Promising promises on open government, but…


“People haven’t turned away from public affairs,” Mike Savage rightly told reporters recently as he unveiled the first official plank in his platform to become mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality. “They’ve been turned away by secrecy, by lack of true accountability, by political self-interest and by lip service to real, honest and open public discourse.”

Given last fall’s badly-botched-but-still-too-sensitive-to-talk-about-publicly Occupy arrests, last spring’s shrouded-in-secrecy, city-charter-violating concerts funding scandal and way too many private council gatherings to discuss public business, it’s no surprise Savage chose “Open Government” as his first substantive policy pronouncement.

Or that Savage’s chief rival, Tom Martin, tackled the same concern in his own first major statement, “Making City Hall Work.”

Both men offer promising, often similar—but equally problematic—promises.

They want community councils to play a more active role in municipal governance, in part to make local government more local, transparent and accountable, and in part to free up time so council can debate substantive city-wide issues.

Savage wants a new campaign finance law with donation and spending limits—and public disclosure—so municipal candidates have to operate under rules similar to those covering federal and provincial politicians. He even suggests the possibility of setting up a municipal lobbyists’ registry.

Martin wants to create a Sunshine Ordinance overseen by “diverse members of the HRM community, none of whom may already be an elected official or an employee of the HRM” to enforce tough new laws ensuring that the “right of access supersedes any other policy interest government officials may use to prevent public access to information.”

Savage pledges an annual Mayor’s Progress Report to citizens; Martin promises to set aside four hours a week during which “I will make myself directly available to the public at City Hall to come and discuss any relevant local issue.”

The problem is that—with the exception of those last, personal pledges—none of what they propose can happen without the support of a disparate, individually-elected council and/or the provincial government.

So how do we make sure the mayor we elect can do what we want him to do?

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