Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Take Aways from FCM

The first weekend in June, plus the days on either side, was the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities - a good chance to meet a wide range of city councillors and mayors from across the country and find out how they deal with issues that are common to all of us. There are also educational sessions that provide more in-depth opportunities to find out how other communities operate, and see some innovative solutions.

This year's FCM was in Halifax. A number of tours of various features of the city are also part of the conference package, and it was interesting to see how Halifax takes advantage of its natural features, and is dealing with some of the devastation that events like Hurricane Juan have caused.

So, what did I take away from Halifax? It's a city blessed with many natural features, and it has focused on ensuring that these features are accessible, clean, and safe for everyone to use. Along the harbour there is a new, well-maintained boardwalk which extends from the naval yards to past Pier 21, the museum dedicated to the history of immigrants who landed there. Along the boardwalk are numerous informational signs, which discuss the various points of interest, as well as various vendors, restaurants, and buskers. In the downtown area there is the large Public Gardens, and at the far end of the harbour, Pleasant Point Park, with lots of walking trails. All of these areas are well-used by the people of Halifax, of all ages, whether jogging along the boardwalk, playing Frisbee, or just sitting in the sun. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking, jogging, or just sitting, alone. And each area featured clean, accessible public washrooms.I couldn't help but be struck by the comparison with our riverbank - yes, we have the Rotary Trail, but it isn't lighted, we have no public washroom facilities to make it more user-friendly, and I think that a significant portion of city residents would consider it not safe to walk on alone, at any time of day.

Halifax also has an extremely efficient and well-utilized public transit system. In fact, the waitress at one restaurant said that she knew many people who had given up their cars, because it was so easy just to use public transit, including a passenger ferry that runs between Halifax and Dartmouth, which are now both part of the Regional Municipality of Halifax. One interesting fact - they have found it more cost-effective to lease their bus tires, rather than purchasing them.

I found Halifax to be very clean, with lots of well-designed garbage receptacles - in some cases, bolted a few feet off the ground to light standards, with a plastic internal bin that would be light enough to empty easily, but a bit too high for easy vandalism. Other garbage receptacles, particularly along the harbour, had different sections so that recyclable material, including compostable items, could be separated - a good way of saving space in a landfill.

We did notice far more pan-handlers than in other cities that we've visited, and much of the downtown features empty storefronts and vacant lots, but it struck me as a city that has done a great job in maintaining its considerable historic heritage, while adapting to modern requirements like increased traffic levels, by such things as a network of one way streets to speed traffic flow.

As we have done in the past, Andrea and I took the opportunity to stay on in Halifax for a few days after the conference, and did a bit of touring around Nova Scotia. We had last visited there in 1993, when Andrea had a conference in Halifax, and we found that some things had changed. In 1993, there was one winery in Lunenburg, featuring wines made from blueberries. Now there are seventeen grape wineries all over the province- we visited one of the newer ones - and a whole new area of tourism is developing. We also visited the Joggins fossil cliffs - a UNESCO world heritage site on the Bay of Fundy - where we were free to wander the rocky beach, and saw lots of petrified wood and other plant fossils.

The week after FCM provided a good lesson for all civic politicians, and I'm sorry that it didn't happen until after the other members of council had left. An auditor's report was released on something known as "Cash for Concerts", which was a report investigating a series of concerts that had been held in a public park near the Citadel a few years earlier. Apparently, in the interest of ensuring that these major concerts took place, the mayor of Halifax authorized cash advances to the promoter of these events, without informing the rest of council or following city policies. The result was that more than $300,000 of this money was not repaid by the promoter, leaving the citizens of Halifax on the hook. Apparently, the glory of hosting concerts featuring performers such as Paul McCartney and The Black-Eyed Peas was enough to convince a few people in control that short cuts were justified.

This item topped local news reports for the entire week, and, not surprisingly, both citizens and the other members of council were outraged and looking for answers. Those responsible wanted to focus on "moving forward", promising that it wouldn't happen again. To me, the most telling line in the auditor's report was the one that said "policies to prevent this were in place. They just weren't followed." All members of our city council should take this to heart - we have policies for a reason, and whenever we waive them for expediency, or glory, or bragging rights about first-class facilities, we're not doing our job, and the result can be costly.

"Vanity asks the question - is it popular? Conscience asks the question - is it right?" - Martin Luther King Jr.

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