Heading in the right direction

Three years into its term, this version of HRM Council, led by Mayor Mike Savage, seems more transparent and effective than its predecessors.

Now three years into the Mike Savage-led Council, the municipal government’s honeymoon period is long over, but the early results are a lot more encouraging than the Peter Kelly days. Council is squabbling less, doing more business in the open and governance at the city is improving.

There is no doubt Council is getting along better. At the time of the last election in 2012, the number of Council seats was reduced from 23 to 16. Jack Novack, the program director of the local government program at Dalhousie University has also done consulting work with municipal councils, some of which only had five or six members, but were still dysfunctional. “If there is a correlation between size and functionality, I haven’t seen it,” he says.

Rather, he says Savage is good at bringing people together, which includes intelligence, wit, humour and the ability to see irony. “I think he has those people skills which somehow allow him to smooth out difficult situations and [find] where there may be some common ground,” says Novack.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Peter Kelly days was there wasn’t enough transparency, especially that too much of Council’s business was happening in camera. “I always think we got a bit of a bum rap for doing too much in camera,” says Tim Outhit, the councillor for District 16, Bedford – Wentworth.Halifax_City_Hall-resized

He points specifically to the sewage plant issues as being a driving factor behind many of the in-camera meetings. “We haven’t really dealt with too many of these traumatic issues [since then],” he says. Outhit says the new Council has tried to be as transparent as possible. Judging by the lack of outcry about secrecy, it seems to be working.

Savage says the new Council has implemented some other measures to become more transparent. One is Open Data, a practice of releasing municipally-generated data free of charge on things like geographic data, scheduling, statistics and demographics.

Anybody can then use this data. For example, one person used this information to create an app that uses your mobile phone’s location to automatically determine when your waste collection day is and what’s being picked up on that day. “My experience is quite often, the information people want is the information you tell them they can’t have and once you make it available, some people can use it,” says Savage, adding that governments need to trust people with information.

Another thing Savage would like to see is campaign-finance reform. He would like there to be limits governing what candidates spend their money on, when they can raise money, where they get their money from and how much they can spend.

HRM’s track record with citizen-engagement remains mixed. The Halifax Central Library is an example of how it can work well, says Novack. “By all accounts, that was a very good consultation process and I think people are very proud and have some kind of shared ownership,” he says.

However, there have been some head-scratching examples, with the most recent one being a proposed development on Wellington Street that was opposed by the local community and a city planning committee, yet Council approved it. Novack says Council isn’t obliged to follow the wishes of the community, “But if they don’t do it, there’s got to be a really good reason for it and there was no such reason there.”

He says outcomes like that lead people to develop an attitude of “Why bother?” because they believe their input doesn’t really matter. “I don’t think people at the Council level that make these decisions fully understand how it kind of shakes the fabric of the community when that happens, not just in the Wellington Street area, but for everybody,” says Novack.

This question of governance is an important one. Since September 2009, more light has been shone on governance at the city. That’s when Larry Munroe became auditor general.

After six years, Munroe is seeing progress on governance, but there remain persistent issues, such as a lack of documentation. Munroe says that when carrying out many audits, city officials have not had a paper trail explaining their decision making process. One example was the decision to move box-office operations from the Halifax Metro Centre to Trade Centre Limited.

He expected there would have been documentation answering why decisions were made, who approved them, what the business case was and what the considerations were. This lack of documentation has made it more difficult for Munroe to do his job. “I’m an auditor general, not a creation of documentation general,” he says. As a result, for many audits, it is the auditor general’s work that has become the file of record.

Another concern has been what Munroe calls the “tone from the top,” or the corporate culture. “If you have a poor system, poorly-understood processes, even if you have a good person in that [role], unfortunately, the processes are going to overwhelm the individual,” he says.

In his report about the cost overruns of the Washmill Lake Court extension project, some of the comments he repeatedly heard from city staff were things like:
• It was not my job to think about that.
• I did not understand what was being asked of me.
• We don’t have standards for documentation.
• I am not sure who was in charge, but it was not me.
• This was not a normal situation. We generally do better.

These comments indicate a lack of accountability and that despite some discomfort people may have had with what was going on, they weren’t comfortable expressing it. Munroe says there has been tone from the top training and employees are more apt to express when they have a problem with something. “I see people are stopping to think through decisions,” he says.

Another recurring issue highlighted in the report was poor risk management. “If you read our reports, it’s just talked about over and over,” says Munroe.

That was the case with Washmill, when city officials took a verbal cost estimate as a quote. “The OAG (Office of the Auditor General) also has to question the governance model in place and the judgment of staff who would suggest it would ever be in the best interests of HRM to use a high-level verbal estimate in a contractual cost-sharing agreement for a multi-million-dollar project,” Munroe wrote in his report.

Munroe would like to see the city hire a chief risk officer who would be responsible for identifying organizational risks and ensuring Council is made aware of them when making decisions. Part of the person’s job would be to provide alternatives, as well as the pros and cons of each action. Munroe says it’s impossible to eliminate risks, but you do have to identify them.

Savage says he isn’t sold on the idea of having a chief risk officer. He wonders if the work could be done with existing personnel, or even with some assistance from the private sector.

Munroe says that in general, city employees’ willingness to speak with him and provide information has been good, as have the city’s efforts to implement recommendations. He feels employees are reading his reports, as evidenced by the people who talk to him and offer insight about what they know while he rides the ferry to and from work.

Not only is Council being more transparent, but governance is improving. In general, Halifax may be on the right track.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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