Council Pay: It was a relatively light agenda at Regional Council this week since the hearing into the Willow Tree proposal at Quinpool and Robie was cancelled. The main item in terms public interest was the formula that determines how much councillors get paid (currently $85,000 a year). The key consideration for council benefits, (pay, pension and everything else) is to make sure that running for office is doable for most people. At the same time, elected office isn’t a career like any other. It’s public service. Councillors aren’t the board of directors at a corporation and the benefits offered shouldn’t be there to make people rich.
The whole thing is a difficult issue for council because it’s awkward to be setting your own pay. The solution to that awkwardness was the adoption of a formula that determined the annual rate of based on the average paid to councillors in seven other cities across the country. The formula has been criticized over the years as resulting in increases that have no relationship to our own local economy and for having an over-the-top inflationary aspect because some of the comparable cities base their council pay decisions on averages. The alternative presented at Council was to instead tie councillor salaries to the average increase in Nova Scotia as determined by Statistics Canada (Average Industrial Wage). Council voted 16-1 to amend the existing Administrative Order to replace the old formula with the Average Industrial Wage as the basis for pay calculations and amendments to the Administrative Order will be returning to Council in the future. I voted in favour because I agree with the argument that council pay should be attached to the wages being paid here in HRM and not based on what politicians are paid in Vancouver or Hamilton.
As part of the pay discussion, we also considered whether outgoing politicians should be paid a transition allowance. Councillor’s don’t qualify for EI so after an election, outgoing politicians receive one last cheque and then nothing. This has caused hardship for some in the past since it can be difficult for people to transition back into their previous careers. Paying a transition allowance is something that’s not currently permitted by the Charter so the motion at Council was simply to ask the Province for that power. Councillor Outhit attempted to make a motion to restrict that ask to only councillors who are defeated, and not those who are simply retiring from office. I’m actually inclined to agree with Tim. There is a difference to me in retiring versus being defeated and a transition allowance shouldn’t just be a given part of the package. Although I spoke in favour of Councillor Outhit’s intent, I voted against the motion because I felt that the time to have that discussion would be after (and if) the Province gives HRM the needed Charter amendment. The Province should offer HRM the power and the nitty-gritty of how a transition allowance actually works should be determined then. I would also support Councillor Mason’s view that a transition allowance should start after 2020 since it wasn’t part of anyone’s expectations who serves on the current council. Councillor Outhit’s amendment was defeated and HRM will ask the Province for the ability to offer transition allowances.
Accessible Ramps: Council voted to amend the HRM Encroachment Bylaw to allow the municipality to waive the fee for encroaching on the sidewalk if it involves installing a ramp to improve accessibility. This issue came to light after the owners of Woozles on Birminghamd Street in Halifax complained about the $168 annual fee that they were being charged for their ramp. With an aging population, accessibility is an issue that’s not going away. HRM should be encouraging businesses and property owners to install ramps, not creating disincentives through unnecessary fees. The Woozles inspired amendment passed unanimously.
Electronic Voting: Also up for consideration were amendments to the Alternative Voting Bylaw, which allows for internet and phone voting in municipal elections. Staff had a number of amendments, which would allow future municipal elections to occur without paper ballots. When I read this I was at first very concerned about the implications since about 30% of people still vote in-person on election day. The good news is that the amendments aren’t aimed at removing in-person voting, just changing the form that it takes. A polling station will still be required, but they’ll be a computer behind the curtain instead of a pen and paper. This already exists in many places where paper has been replaced with voting machines. Besides the cost-savings, there is the benefit of reducing human error in counting. Since a physical polling station will still exist with staff to assist people who are apprehensive about using computers, I was fine with the proposed amendment. I would never want us to move to a system that doesn’t have a physical polling station at all since there are people who don’t have access at home and there is a social aspect to voting on election day that is still valued by many. HRM will be testing this all electronic approach if there is a by-election sometime during the next 3.5 years (Matt Whitman might spark the test on Tuesday).
Also included in the changes to the bylaw was language to make it clear that that candidates and their agents can’t help people to vote electronically (the standing over their shoulder or carrying a laptop to the door thing). I didn’t get a sense that anyone in Dartmouth was doing this during the municipal election, but it’s good to make it clear. The amended electronic voting bylaw was approved.
- Approved a bunch of different paving and sidewalk projects
- Amendments for local improvement charges in Hammonds Plains (ratepayers associations)
- Approved the parking lot paving grant to the Maritime Muslim Academy and the Conservatory of the Permforming Arts (I and Councillor Nicoll voted against)
- Requested a staff report regarding potential changes to the local improvement charge for sidewalks in Sheet Harbour