Stephen Kimber

Mike Savage, Peter Kelly, Rob Ford and keeping the bar low

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Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact Mike Savage is not… oh, there are too many to choose from.

His predecessor, for starters. Peter Kelly, the unlamented former mayor of Halifax whose major lasting legacy was his longevity in an office for which he was so obviously unsuited. He, belatedly, had the good sense to read the writing on the wall before it collapsed in on him.

The same cannot be said, of course, for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, about whom more than enough has already been written, late-night joked and harrumphed about.

Then too, let us not forget Mayor Susan Fennell of Brampton, ON, overshadowed as she was last week by those Toronto allegations of crack-smoking, drunk-driving, lewd-speaking and who knows what new horrors still to come. Fennell’s simpler sin was being exposed auditioning for an entitled-to-her entitlements Senate seat: charging taxpayers $2,160 for personalized barbecue aprons.

Little wonder then that our own mild-manned mayor, Mike Savage, merited a standing ovation from the Halifax Board of Trade earlier this month, more for having survived his first year in office unsullied and unsullying than for any concrete accomplishment.

And 40 per cent of Haligonians gave Savage a thumbs-up score of eight in last week’s City Matters survey conducted for Metro Halifax and the Greater Halifax Partnership by MQO Research. Pollsters surveyed 600 residents over the age of 18, with a margin of error of plus or minus four per cent, 19 times out of 20.

“There’s 40 per cent of the population who are exceptionally pleased,” MQO Research senior counsel Rick Emberley told Metro’s Philip Croucher, but more importantly, “there’s a significant portion of the population who feel pretty good about [Savage]. But there’s almost nobody who thinks it’s bad.”

Which, these days, is as good as it gets.

If Savage doesn’t have many concrete accomplishments to show for his first year in office, he has, thankfully, changed the channel on the debates at City Hall. Municipal politics, the former federal MP told the Board of Trade, “is our last, best hope to make government work for people without the burden of party politics.”

Now that would be nice.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

A mayor we can laugh with… Hey, it’s a start

The good news — for all concerned — is that Mike Savage is not Brad Pitt.

The better news is that he isn’t Bruce Banman either.

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Banman is the beleaguered mayor of Abbotsford, the currently virally — not to forget bacterially — in-the-news B.C. community where city officials recently scattered chicken manure around a homeless encampment to convince campers to de-camp. Banman has been apologizing ever since.

The even better news is that Savage also isn’t — heavens forefend — Rob Ford, the buffoonish, tragicomic mayor of Toronto.

The ongoing, never-ending Niagara-Falls-like spillover after Ford’s carefully parsed non-response to that seen-but-not-yet-acquired video of him allegedly smoking crack cocaine — the still from the video that appears to show the mayor hanging with a young man who was later murdered in a house that turns out to have been the site of a recent armed home invasion; the published allegations Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, closest confidant and fellow Toronto city councilor, was once a major hash dealer; the mayor’s many and various senior aides, all fired or resigned, at least one after urging his boss to go into rehab; the mayor’s own sweaty, what-me-worry smile before turning and running from the cameras — has conspired to make Toronto the favourite city of stand-up comedians everywhere.

Compare Mayor Ford’s non-video video with our own Mike Savage’s charming I-am-not-Brad-Pitt-but-people-confuse-us YouTube star turn last week. “Brad Pitt starred in Oceans 11,” Savage deadpans. “I used to play in the ocean when I was 11.” “I know what you’re thinking,” he notes as the camera follows him. “But the camera adds 10 pounds — and we’re using a lot of cameras.”

The video is part of a campaign to generate votes for Halifax in a paint company promotion in which the winners among 100 competing communities from across North America earn a modest mainstreet makeover.

A fun video is no substitute for political leadership or vision, of course. And the jury is still out on whether Savage will ever show those.

But… after years of enduring a mayor whose exploits — can you say concertgate, the occupy eviction, the infamous story of his friend’s estate? — were cringe-worthy, it’s comforting to finally at least have a mayor we can laugh with.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

How does Emera afford to put its name on our skating oval?

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It doesn't You do. One way or the other...

Solidarity Halifax’s quixotic campaign to rename the Commons skating oval isn’t likely to find many takers among cash-starved city councilors, but it should give the rest of us pause.

How is it that Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, the private utility that keeps applying to jack up our electricity rates, not only has enough spare cash to reward its million-dollar-a-year executives with top-up performance bonuses—in no small measure for convincing regulators to jack up our electricity rates to keep shareholder returns high—but also still has sufficient leftover scraps to contribute “generously” to public recreation complexes in exchange for rights to name those mostly-publicly-financed facilities after itself?

In 2011, Halifax city council traded Emera naming rights to the new Commons skating oval for the next 10 years for $500,000.

Think about it. The rink cost taxpayers $5.7 million to build, plus another $400,000 a year to maintain. But for $50,000 a year, Emera gets to name the venue after itself, thereby claiming credit for its existence.

Or Consider Queen’s Place Emera Centre in Liverpool. For another $500,000, the company got to slap its corporate face on the front of a community recreation complex that cost federal taxpayers $7 million, provincial taxpayers $5 million and local governments $4 million in capital reserves.

Queen’s Place Emera Centre?

And then there’s the space formerly known as the Northside Community Civic Centre in North Sydney. For a measly $350,000, Emera got to name that otherwise $22-million publicly-funded facility Emera Centre Northside.

One can’t blame financially strapped communities for prostrating themselves before the chintzy gods of corporate givers. But one can ask why corporations, especially regulated monopoly profit centres, have so much cash on hand they can dangle it, like lollipops, for branding purposes.

Could it be because corporations no longer pay their fair share of taxes, which gives these corporate “donors” inordinate power over what should be community funding—and naming—recreation, arts and culture decisions.

Though it won’t change reality, you can at least express your unhappiness by voting for a new, improved non-corporate name for our oval from a short list at solidarityhalifax.ca. Voting concludes Mar. 7. 

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

Shocked and appalled stocking stuffer

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With the pre-holiday spate of comment-worthy local news and the upcoming holiday absence of venue to vent my inevitable shocked-and-appalled-at-it-all spleen, today’s column will be an assorted stocking stuffer.

No charges in Home for Coloured Children investigation: I’m less shocked than I’d like. But winning convictions when allegations date back decades, involve children and include little documentary evidence is difficult, perhaps impossible.

That makes the ongoing class action suit—where the burdens of proof are different—even more significant for the victims, and a full public inquiry vital for all of us.

Who was responsible for creating the conditions that allowed such abuse to continue unchecked? What role did racism play in the lack of official oversight or interest when children came forward with allegations? What can we learn?

It’s time the provincial government did the right thing.

Swastikas, anti-Semitism and the Atlantic Jewish Council: A few protesters at a recent anti-war rally outside the Halifax International Security Forum carried posters with images of swastikas, equating Israeli attacks on Gaza with Hitler’s Nazis.

Atlantic Jewish Council Executive Director Jon Goldberg was right to condemn the comparison as anti-Semitism. “And any attempt to hold Jews collectively responsible for political actions of the state of Israel,” he added, “is anti-Semitism.”

Would that groups like the AJC were equally quick to condemn North American Jewish groups’ often knee-jerk invocations of anti-Semitism when anyone criticizes Israel for its attacks on Palestinians.

Province buys Bowater lands: The Dexter government has completed a complex deal to purchase 550,000 acres of former Bowater Mersey assets for $1, assume employee pension liabilities, resell a Bowater biomass power plant and transform the mill into an innovative clean energy centre.

It appears to be a smart long-term investment protecting our forests, providing employment and creating rural development opportunities. Win, win, win. Finally.

Savage speaks: Speaking last week to the Chamber of Commerce, new Mayor Mike Savage talked about everything from the role of universities in our economy to revitalizing downtown Halifax with an iconic legacy project to replace the Cogswell Street Interchange white elephant.

“This is not a building we’re talking about,” he declared, “this is a community. This is huge.”

Vision from a Halifax mayor?

Wow. No wonder Savage got a standing O.

Happy holidays to all.

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Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber

The auditor general, the convention centre and the premier

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One can understand Premier Darrell Dexter’s aggressive/defensive, head-in-the-convention-centre response to last week’s auditor general’s report.

That report—which damned the shoddiness of the business case Trade Centre Ltd. concocted to justify a new convention centre—called on the government to launch an independent review of TCL’s numbers.

Dexter was having none of it. TCL based its conclusions, he told reporters, on eight different studies “that came about independent of the Trade Centre by respected market analysis companies, so I have no reason to disbelieve those projections.”

Would the premier perhaps be referring to the independent report prepared by the executive director of Convention Centres of Canada, a convention industry-promoting agency, which—surprise—thought a new convention centre a spiffy idea? Or maybe he was thinking about that in-depth assessment prepared—in another respected consultant’s own words—“without the benefit of any primary research”?

In his analysis of TCL’s lack of analysis, Auditor General Jacques LaPointe points out “industry realities were ignored, including the over-supply of convention centre spaces in Canada, new competitors and the stagnant convention market.” TCL’s upbeat forecasts, he told reporters, “were not really consistent with much of anything.”

LaPointe’s conclusions are no shock.

In June 2010, four months before Dexter announced his government would contribute one-third of the $163 million public funds needed to build the centre, a citizen’s group called Coalition to Save the View—after studying four consultants’ conclusions—said almost exactly the same thing. So has almost anyone else who has looked at TCL’s self-serving numbers.

The problem now is that it’s too late.

Dexter has tethered a significant strand in his own re-election rope to what he calls “one of the largest building projects to take place in our city’s history.” More importantly, there’s a developer whose $500-million project hinges on a new convention centre. He’s signed contracts, broken ground…

Cancelling the project now—no matter what a truly independent analysis might ultimately conclude—would invite law suits and even more uncertainty about the future of downtown.

So the response is bluster. We already have eight studies, the premier says. Why would we want a ninth?

Instead, we will—eventually—get reality. By then it will really be too late.

Perhaps, in 20 or 30 year, we will call for proposals for what to do with the convention centre.

Shades of the Cogswell Street Interchange, yet another monument to the triumph of grand dreams over honest analysis.

 
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Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber

Nice guy finishes first. Now what?

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The race for HRM mayor really began on February 6, 2012, when former Liberal MP Mike Savage—surrounded by a fawning, hopeful who’s who of 300 of the city’s most influential business and political makers and breakers—declared he would challenge long-past-his-best-before-date incumbent Peter Kelly.The campaign effectively ended two-and-a-half weeks later when Kelly—already mired in myriad self-made political scandals and suddenly facing personal allegations about his handling of a friend’s estate—reluctantly announced he would not reoffer.

For Mike Savage, the challenge suddenly became how to say nothing—but say it pleasingly blandly—for seven months: nothing to raise questions among voters, nothing to provide an opening for his opponents to attack, nothing to force him to act one way or another once this past weekend’s pro forma ballot-counting exercise was history.

It was a classic front-runner’s campaign. And Savage executed it perfectly.

Now the hard part begins.

Savage’s first—and most crucial—task will be to convince 16 independently elected, beholden-to-no-single-agenda, motley mix of urban and rural councilors to work together for the common good. Given that 13 of the 16 are holdovers from the last fractious, sorry lot, it will not be easy.

The good news is that getting along has been Mike Savage’s strong suit. Unlike his late father John—the progressive and principled but sometimes bull-headed former mayor and premier—Mike Savage is personable, easygoing, a man more naturally inclined to traditional brokerage politics than to the ideological, confrontational style currently in vogue in North America.

One can imagine—hope—Savage will even find ways to harness the expertise and enthusiasm of his main mayoralty rivals, Tom Martin and Fred Connors, in his new administration. We—and he—would be well served.

But Mike Savage’s litmus test will come when he is finally forced to show himself on specific issues—on United Gulf’s proposal for a views-busting 48-storey twin-tower downtown highrise, on the court battle over the former St. Partick’s-Alexandra school property…

While it is good Savage did not inherit his father’s single-minded rightness about all things, we can only hope John Savage’s progressive and principled genes made it through to this generation.

We shall see. 

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Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber

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