CBRM Council: Pushing Boundaries

It’s that time again — district boundary review season! According to section 369 of the Municipal Government Act:

(1) In the year 1999, and in the years 2006 and every eighth year thereafter the council shall conduct a study of the number and boundaries of polling districts in the municipality, their fairness and reasonableness and the number of councillors.

(2) After the study is completed, and before the end of the year in which the study was conducted, the council shall apply to the Board to confirm or to alter the number and boundaries of polling districts and the number of councillors

During a special meeting of council on Tuesday, attended by everyone except District 12 Councilor Lorne Green who had a prior commitment, CBRM’s director of planning and development, Michael Ruus, explained that the Utility and Review Board (UARB) has informed the CBRM it must apply to the board in 2022 to “confirm or to alter the number and boundaries of polling districts and number of councillors.”

CBRM Council Zoom 25 Jan 2022

In a section of his presentation to council labeled, “Council Policy Considerations,” Ruus noted that the CBRM Viability Study, conducted by Grant Thornton in 2019, had recommended council “explore the benefits and drawbacks of transitioning to a municipal structure consisting of three districts” with an eye to “improving larger regional objectives and mentalities.”

Ruus writes:

The boundary review process will need to explore alternative organizational structures and survey residents, seeking feedback on such a change.

He further notes that Section 10 of the MGA limits the number of councilors per district to one for regional municipalities, so to avoid the possibility of being ruled by a mayor and a Cape Breton Regional Municipality Triumvirate, CBRM would need to “work with the provincial government to consider an amendment to the MGA supporting  the recommendation.”

And as luck would have it, the “review of the MGA” we’ve been hearing about since at least 2018, when we were discussing a CBRM Charter, is apparently actually to be conducted in the next two years, which would make this a good time to ask for changes.

What Ruus wanted Monday was direction from council on four questions:

Ruus Questions re: CBRM boundary review

What he got was:

  • A motion instructing staff to produce an Issue Paper on the structure of an ad-hoc Boundary Review Committee (BRC)
  • A motion asking staff to begin conversations with the public and the province on the the three-district option proposed in the Viability Study as a “resource” for the committee.


Downsizing like it’s 1999

It’s worth remembering that at the time of amalgamation, the CBRM had a mayor and a whopping 21 councilors, meaning it could have formed two in-house soccer teams:


Source: Cape Breton Post (Click to enlarge)


The Boundary Review Committee formed in 1998 included then-Mayor David Muise, nine councilors and three citizens. During its 7 January 1999 meeting, Municipal Clerk Bernie White was called upon to explain why the review was taking place. He cited the MGA but he also cited a plebiscite held during the October 1997 election in which 70% of voters favored council downsizing.

Municipal Planner Doug Foster presented a number of possible downsizing scenarios one of which, interestingly enough, was dividing the municipality into three districts — Northside, Central and Glace Bay — and electing four councilors at large from the Northside and five each from the Central and Glace Bay districts.

Ultimately, after considering this and a number of other options, the CBRM council applied to the UARB to reduce the number of polling districts and councilors from 21 to 16. But during the board hearing, which took place over two days in October 1999, the UARB also heard evidence “supporting reductions to 7, 8, 9 , 10, 12 and 15 as well as maintaining the status quo.” This included a presentation by Mayor Muise calling for a council on 8 to 10 members. (He was apparently basing this on an organizational report from KPMG which, although not asked to weigh in on council size, had done so. Council had considered the KPMG recommendation to reduce council to 8 to 10 members and rejected it.)

In the end, the UARB approved the application to reduce the council from 21 to 16 and adjust the boundaries accordingly, saying the CBRM had established a committee, the committee had done its work (including consulting the public) and council, after a few tweaks, had accepted the committee’s recommendations.

I noted this comment about the CBRM, though, that I think remains relevant to today’s discussions. The UARB said the CBRM’s boundary review committee had difficulty finding “information for comparison” because Nova Scotia’s regional municipalities are:

…a different entity from the amalgamations which have taken place in other parts of Canada.  While originally billed as “super cities,” they are in fact a variation of the rural municipalities that exist in Nova Scotia but with a larger urban component.  CBRM has recognized this and considers itself “a community of communities.”  In developing the proposed polling districts, an attempt was made not to break up any of the 104 communities which have been identified.



In the fall of 2005, CBRM struck another BRC, this one consisting of Mayor John Morgan and six councilors, one of whom, Vince Hall, was elected chair.

Ultimately, the committee would recommend the CBRM maintain the status quo of 16 councilors, with some changes to district boundaries. But the UARB found the process it followed in coming to this conclusion was “flawed,” particularly as it pertained to public consultation. I’ve written about this boundary review in some detail before, so I’m just going to quote myself:

In the end, 38 of the CBRM’s 105,000 residents submitted opinions and 93 attended the public meetings. But those meetings sound like corkers. Here’s Councilor Wes Stubbert being questioned about them during the UARB hearings:

Q. Okay.  So you would describe it more so that the Councillor [Hall] was debating strongly as opposed to losing his temper?

A. I would say it was certainly strong public debate and I think that’s very healthy.

Q. Okay.  All right then.  Strong public debate between the chair of this committee and the members of the public that were appearing before it.

Professor [Tom] Urbaniak, in his written submission, characterized the public meetings this way:

“Debacle” is not too strong a word to describe the process.  The Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s deliberations and consultations on council size and district boundaries were conducted in an atmosphere of heightened conflict and during a period of general malaise on regional council.

As a result, the debate was neither reflective nor enlightened.  The research was very limited.  CBRM’s Boundary Review Committee was perceived as neither objective nor open-minded.

Mayor Morgan was even blunter, telling the board:

[T]here were specific discussions I recall as well between individuals, Councillor Hall for one, wherein they said we have to have meetings, we have to have consultations, we’ll have our consultations and we’ll make the recommendation to maintain the status quo.  The fix was in.  I mean, it was a charade in every sense of the word.

In its decision, the UARB stated that:

…a municipality having the size and sophistication of CBRM should have conducted a more thorough study before any public consultation…

And despite Councilor Hall’s insistence on the “excellence” of the process, the board said that:

Rather than embrace the opportunity to canvas these issues fully, the BRC, under the helm of Councillor Hall, essentially ignored and, in some cases, actively derided those who offered alternative views about the role of Council.

The board decided there wasn’t enough time for a do-over before the 2008 elections and so it ordered the CBRM to complete a boundary review prior to the 2012 municipal elections. In the meantime,  council size was to remain unchanged although the board accepted the CBRM’s proposed boundary changes.



In the spring of 2009, CBRM council struck yet another BRC, this one consisting of Mayor Morgan and all 16 councilors.

Again, I’ve written about this review before so I will quote myself:

[I]n the fall of 2009, Council awarded the consultancy Stantec a $200,000 contract to look into the questions of council size and boundaries.

Presenting to the Boundary Review Committee in April 2010, Stantec’s John Heseltine proposed a two-phase plan for the review. In Phase 1,  his firm would canvas public opinion to “obtain statistically valid public input on expectations of Council service and the preferred number of Councillors.” Having determined the number of councilors, Heseltine would then focus, in Phase 2, on working with the CBRM to draw appropriate electoral division boundaries. A report on the first phase was “expected to be available towards the end of June.”

In fact, the report was ready in time for the 15 June 2010 council meeting. Reporting on the vote in the Post on 17 June 2010, Chris Shannon noted that Stantec’s telephone survey collected 800 responses and the two focus-groups were “poorly attended.” (As in, five people went to them.) But Heseltine’s phone survey had revealed that 304 respondents (40.4%) preferred a council with 16 or more members while 448 respondents (59.6%) preferred a smaller council. Heseltine’s recommendation (based on public opinion and a number of other factors) was to reduce council from 16 to 12 members.

Councilor George MacDonald, seconded by Councilor Wes Stubbert, moved to accept Heselstine’s recommendation.

The motion was defeated 11-6.

Then Councilor Gordon MacLeod, seconded by Councilor Stubbert, moved to maintain 16 councilors. That motion carried.

In August 2010, Council adopted new electoral division boundaries that attempted to retain, as much as possible, the division between rural and urban districts.

In November 2010, the CBRM applied to the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board (UARB) to “confirm the present number of councillors and polling districts at 16, and to confirm the boundaries of the polling districts.”

But the UARB wasn’t having it:

The UARB denied the CBRM’s application to retain 16 councilors, noting that:

“‘…a strong majority of CBRM residents desire a reduced council size…Further, the polling results indicated a preference to eliminate several councillors, not just one or two.’

“Instead, the board concluded that “12 councillors and polling districts (plus the Mayor) is an appropriate council size for CBRM” and sent the municipality back to the drawing board to draft new polling district boundaries.”



In August 2014, the UARB sent the CBRM a letter notifying it of the need to review its boundaries, but said that given the mess of 2006 and the “extensive consultation process” undertaken in 2010-2011, it would “accept a simplified application with respect to the 2014 review.”

Basically, as Planning Director Malcolm Gillis wrote to council at the time, it didn’t need to consider the number of councilors, it could just concern itself with boundaries.

So council applied to retain 12 councilors and to “to realign the boundary between Districts 3 and 4, moving the communities of Point Edward and North West Arm into District 3.”

I should note here that whereas, previously, the “target variance for relative parity of voting power” (meaning the number of constituents per district) was plus or minus 25%, this changed in 2004 to plus or minus 10% (where it still stands today).

The UARB approved the CBRM’s application.


What’s happening now

Which brings us to the latest review.

Council has asked Ruus for an Issue Paper on how best to structure the 2022 BRC. There was no specific discussion of citizen participation but Deputy Mayor Earlene MacMullin asked that council participation be kept to a minimum.

Whether or not the municipality hires a consultant will apparently be left up to this committee to decide. (Ruus recommended one, saying his department is already stretched handling other projects, like an ongoing by-law review.)

Whether, if a consultant is hired, council pays any heed to their recommendations will be interesting to see, given the 2012 precedent.

I’m also curious to see how council engages with the public.

Basically, I’m interested to see if we’ve learned any lessons from our past mistakes.