It's not the size of the council, it's the quality of the councilors

The problem with the Utilities Review Board’s solution to the problem of municipal council is that its solution won’t solve the problem.

The URB decided the 23 current Halifax Regional Municipality councilors should morph into 16 after the 2012 election.

Why 16? The URB “attributes significant weight to the polling results, which express the public’s overwhelming desire to have a much smaller council.”

Huh? And this “overwhelming desire” was based on what thoughtful assessment of how many elected officials are actually required to run our sprawling urban-rural agglomeration of cities, towns, villages, farmland, rock and lake, sea and brush?

Our current knee-jerk, less-is-better fixation assumes our elected representatives don’t do much. Hence the overwhelming desire.


Having covered municipal council before amalgamation, cell phones and Frank complicated the job, my sense is that even the laziest councilor works harder than most of us. How’d you like to be called in the middle of the night because somebody else’s neighbours were having a party? Or a constituent got a ticket for parking outside their house in a snow storm? Or…

While 16 may indeed be the right number of councilors, anyone who thinks a smaller council will be less dysfunctional is… dysfunctional if not delusional.

Our “council problem” is not numbers, but quality.

How do we ensure that more, better candidates seek public office?

Perhaps it’s time for the city—or non-partisan group—to set up a wannabe-city-councilors’ school. Interested in serving your city? Come out and learn how your city works. Get briefed on issues and options.

Maybe it’s time our political parties became more involved in municipal politics—not necessarily to run slates of candidates but to encourage their own young best and brightest to test themselves municipally before running for the big(ger) show. Current local MLAs Howard Epstein and Andrew Younger, for example are both municipal council grads.

And it’s past time to begin encouraging candidates we think will be better than the incumbent—Mike Savage? Howard Epstein?—to consider running for mayor. And then ask them what they’d do if we elected them.

In the end the problem with our council is not size, or “them.” It’s us.


  1. The conflation of not liking, not agreeing, or not appreciating the deportment of a councillor, and the size of council is more than a logic error, its a dangerous attack on democracy itself.

    There seems to be a movement to reduce the power and accountability of democratic bodies everywhere, using whatever “logic” can be brought to bear.

    Having municipal councillors represent numbers of people exceeding what MLA’s and MP’s have in their constituency is ludicrous and considering who is pushing this, like the polling firm that ran a “poll” to prove its principle officers demand for a reduction is outrageous.

    We are already having difficulty getting our visions across to council, having even fewer councillors who must raise even more money, becoming even more beholden to funders, is anti-democratic.

    The question is not whether this UaRB ruling should be overturned, it must, but whether the make-up of the UaRB is representative and accountable, and whether the rules governing its deliberations and decisions needs to brought to heel.


  2. Exactly right; the foremost problem is dysfunctionality which numbers – increasing the number of councilors or decreasing them – doesn’t address directly. And making HRM Council more effective involves getting better candidates to run, and also more and smarter engagement on the part of the electorate. Reducing the number of councilors will, of course, save some money. And it may make the playing field more competitive (i.e., so less deadwood makes it onto council) but what we need are councilors of vision, imagination, and intellect who can take up the reigns of power, tackle the substantive issues that need addressing, and not allow city hall to endlessly vacillate.

    We are starting to have a long history of issues that receive endless procrastination (Cogswell Interchange anyone?), are decided on the basis of hucksterism and poor economic (Convention Centre anyone?), or use up endless time on inconsequential issues (chicken and cat bylaws anyone?). Also, provisions of many good initiatives that do get addressed (say, Halifax By Design) then get routinely ignored.

    Know anyone really clever, committed, and energetic? Get them to run in 2012. And just as important, help them to win by getting out there, talking to friends and neighbours, and supporting their courage and initiative!


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