Just trust us

on Mar 17 in Portfolio by

Originally published in Halifax Magazine, March 2011.
Read the original article at HalifaxMag.com

When the shotgun wedding that created the Halifax Regional Municipality took effect in 1996, there was a councillor who was a thorn in Mayor Walter Fitzgerald’s side. He had many issues with how council ran, one being the number of secret meetings. “They’re going on all the time,” he told The Daily News in a November 11, 1996 article.

Photo by Lisa Enman

Photo by Lisa Enman

This councillor was also against wasteful spending and famously brought his own worn chair to a council session in early 1997 as a protest against the $1,000 leather chairs council had purchased for its renovated digs. “I guess the comfort of my butt is not as important as the discomfort in the way I feel and have to be accountable,” he said in a February 12, 1997 article in The Daily News.
In 2000, the outsider ran for mayor. “I have tried to keep the government decision-making process in the hands and eyes of the people,” said the candidate in the June 29, 2000 issue of The Daily News. “It is my hope to bring back the grassroots approach to local government.”


That candidate was Peter Kelly.

“Kelly, if you were around at that time, got elected screaming about the secrecy,” says Sackville resident Bruce DeVenne. “That’s how he got to be mayor, by yelling about how secret council was run.” DeVenne’s name is common  in the opinion pages of local media. He’s often regarded as the one who torpedoed Halifax’s ambitions of hosting the Commonwealth Games. He also ran unsuccessfully for council in 2008.

“One of his platforms [Kelly] ran on was the secrecy that city council was being run on and if he was elected, the council doors would be open,” says DeVenne. “And he is worse than any of his predecessors.” He points to the secrecy surrounding the Commonwealth Games and the sewage treatment plant breakdown as prime examples.

In-camera meetings are another concern. These are meetings that take place in the council chamber where members of the public and media aren’t allowed access. Council has clear definitions regarding what is dealt with in-camera. Matters relating to land, legal and personnel are handled this way. In 2010, council met 29 times in secret. “Everything is done in there,” says DeVenne. “Nothing is done in the open.”

“I have tried to keep the government decision-making process in the hands and eyes of the people.” – Peter Kelly

Kelly says there are checks and balances ensuring things only go in-camera when necessary. He asserts that the definitions regarding land, legal and personnel are clear. Before a council meeting, city staff creates an agenda, including details of what should be dealt with in public and what should be dealt with in-camera. Then Kelly, the legal department, the chief administrative officer (CAO) and the CAO’s office look at the agenda, questioning where things go. Finally, council members review the agenda.

The results are imperfect. “I find we go in now for things that we should not go in for,” says Gloria McCluskey, councillor for Dartmouth Centre. She also has an idea why.

“This is because of the solicitors,” she says. “They’re the ones who say, ‘You better go in camera for this.’” She points to council’s recent in-camera discussions about the fact city employees who chose to volunteer for the Canada Winter Games were going to be paid for their volunteer work. “We didn’t name city staff members, so why should that be in camera?” says McCluskey.

Kelly disagrees. He says it was a personnel matter and was rightly dealt with in-camera. “There could be names [that] come up and I can’t say there were or there weren’t because I can’t disclose that conversation, but the fact is sometimes when you think they won’t come up, they come up,” he says.

This worst-case scenario approach drives the city’s thinking when it decides what is public information. Kelly says he understands why this approach frustrates people. “When we are told by lawyers that ‘You can’t do that because you’re going to put us at risk or you’re going to do this,’ It wears thin with us, so I’m sure it wears thin with the public,” he says. “But ultimately, [when] the first big lawsuit [happens], I know the question will be asked, ‘Why didn’t you take the advice of your lawyers?’ and I can see you guys asking questions very, very quickly.”

Kelly does agree there is one thing done in-camera that shouldn’t be. Currently, appointments to boards and commissions that citizens volunteer to sit on are in-camera. In October 2009, Councillor Linda Mosher made a motion to abandon the approach. “The funny thing is all the municipal units prior to amalgamation—the former city of Dartmouth, Halifax, town of Bedford—their appointments were all done publicly,” says Mosher, councillor for Purcell’s Cove-Armdale. “Something changed after amalgamation and I don’t know why.” Kelly supported the motion, as did McCluskey, but 12 Councillors opposed and defeated it.

McCluskey worries about the current process. “I think it gives this small committee an opportunity to put certain people on boards and committees,” she says. Mosher also worries for this same reason. “Quite often, it seems like it’s the same people that keep getting appointed,” she says. “I think there can be some bias presented and if it’s done in camera, then that’s not seen by the public.”

Another criticism of City Hall is the cost of things aren’t made public. One example is the newly opened BMO Centre (4-pad Arena), which is owned by the city. The arena has a price tag of $39 million but officials won’t release the ongoing operation costs (which are handled by Nustadia Recreation Inc., a private company).

In a later discussion, Kelly adds that he would like to make that public. “There are items in the contract that relate to Nustadia’s corporate competitiveness which would be beneficial to its competitors,” he writes in an email. “As for the anticipated operating budget for the BMO Centre, since it is part of our contract with Nustadia that was dealt with in-camera, my hands are tied. Let me say that, personally, I believe the proposed operating budget should [Kelly’s italics] be public information and that I would be prepared to approach the Municipal Clerk to look into the process to make it so.”

This raises a troubling question: Why are the interests of a private business automatically being put ahead of the interests of taxpayers?

The salary of community liaison co-ordinator Peter Duffy, erstwhile Chronicle Herald columnist, is another mystery expense for taxpayers. Kelly has refused to release the amount of the salary, arguing it is a personnel matter. He says it is between $42,000 and $70,000 per year and is on the lower end of the scale. “I don’t see your pay in public,” says Kelly. “I don’t see anybody else’s pay in public. I see mine in public. That’s fine because I am paid for by the taxpayers and I am a politician.”

But because he’s an employee of the city, the taxpayers pay Duffy’s salary. The Municipal Government Act also states disclosing personal information is not an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy if “the information is about the third party’s position, functions or remuneration as an officer, employee or member of a municipality.”

Despite the criticisms, Kelly firmly believes City Hall is a leader in openness, accountability and transparency. “Although we get chastised sometimes for not being transparent, when you compare us and the other levels of government, there’s no comparison,” he says. “We’re light years ahead of those aspects of transparency.”

Citizens can follow Council meetings in different formats. Meetings are broadcast on Eastlink and streamed online. “You can even dial in and listen to the council meetings over the phone,” he says. For people attending the meetings in person, hearing-assistance units were recently installed in the council chambers to allow for easier listening.

The city now has an auditor general (AG). The AG is an independent body that ensures council and HRM administrators are held accountable for how public funds are managed and spent. The AG decides what to examine and AG Larry Munroe says his office hasn’t been denied any information they have sought from the city (unlike his provincial counterpart).

“Openness, accountability, transparency: These principles have guided me through my life and my political career,” wrote Kelly in a June 20, 2009, opinion piece in the Chronicle Herald. After more than a decade as mayor, critics argue that Council doesn’t seem to possess any of the above characteristics.

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