Fast & Curious: Council Edition

Editor’s Note: I’m using this week’s Fast & Curious to cover some items from Tuesday’s CBRM council meeting. Your regular, more random, Fast & Curious will return next week.


All in the Family

Tuesday’s CBRM council meeting began with Mayor Amanda McDougall explaining that council had just met in camera to “accept a recommendation by staff to work within policy and allow for a hiring process to take place” to find a replacement for Police Chief Peter McIsaac who is resigning after an extended sick leave (he’s been off since July 2019).

Marie Walsh, Marlene Usher, Robert Walsh

CBRM CAO Marie Walsh, Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher, Acting Police Chief Robert Walsh.

Why that discussion was held in camera is a puzzle. What is “confidential” about the resignation of the municipality’s chief of police? Why would the process by which his replacement is chosen be discussed in secret? It’s not like choosing the new Dalai Lama (I mean, I assume it’s not like choosing the new Dalai Lama but maybe a party of staff-sergeants is out searching the town for the latest incarnation of the chief even as we speak).

But seriously, this municipality just seems to default to secrecy.

And on a (literally) related matter, CAO Marie Walsh recused herself from the hiring process because she’s related to Acting Chief Robert Walsh, who is clearly going to seek the top job. If the CAO saw this as a conflict in the hiring process, what happens if Robert Walsh becomes chief? Does this conflict simply vanish or do we just pretend it isn’t there, as we’ve been doing with Marlene Usher, the Port CEO who is the CAO’s sister?

Separate from any analysis of their various capabilities, isn’t it a little weird that a municipality with a population of almost 100,000 has three related people in such senior positions?


Equalization Fairness

Father Albert Maroun and Charles Sampson and Russ Green of Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness (NSEF) presented to council on Tuesday.

The heart of their argument is that the federal government now provides over $2 billion in equalization to the Province of Nova Scotia each year while the CBRM has had its fiscal capacity grant (basically the provincial government’s version of equalization) frozen at $15 million for years now. In fact, CBRM now sends more to the province ($20 million) in the form of mandatory payments for public housing, corrections, education and property valuation services than it receives in the form of a grant.

Mayor Amanda McDougall and Fr. Albert Maroun.

Mayor Amanda McDougall and Fr. Albert Maroun.

As I’ve written elsewhere of Maroun’s group:

The NSEF gets a lot of grief for supposedly confusing federal Equalization with Nova Scotia’s provincial equalization program, but I think they are simply arguing that the principle of equalization — that Canadians should receive reasonably equal services at reasonably equal rates of taxation — should apply to municipalities as well as to provinces. Just as Alberta has an easier job raising money than Nova Scotia, so Halifax has an easier job than the CBRM.

Council gave the group a sympathetic hearing on Tuesday, asking for clarification on some points, wondering what the situation is like in other “have not” provinces and, in the case of Mayor McDougall, who gave up the chair briefly to join the discussion, asking if NSEF would support the municipality going to the province with a list of projects for which it needed funding.

(Green, who was fielding questions on behalf of NSEF, said they would.)

One exchange that struck me was between Green and District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger, who wanted to know where the money would come from, given the extra spending the province has had to undertake due to COVID.

That remark put me in mind of a January 2021 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in which economist David Macdonald found that Nova Scotia, like most Canadian provinces, has let the federal government do the heavy lifting on COVID spending:

In Nova Scotia, $8,500 a person is being spent on direct COVID-19 measures—94% of that spending is on the federal tab. Individual support amounts to the equivalent of $3,700 a person, almost all on the federal tab. As elsewhere, the federal support is from the CERB and its replacements. Businesses have the second highest support level, worth $3,000 a person, mostly through the CEWS and CEBA…

As with several other smaller provinces, Nova Scotia has not matched the federal transfer for municipal operating and transit budgets. The province is passing the federal funds to cities but not matching the federal dollars as required in the Safe Restart agreement.

(Macdonald later acknowledged that PEI’s spending was greater than his estimates; in his defense, his work was based on publicly available information of which PEI had provided very little.)

NSEF’s presentation was simply for information purposes (the kind of presentation that might, in future, be heard during a “Council-hosted Solutions Forum,” but I’m getting into the next agenda item.)


Fewer, Focused, Faster

As a wonk from way back, I was excited to see the ideas being tossed around for improving CBRM’s committee structures and meetings.

CBU Political Science Professor Tom Urbaniak has been leading the charge on the subject and on Tuesday, he presented a final memo for council’s consideration — a memo he titled “Fewer committees, more focus, faster pace.”

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall and Prof Tom Urbaniak

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall and Prof Tom Urbaniak (Screen capture from 23 February 2021 CBRM council meeting)

Fewer committees

Urbaniak is advising council to continue using a General Committee (GC) model and to “keep standing committees to a minimum.” Where standing committees do exist, he advises giving them “annual mandate letters from Council with specific requests for outputs.”

He suggests having the deputy mayor or another councilor chair general committee meetings, leaving the mayor free to “make motions and actively debate,” an idea Urbaniak credited to Hurricane Hazel MacCallion, the former mayor of Mississauga. (As long as we don’t import her ideas on appropriate land deals.) The mayor would continue to chair council meetings, as required by the Municipal Government Act.

Another item I appreciated: Urbaniak suggests that “council’s representatives on outside bodies should periodically report on their activities” to the GC. Imagine such a policy had been in place the last eight years — council might have heard regularly from its members on the interim port board. The rule might even have been stretched to include “mayors single-handedly spearheading files,” meaning Cecil Clarke would have had to report to council about his efforts on behalf of the container terminal project.

More focus

Urbaniak proposes three-hour agendas which could be extended “by simple motion” if necessary, or council could defer items to the next meeting. Two sessions in one day with “an extended gap” between them is also a possibility. The goal is to end the “marathon” sessions that were too regular a feature of the last regime.

Urbaniak suggests a “conceptual” separation of agendas — development vs oversight and good governance — either within a given meeting or between meetings. Both are “broad functions,” he said, that  require a “somewhat different mindset.”

I really liked this next notion (as did Deputy Mayor Earlene MacMullin) which would move presentations not related to specific agenda items to “facilitated, Council-hosted ‘Solutions Forums.'” Such sessions would be held periodically (Urbaniak suggested every two months) and the facilitator could provide “a short report” after each one. This put me in mind of the sessions held in support of our never-realized Municipal Charter, which were honestly interesting to watch.

Urbaniak also recommends creating a Standing Rule giving authority for the chair to “cut off a speaker (after one caution about redundancy) or to ask for a wrap-up of a redundant intervention.”

I’m going to quote the next recommendation at length:

After Council has determined its priorities for the CBRM (strategic plan), use targeted, time-limited citizens’ task forces or special advisors (“committee of one”) to flesh out the key points and come back to Council with specific recommendations for what CBRM should do next — ask what Council should request of (or refer to) agencies or community partners. Task forces would use citizen members. They would normally be in place for about three months and then disband. Minutes of each task force meeting would not be required (this would ease the burden on staff), but the public would have the right to observe task force meetings.

I watched some of the January workshop Urbaniak held for council and his thoughts on involving citizens and tapping into the resource they represent were really interesting — and, as he said, make sense in a community faced with budget and staffing constraints.

Urbaniak added a note here to the effect that with “pandemic-recovery federal/provincial infrastructure funding envelopes starting to appear,” the CBRM has to look sharp and identify its priority areas. (We’ve already missed opportunities — if the municipality had had any plan for affordable housing in the works, it could have applied for money last fall under the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative.)

Faster pace

Urbaniak says a normal rhythm would be “at least one, and sometimes two” council meetings per month and two general committee meetings (none of which should be longer than three hours).

At least one council meeting each month should be in the evening while GC meetings would normally be held in daytime. Should a scheduled meeting prove unnecessary due to a “very light agenda,” it could be canceled and the items deferred to the next meeting.

Urbaniak advises the use of a “consent agenda” which would contain “motions already discussed and approved by GC…for final ratification through one omnibus motion.” (My only concern: I hope this wouldn’t include items discussed in camera.) If a councilor felt an item in the omnibus motion required further discussion, they could move to have it added to the agenda separately.

Training for committee and task force chairs is also recommended and Urbaniak told council the CBU Tompkins Institute, of which he is director, can help with this (pro bono).

Finally, Urbaniak recommends revisiting the committee and meeting structures in one year’s time with a follow-up workshop.