Welcome to my official Blog

Welcome to my official Blog
Mayor of Halifax - Mike Savage

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

A new Council, a new chapter

It is quite hard to believe it has been four years since I was sworn in as Mayor.
I remember very well the feelings of excitement and apprehension I had in the early days of Council. The excitement of taking on a new challenge, anxious to get moving, coupled with the apprehension of having to manage Council meetings and learn all the things about our Administration. As I meet the new Members of Council I sense similar emotions from them.
I was not sworn in with the team on November 1 as I am away at meetings of the World Energy Cities Partnership. But I know it was a wonderful occasion for the returning members and particularly for the new members. Looking at the new group it would be hard not to see the passion and energy that comes from new members of a team. Clearly this is a younger Council than the previous one. I was younger than the average age of the last team, older than the average age of this Council by a number of years.
I am very keen to see where we go. I have my own ideas and look forward to understanding the direction of others. It will be a cool ride.
Four years ago I came to office with a reform agenda of my own. Change was in the air after some years of what I saw as drift, lax financial management, and non-collegial governance. We had a relatively new CAO with a mandate to tighten our financial processes and bring efficiency to our affairs.
Four years later I am quite impressed by the transformation that is taking place in HRM, partly due to the diligence and progressive leadership of Council. We have strong economic growth, a strong working relationship among Council, and a greener, more inclusive municipality. We have adopted our revised Regional Plan, introduced a comprehensive Economic Growth Plan, and are ready for a new Integrated Mobility Plan. Our downtowns are undergoing a revival and we are investing in protecting green spaces.
Some think we are moving too quickly, some think we’re moving too slowly. This is not new. We need to be able to accept different points of view; it makes us better.
Our new Council consists of four acclaimed Council members, four who were elected in seats vacated by retiring members, six re-elected and two who defeated incumbents. And me.
Every election is, to some extent, a referendum on the incumbents. To stand for election is a statement of having something to offer. Those of us who served on the last Council must understand that new members will be looking to make some changes, things on which they campaigned. New members should keep in mind that there will be some areas where we are in fact further ahead than they might have realized during the campaign. The dynamic of Council will be interesting.
When I was first elected and came to meet staff and see the complex workings of HRM I was more impressed than I expected to be by the professionalism and the commitment to following Council direction that I saw on a daily basis. I remember Reg Rankin, my first Deputy Mayor, wryly noting:

"It’s kind of inconvenient to see that things aren't as bad as you hope they are when you run."
I think our municipality is well positioned for further success and I am excited to chart the course for our next chapter. I wish our former colleagues the best and thank them all for their contributions to our community. And I look forward to working with our new Council. Let's get started!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The changing voice of Canada's cities

This week brings together Canada's Big City Mayors (BCMC) in Edmonton just prior to the Annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

The BCMC meets a couple of times each year, and is a hugely interesting group of political leaders. After a transformative few years, the BCMC is having an increasing impact in Canada.

I was elected Mayor just two and a half years ago. The day after I was sworn in I attended my first BCMC meeting in Ottawa. The Mayors of Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City didn't attend. Other Mayors were facing allegations of questionable conduct (see the new book  Mayors Gone Bad  for more on that) and when we faced the media as a group most of the questions dealt with the conduct of municipal officials in Canada. While I enjoyed meeting fellow Mayors like Gregor Robertson of Vancouver, Jim Watson of Ottawa, and Naheed Nenshi of Calgary , Hazel McCallion of Mississauga and others, there was no question that something was missing.

Today is a much different landscape. In that short time we have seen new Mayors elected in cities like Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Mississauga, Brampton, Laval, London and Windsor. Most of the new Mayors have experience at other levels of government and are committed to ensuring that the growing importance and influence of cities is reflected in public policy at all levels.This reflects a trend that I speak to frequently.

The traditional route of aspiring politicians has been to start as a municipal politician (perhaps school board or a councillor), move to provincial or perhaps federal politics. Today we see politicians leaving provincial or federal politics to run for Mayor. Denis Coderre resigned from Parliament to win the Mayoralty in Montreal. Olivia Chow resigned from Parliament to run for Mayor of Toronto which she lost to John Tory, former provincial party leader. Jim Watson (Ottawa), Gregor Robertson (Vancouver), Bonnie Crombie (Mississauga), Linda Jeffrey (Brampton) are all former members of other legislative bodies. Here in NS Cecil Clarke, Don Downe and I are all former provincial or federal politicians. Others continue to who follow the traditional route but unquestionably there has been a change, and it reflects the growing importance of Canada's cities.

This week we will be meeting with senior Parliamentary representatives of each major party, including Party leaders. That the parties dedicate such effort to meet with a group of Mayors is remarkable and would have been unimaginable a short time ago. We have been working for a year on our federal advocacy preparing for the election of the fall.

Today's Mayors are a reformist, progressive group who will influence the direction of Canada collectively, as well as our individual cities. It is an exciting group to work with and it increases the already effective work of FCM.

Even in NS we see a new respect for municipal politics and a growing willingness to partner by other levels of government. In the last Provincial election our Halifax Regional Council invited each Party to come and discuss ideas on a way forward in Provincial-Municipal relations. One of those who took the time to come in person was the now Premier Stephen McNeil. He spoke of a true partnership. While we recognize the difficult financial situation of our Province we are working toward a more mature relationship that will benefit the whole Province.

The municipal landscape is changing, giving rise to new voices from Canada’s largest cities. Together, these voices will be make a big difference as we continue to discuss our country's future.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Time for a creative solution

The provincial budget of 2015 was projected to be tough, and it was. People lost jobs, departmental spending is set to be well below inflation, and an entire department was eliminated. These are tough measures, and I think it is a time for tough measures. The government did, however, also make some important new investments that show they are sensitive to the needs of people who are facing significant challenges. All governments at all levels are facing financial and productivity challenges, and failing to respond to those realities – as painful as they might be - can hurt more people in the long term.

And then there is the restructuring of the Film Tax Credit (FTC).  The changes that have been made are quite dramatic and will have a disproportionate impact on film production in the Halifax region. Since the introduction of the FTC in the 1990's the industry has grown significantly, and benefits our Province in a number of ways. It leads to jobs in the industry, and has deeper impacts in supporting other industries and entrepreneurs across the community. I have been on sets locally and seen how many local companies benefit from the film and animation projects.

The financial impact of restructuring the FTC depends on who you ask, but people in the industry and other observers are more than worried about the net result. So am I.

I am reticent to challenge the decisions of other governments as they grapple with tough action. I know from my own political experience, and particularly that of my father who governed in challenging times, that there isn't an easy route out of deficit and debt. And I know that most people are inclined to urge restraint and serious action to reduce government spending, until it has an impact on them or their projects. I also know that Premier McNeil and Minister Whalen are good people who are focussed on doing the right things, even when they are not popular, and they are on the right track. But I think this plan needs to be adjusted.

I am pleased that Minister Whalen is meeting with representatives of the film industry, and I urge reconsideration of the dramatic changes to the film tax credit.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Farewell to a gentleman athlete

My father grew up playing rugby in Wales (and quite well, starting on the first team at Queens University, Belfast). He and mom moved us to Canada when I was six, and he adjusted very well to life in the colonies. But he had a particularly tough time acclimating to North American sports. To his dying day he never understood my fascination with football or baseball, and considered them poor cousins to rugby and cricket.

In his early days he maligned hockey as well, considering it boorish and uncivilized. But somewhere along the way he heard Jean Beliveau speak. And he became a fan of the man, and his game. Our game.

I was never in doubt about the man, the team or the game. I don't know how I became a Habs fan, I just remember watching hockey and being fascinated and touched by the flair and passion of the Canadiens. And # 4 just seemed to transcend all else on the ice, with a majestic presence that commanded attention and respect.

When I was about 9 or 10 my class was invited to a local TV show called Firehouse Frolics. It was a big deal for anyone back in the day. Families gathered around their TVs to watch their kids, this being decades before VCRs or PVR.

Host Firehouse Murray (I think that was his name) would ask the kids who they wanted to say hello to. My classmates said hi to Mom or Dad, Grampy or Granny, their dog or cat. I said hello to Jean Beliveau. He may have missed that.

In my early years watching hockey I had favorite players like Peter Mahovlich and Larry Robinson. Ken Dryden amazed me, and I later had the great fortune of serving in the House of Commons with him and counting him among my friends.

The players from the late 60s and early 70s who most captured my attention though were two legends who wore number 4. Bobby Orr is the greatest player I ever saw play the game, even though I rooted against him. And Jean Beliveau, who was at the end of his remarkable career when I watched him on TV, was the greatest personality.

Too often we aggrandize athletes as being better people than they are athletes. Sometimes it isn't true. In the case of Beliveau it was. He taught people, even skeptical Welsh Irish doctors, that sport can be tough and graceful, passionate and respectful.

There are few people who live their life in the limelight and remain unblinded by the light. Jean Beliveau was one of them. The next Montreal home game is going to be special.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Taming the Wild West of municipal campaign finance

Only one rule applies in Nova Scotia municipal elections when it comes to money: All donors must be disclosed within 60 days of an election.

In provincial and federal elections the rules are entirely different. Rules govern how much can be raised from each donor and how much can be raised in total. Likewise, they govern how it can be spent, and on what. Campaign finance rules also govern disclosure, as well as who and what entities can contribute.

Reporting requirements are stringent and violations carry serious penalties. In some Canadian jurisdictions, municipal elections are no exception to campaign finance rules. It is time that we tightened up the rules around how campaigns are financed at the municipal level here. It only makes sense, and it is absolutely vital in an open, democratic society.

Why hasn't it happened yet? It simply hasn't been a big issue in Nova Scotia. Outside of Halifax the money involved in municipal elections is relatively minor. That doesn't reduce the need for vigilance, but it keeps it off the radar, especially when some municipalities are fighting for survival. 

But in Halifax, as with some others, we are talking about big jurisdictions and increasingly large amounts of money. I should know since I raised more money for a single election campaign than anyone else in our municipality’s history. And I could have raised more. And you know what? No law that would have prevented me, or any candidate, from taking that money and using it for anything I wished. Clearly, this is not right.

In my own case I did at least two wise things when I ran for Mayor in 2012.  I appointed an experienced and tough official agent who controlled our finances in fine detail. And I limited donations to $5,000 when we could have collected multiple times that amount. We still raised an amount of money that likely dwarfed our needs, but we didn't know that at the outset when I challenged an incumbent who was pledging to run again.

A campaign for Mayor of Halifax involves more direct voters than any other election east of Quebec. The average provincial constituency has a total population of approximately 18,000; the average federal constituency has approximately 85,000 people. Halifax has over 413,000 people. The municipality includes all or part of seven federal ridings, and approximately 20 provincial ridings.  Each municipal district is now larger than each provincial constituency. We should be subject to reasonable campaign finance guidelines.

Some will ask, "Where is this problem we are we trying to fix?" The simple fact is in the absence of rules we cannot even see the problems. It is a basic tenent of modern governance that money in politics must be tracked and controlled. Nova Scotia’s municipal governments should not be the Wild West of campaign finance. We are better than this, and it’s time for change.

On Monday, November 24, I will be asking our Executive Committee to recommend to Regional Council that we address the issue of Campaign Financing of Municipal elections. Of course, any change will require the support of the Provincial government as it would require changes to provincial legislation. I know the government have myriad priorities and likely aren't keen to address an issue that hasn't been raised by most municipalities. But in my view, it's time to fix a system that turns a blind eye to how elections are financed.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Getting there ain't half the fun

It's not hard to find people who still think flying is glamorous. They are the folks who haven't done any recently.

I am writing this on November 5 en route to Norfolk, Virginia, one of our sister cities, to be part of a delegation that will be work to further our economic and cultural ties. Norfolk is an ideal sister city in in that it has much in common with Halifax. We are both the home of our country's east coast Navy. Norfolk has similar industries like shipbuilding and ocean sciences as well as strong universities and colleges. I have never been to Norfolk, and have been looking forwarding to visiting.

Our wonderful City Hall security guard Harry tells me Norfolk is lovely. Unfortunately in the short time I have there I will be very busy. I arrive at midnight tonight, have 11 meetings and a dinner on Thursday and an equally busy Friday. I leave on Saturday morning. All as it should be, and as it always is, when the intrepid Nancy Phillips from The Greater Halifax Partnership is running the show. But here is the part I hate.....getting there and back.

This evening we are flying from Halifax to Ottawa, Ottawa to Washington, Washington to Norfolk, with a similar return route on Saturday. Small commuter planes, long lines at security, jammed airports where seats are hard to find characterize this trip.

People carry half of their worldly possessions on board (it costs 22 bucks to check a bag), and then are frustrated when the overhead bins (approximately the size of the glovebox in my Kia) won't handle the load. Getting a cup of water is a luxury inflight service, and amenities like a video player are nowhere to be seen. And then, as we just did here at Dulles, you disembark in a driving rainstorm and make your way to the terminal.

I suspect this sounds like a long whine. If so, my message is getting through. It is a privilege to represent Halifax in other cities. It is rewarding, educational, exciting and beneficial. But ain't glamorous.



Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Two years in, and it still feels new

I was elected Mayor two years ago. Although I feel I have settled in pretty well, many things still make me shake my head. In fact there are few days when something doesn't surprise me about municipal politics. In general, I find municipal politics much more work, but much more rewarding than my previous role as a Member of Parliament.

A couple of things have again caused me to compare municipal politics with other levels of government. The first was the campaign among Liberals to win the nomination to run in my former federal seat, which went to current Deputy Mayor Darren Fisher. It was an incredibly competitive campaign involving five candidates, each of whom I know well.

Prior to the campaign I had been urged to seek the nomination. I was never seriously tempted, since I had largely determined when I ran for Mayor that I would fill out my term if elected. But beyond that, I enjoy my current role and find it oddly liberating. But it is exponentially busier, not even comparable, to being an MP.

The second thing that I have found very interesting of late is the book released by Graham Steele, former finance minister in the Dexter government. It is an enormously readable piece, and I enjoyed it very much. I know some of the key figures in the Dexter government don't seem to be portrayed particularly favourably in the book, but I liked them then, and I still do.

Former Premier Dexter is someone I have known for more than three decades. He is a capable, dedicated man who made decisions in the best interest of Nova Scotians. I often think of a brief chat we had at the Dartmouth General Hospital lobster dinner a few days prior to his becoming Premier in 2009. We moved away from the crowd for a moment. I was campaigning for Liberals, particularly Andrew Younger in my own riding, but it was apparent that the NDP would form government.

Darrell told me he had been thinking of my father, and the challenges he faced as a Premier in difficult times. He had a good sense that the joy of election night would soon be replaced by angst over difficult calls for the new government. We have become an impatient electorate, largely but not solely because of politicians themselves.

In reading Graham's book I didn't see bad guys in the Premier's office. I don't think Graham did either. But what we see is the result of a political system that forces decisions to be made by tightly held cabals. Trust is in short supply, so only a very small group, often unelected, form policy. Ideas seem to originate, be focus-grouped, and be considered behind a veil of secrecy. They are produced by governments who expect their members to support it, to be visual props to accentuate it, and read talking points about it. To oppose your party position is disloyal, and the idea of changing one’s mind is considered the greatest weakness of a politician. It should be seen as strength.

These themes came up again when I spoke at the nomination meeting in Dartmouth Cole Harbour. It was a chance to thank folks who had worked so hard on my behalf while I was MP. Although I am a Liberal and that won't change, it was also my chance to share a few lessons and some unsolicited advice for the successful candidate.
No one individual is going to change the culture in Ottawa. Question Period will still stink of feigned indignation and manufactured outrage on all sides. But an individual can strive to better represent themselves and their constituents. I suggested that refusing to send partisan garbage out to mailboxes can make a difference. Not taking inane talking points from party or leaders' office staffers, and spewing them into the public record is a positive step.

These may seem like easy things to do, but pressure will come to 'support the Party.’ These seemingly small steps can be bundled to make a difference and  possibly change how politics is done over time. I spoke of other steps that can be taken, and I would share those with anyone who was interested in running for office, from any party.

I am not naive, and don't suggest that people can't be loyal to their party. In fact, to be elected usually has much to do with party and leader. I know: I ran under some incredibly good people who simply did not sell well at the door. So to be elected under a party banner requires some allegiance to said party. But it does not require that anyone sell their soul, or become little more than a prop.

I don't despair for politics; I believe in politics. I recently sat down with Graham Steele and talked about our respective views on party politics. I asked if he had any reservations about writing a book that might be taken as an indictment of politics. I think his view and mine were similar in that politics isn't the problem. But what politics has become is a problem. I told him that my experience is that municipal politics is different. We deal in the open with issues that at other levels would never see the light of day until they were 'fully cooked'. As I often say, it is more difficult...messier, but is much more transparent and honest. And worth the effort.

It is easy to sit in a municipal chair and see flaws in other governmental systems. I get that. But there is something happening in municipal politics. Where for years politicians started in municipal politics and then moved up, today the reverse is happening. The Mayors of large cities like Montreal, Vancouver, London, Mississauga, Ottawa and others come from provincial and federal politics. In Nova Scotia former federal or provincial leaders like Cecil Clarke, Don Downe, Robert Thibault are now municipal. Olivia Chow and Judy Wasylycia-Leis are former colleagues of mine in the Commons who resigned to run for municipal office in Toronto and Winnipeg. There are many reasons, including the emergence of cities as the new 'nation states' of the world.

But I can't help but think that part of it is due to the opportunity to do politics, and leadership, away from the partisan trap.