never invited to attend Halifax council’s numerous in-camera sessions, when councillors met in secret—that might show a mayor “making a difference.” Privately, there could be such an episode or two, but publicly municipal politics is very much a team sport.

And that team, which includes city staff, is the engine that drives the train.

Is the mayor the engineer? Rarely. The mayor is more like the rail company’s marketing director or a publicly-placed champion of all things Halifax, Saint John, Montreal, Toronto, et cetera.

Here in the Halifax region, let’s take Savage at his word, and hope he can truly make a difference during what will likely be his second term as king of metro’s world. Unless there’s a miraculous upset, he’ll be back in the driver’s seat after the October 15 election—hopefully not sitting there following a hollow victory by acclamation.

What’s far more tangible is the pathetic voter turnout Halifax’s municipal elections have produced over the years. This is something that’s part of the historical record.

According to a 2015 report from Jeffrey Roy, of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration, almost two thirds of eligible voters didn’t show up at the ballot box in the 2012 civic election. The lousy participation rate was notably lower than provincial and federal turnout levels.

Indeed, the turnout in Nova Scotia for the federal election last October was 71 per cent; the figure was part of a big jump in turnout across the Atlantic region. In 2011, 62 per cent of eligible electors in this province cast ballots in that federal election.

If you stop and think about it, the level of government that affects the routine of daily life in Canada, more than the others, is the municipal. You can have strong opinions about foreign policy or international trade, but Ottawa won’t be hauling away your household trash, clearing local streets of snow and ice or erecting a badly-needed stop sign in a residential area that’s home to young families.

Who gets contacted when vehicles are illegally parked, causing a potential safety hazard, or when dangerous sidewalks need repairs? Which government office receives a phone call or an email or a letter in the mail when public transit is running behind schedule, or otherwise not operating as it should?

The province handles workplace safety and environmental issues hooked to our lakes and rivers. City hall considers your neighbour’s proposed property expansion, and tries to figure out what to do about urban chickens.

Yet this grassroots connection to our home lives is ignored on voting day by an overwhelming majority of electors. Two municipal elections ago, in the fall of 2008, there were 284,258 eligible voters in Halifax Regional Municipality. Voter turnout was just 37 per cent, CBC News reported shortly after the election.

Apathy can be a tough nut to crack. Government officials can’t force citizens to mark their Xes on election-day ballots when it’s their democratic right to decline to vote. Perhaps civics lessons in our schools and much more public awareness, between elections, about the importance of voting would help improve things.

What voter turnout will be like in the Halifax area this October is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, Savage has six months to drum up support, collect campaign donations and prepare his victory speech.

Former mayor Peter Kelly built quite a comfortable lead in 2008 over veteran Halifax councillor Sheila Fougere, and another contender, and then cruised to victory. One day, in an end-of-tenure interview in the mayor’s office, Kelly acknowledged he’d made mistakes as mayor, but regarded them as learning experiences.

He added that he felt he had made a difference.

Or, was that Wallace?

Or, the late Walter Fitzgerald?


Freelance reporter Michael Lightstone lives in Dartmouth, NS.

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Topics: Governance
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