Big Developers, Big Money, Big Problems for Halifax
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Developers are in the business of building. Cities are in the business of being. There's a big tension between the two filled with money, power, influence, and the darker side of life.
When news was revealed after the last municipal election that huge portions of the mayor and council's campaign funding came from property developers the new municipal government was quick to do something about it. They said clearly... it wasn't their responsibility and the municipality, as a 'child' of the province, was powerless to make changes on campaign finance reform. With pretty good political sensibilities, timing and speed the provincial Liberal government picked up on that responsibility. Zack Churchill introduced a bill in April 2016 and by the end of May the city had all the power it needed to fix campaign financing before the next municipal election coming up this October. Bill 154 explicitly gave council the power needed to limit developer donations. So with the election now weeks away you'd likely be wondering what changes they made... They did nothing. They did nothing. Here's why it matters. And here's how you as a citizen can now do something about it. Here's how the system works now: There are no limits. None. On who can donate and few on how much. Contrasting to federal, provincial and any reasonable democratic government you can point to, municipal campaign financing is a freak show of conflicted interest, bold faced denial and what, in a less polite community, would be called rampant corruption. The full scope of the problem has been well known for years but it was pressed home hard AFTER the 2012 election when it was revealed (after the fact) that the development community got together and actively bought themselves a very nice and by all accounts competent mayor. The media described Mr. Savage's $350k campaign cash as "unprecedented". CBC detailed the amounts and in an investigative foray they also talked to outside experts.
"Let's face it — developers are the people who have the most interest in what municipal councillors are going to decide," said Andrew Sancton, an author and political science professor at the University of Western Ontario. "They have high stakes in the game and they want to support people who favour their position."
Things in Halifax have not been the same since.
Of course the mayor and council's response was predictable. Lots of huffing and puffing about not being able to be bought. And the mayor said he likely, probably wouldn't do that again. Even the councilors like Waye Mason who didn't take the developer cash equivocated, probably not wanting to get off on a bad foot with their new colleagues (or developers) saying well, really who's to say where money really comes from anyway even if there were limits or reforms. I'm not doing their argument justice but it's weak. Make a list of the people who would give you $1,000 today Imagine the election is coming up and you've decided to run for council. Make a list of the people you know who would give you $1,000. Not loan. Not to help you out because your child is being held for ransom. It's not to support a mandate or cause - municipal politics is reaction not action. Not because you're going to work for them (because remember that's illegal). Not in return for a tax deduction (municipal government campaign deductions are NOT tax deductible). They're just blasting you out some cash just because you would like the best job you ever had handed to you. Here, for example, is the mayor's job description... Section 15 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA) reads: The mayor or warden may (a) monitor the administration and government of the municipality; and (b) communicate such information and recommend such measures to the council as will improve the finances, administration and government of the municipality. Now, when I first saw this I thought it was like a summary. A brief. It’s not. That’s the whole thing. Well not quite. The Municipal Government Act (MGA) is the Act of the Provincial Government that empowers mayors to work in Nova Scotia. Our MGA was substantially reformed in 1996 to be effectively an amalgamation-making machine. It makes law that all regional municipalities will hire a CAO to actually and independently do the work and be responsible. It goes on to say that: “15 (1) The mayor or warden shall preside at all meetings of the council. (2) During the temporary absence of the mayor or warden, the deputy mayor or deputy warden shall preside and, if neither is present, the council may appoint a person to preside from among the council members present.” So... sidebar here... the Mayor, the most powerful job in the city, does not have the word "responsibility" in their job description and the mayor does not have a single person working or reporting to them. The mayor writes no cheques, determines no budgets, nor decides who gets hired or fired. In government speak they'd say the mayor has "soft power" of visioning, and influence. In reality the mayor's position is more mischievous than powerful. And obviously it's the kind of mischief that developers like. Now, back to your list. Put aside your list of people who would give you $1,000 just because you're awesome, which I would think is very short if you're an honest person, and imagine a second list... this one is random people you don't know who write you cheques for $1,000. There's not that many on this list either. A couple dozen. They all know each other. They've also written cheques to your friends and in some cases competitors. They are all in the same clique. We call them property developers though in the old days they were called land speculators. Now with the two lists in front of you what would you think of yourself? What would you think of them? How would this all make you feel. No you can't be bought for five grand. But you are now part of something much larger than yourself and it's bad. If you don't know what to make of it. If you are simply naive or actually morally bankrupt, don't worry. There's been a study to figure it all out. Facing similar issues 13 municipalities in Ontario are making changes as outlined in The Star Here's the result - bottom line... "Developer contributions made to the election campaigns of municipal candidates directly influence the outcomes of local elections" Citing the troubling relationship between developer donations and election outcomes, the report, called "If it's broke fix it!", went on to state that it potentially distorts what democratic politics should be about. Interestingly, since Halifax is often on about being like a 'big' city, Toronto made these changes long ago to limit, reasonably, who influenced election outcomes to... you know... citizens, in particular ones who lived in the ridings where they were donating. For another approach to this we can look at Montreal's municipal landscape. The french have a different word for everything. They use words like fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust, conflict of interest... In Montreal they started a crime commission to look into the relationships between elected officials and developers, and now an office of the Inspector-General has been created to bring some accountability to the process. But that's all nearly 800km away. Almost an hour and half by air. That's not Halifax. And yet, with the election now weeks away our government did nothing. They had four years. They did nothing. They had fouryears since the province fixed the loophole. And they did nothing. It would take four hours to get it all sorted. And they did nothing. Well, that's not fair. They did something. They've asked for another staff report and they've found every ridiculous trick of the tail imaginable to muddle the issue.
So here... you fix it. This is what you can do as a citizen: 1/ Do not vote for a councilor or mayor who has ever taken a developer donation. 2/ If you ask and they can't clearly say they have not taken developer money, then don't vote for them. 3/ Ask the candidate you do vote for to enact campaign finance reforms that limit donated amounts to $100. If Bernie Sanders can mount a presidential bid on donations at that level our council can too. 4/ Ask that donations be limited to only people (humans not corporations or other entities) residing in the voting district and entitled to vote. 5/ Ask that the position of Mayor, a supposedly ceremonial position, be abolished and in its place councilors take turns acting as Mayor chairing meetings, riding in parades, cutting ribbons and other ceremonial duties. This is how it works in places like Palo Alto California, and I've heard some pretty smart folks live down there. 6/ Ask for term limits. We want citizen engagement, not career amateurs milking the best job they'll ever have. Two terms is good enough for the President of the United States, surely we can keep the complexity of our snowplowing and parking ticketing in hand even if we limit terms to two elections for mayor and council. 7/ Limit campaign spending. Ask government to launch a standardized campaigning web site and social media tool set for all candidates where they can be equally seen and heard and express their plans and positions. It's silly in the digital age to be putting signs all over town and buying old timey radio ads or whatever the heck the mayor did with that $350k... I genuinely don't know and it's a bit of a mystery - it seems like he just took a 'salary' (whatever that would be called in Montreal). We don't need to decide council positions in Halifax based on who has the most money. 8/ For more ideas about how to choose a candidate refer back to this... Election 101.
9/ Most of all, get informed about an issue that you're not directly involved in, form an opinion, and find the courage to speak out. It doesn't matter which issue. It's not that they're all the same, it's that they all are cut from the same cloth. Follow any thread and it reveals the nature of the fabric. Once you're in on one issue you'll quickly see the pattern of how things work. It's hard to learn about politics when the only time you talk to government is when you're angry or self interested and something is changing. You're not at your best. And you don't stand a chance. Our political system hears all day long from people who are self-interested and angry. They tune them out. They know how to deal with them. How to dismiss them. How to wait them out and make them look like fools. They run them around. They refer them. They get them reports. They charge them fees. They issue rulings. They tell them to call 800 lines. And they say they'll get back to them... The political system so seldom hears from disinterested folks, one person speaking out is like an army of super heroes. Both elected and bureaucratic functionaries are scared to death of disinterested citizens speaking out. And with municipal engagement often in the single digits a couple dozen active citizens can change almost anything. 10/ Be beautiful and vote. Developer driven council is using overblown population figures (counting half of Nova Scotia as living in "the city); ridiculous talk of 'growth' when prosperity is clearly on the decline for most households; and quick fix, easy way solutions that further deplete limited natural resources, scarce public assets and limited capital; to justify unnecessary growth in all directions that does nothing but aggregate wealth into the hands of a few, build a dangerous commercial and residential market bubble, and further diminish our ability to support the aging infrastructure we're running down. Today those calling loudest for change are the same old corporate cronies using buzzwords to get more of the same, repeated since the sixties. Change is coming in demographics, in technology, and in the environment. We need to stop what we're doing and begin again with new end goals in mind to fit ourselves to our actual future. As the York Region editorials put it, municipal government is the level that most impacts our daily lives. We need to be sure it's the citizens, and not just the wealthy developer companies and their concordant bodies, who are in control. Stopping developer donations, as has been done in Toronto , won't fix election apathy — demonstrated via the combination of low voter turnout and virtually non-existent campaign contributions from average citizens — but it’s a necessary measure for our democracy.