Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Don't We Care About Mayors?: Why young people keep leaving Halifax

Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, introduced legislation creating an independent Ethics Board. Yes, ethics. In municipal government. By municipal government.

Headlines almost wrote themselves with Rhodes Scholar Cory Booker of Newark RAN INTO A BURNING BUILDING TO SAVE A LIFE.

Rudy Giuliani was certainly hated, but it was for what he did to the city, and not for what he did or did not do.

& of course, it’s easy to get into the old favourites like Cleveland’s famous Tom Johnson, a rich man who did not need any of the public systems he enacted like lower streetcar fares and public baths, but did it anyway, because that’s what good mayors do. He also set a standard for milk and meat inspection, which is so far away from what municipal governments concern themselves nowadays unless it’s a fancy catered meal paid by the tax payers.

Do I sound like my grandfather yet? Good. Because it seems like Canadian mayors aren’t earning our money or our trust lately, which is really problematic in an era where we need them more than ever.

If we need them, why are mayors so irrelevant? It’s plenty fun to rip on Rob Ford, but at least I know his name. Halifax mayor Peter Kelly made national headlines when he evicted Occupy Nova Scotia on Remembrance Day, which means that Peter Kelly made national headlines because of Occupy Nova Scotia. I would remark that makes the general public better communicators, except when was the last time the mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality tried to make national headlines? With pure mediocrity being a goal, how can we be surprised when they actually mess up? Can anyone name ten Canadian mayors any more? After the federal & provincial government and before the school boards, it's easy to get frustrated with the whole thing and just forget it, but now is the time that we need to redefine the role of municipal government. Who we pick now must adapt the position and modernize it. 

Under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, the trend of city leaders being irrelevant ribbon cutters made sense. In ye olden days, when healthcare was a national program thus intending to ensure some sort of equality of care between each province and territory, what was there for mayors to do, really? Even infrastructure had a national bend, attempting to unite thousands of kilometers of land we have with highway development and talks of a national transportation program that has still yet to materialize. Do I think Trudeau was good? Eh. However he certainly excelled at making mayors look pretty irrelevant, & when you think of the amount of government present in places like the Maritimes, that’s not really a bad thing.     

But that's not what this is anymore. Stephen Harper has mandated a Canada of division, which does not have to be a criticism. Most provinces are playing with pennies to pay for the things that most affect Canadians day to day. Whether you want to see transfer payments as a “Not my problem!” or a middle finger, the lack of accessible mental health facilities in many parts of Cape Breton and the increasing number of families moving the ever growing municipality we once called the city of Halifax, it’s pretty hard to continue to pretend this system is working.

Having so many universities, it’s easy to say that Halifax is a young city, but the older I get the more I realize immature is a better word for it at times. After all, when the graduations are over, flights out of here are booked as we sweep up the broken beer bottles. We have the greatest brains and we can't hold on to them, because why would they stay here? Perpetually working for the weekend and refusing to pay into any type of investment plan, I want to march into Halifax’s basement apartment with a bottle of Windex, break its bong, and give it a groan inducing lecture about potential. You used to be so creative, why don’t you make art anymore? Why do you waste your time on these petty fights with Moncton? You never get out and do anything! Even if you were for the Loch Ness stadium (some say you can see it on a dark night if you truly believe!), it was inevitable that some sort of public transportation would have to be arranged to get to it. Which is not something council is good at. Which is pathetic. 

Of course, it's not like half the university students who came here actually thought about Peter Kelly at all. Most probably didn't know who he was, other than a man who seems to perpetually have a cold. Am I really blaming one man for our grad retention problem? Of course not. But to quote a bunch of t-shirts I really hate, if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem. I've yet to hear someone tell me they really want to stay in Nova Scotia. No, they want to stay somewhere specific in Nova Scotia if by chance they do. One does not pick a province and say "Yes, yes, anywhere in here will suit me"; people chose cities, or towns, or coasts, yet somehow our little brain drain problem is always passed along to the premier. Something to do at night will keep young people in a community better than a tax credit maybe in ten years. Jobs are nice, but having a decent paying one isn't enough if there's nowhere to spend money. Amazingly, the best way to attract smart, young minds is to be attractive to smart, young minds. Someone explained this concept to me before leaving for suburban Vancouver.

It’s time to buck up. As areas become municipalities to cut costs, it is foolish to assume the growth will simply stop. Do we acknowledge that our land division system is nonsensical and outdated when HRM takes up half of Nova Scotia, or when Cape Breton starts e-mailing Quebec asking just what exactly does sovereignty mean? Cities are going to need seats at national tables, but the trap of it all is that they’ll have to earn it first. Because really, do I want the guy who can’t handle busses handling my healthcare? No, I don’t want him at all. Why shouldn’t I question candidates about their views on sustainable energy? Because they never talk to the premier? If that’s the best answer I have received so far, which it is, the problems are pretty obvious.
This is big talk for a big country. Some would think this means changing the way things have always been done, but that’s not true. So far our 'progress' has been largely reactive and somewhat subtle; amalgamation being spoken of when it must. Towns dry out, but by the end of it no one lives there so no one cares. Meanwhile, exceedingly average one bedroom apartments go for 800$, 1000$, 1900$... in metropolitan areas in a country that has land to spare.  

No, I don’t have a perfect plan to fix this, but I expect our mayor to. Honestly, I’d be rather skeptical of myself if I did; I’m a fourth year Public Relations student with only an interest in urban planning. Oh trust me, I have ideas, but you know what? They don't matter. Favouring public opinion over professional knowledge at all the wrong times is a special skill round these parts. It seems as though someone declared to not be good enough to represent Cole Harbour Dartmouth on a federal level will soon be leading my city, so my expectations are currently limited. Still, if this fourth year PR student can identify an issue with a few months on the internet, why isn’t it fixed already? Or even talked about? It is not a tall order to expect government to keep issues from turning into problems. Maybe a seat at the federal table won’t happen in the next few years, but even an attempt at reigning the potential power of cities would convince me that when everyone in New Glasgow moves to Halifax, we won't all just leave for Mississauga later. If I'm going to end up in Fort McMurray, I might as well get there as quickly as possible so I can cement a spot at a decent day care that I won't need for another ten years. Childcare is another thing that would be nice if someone paid attention to, but hey, I get that I'm starting to lose you at this point.

It's easy to get carried away when complaining about the place that you frustratedly love, but I'm not getting carried away. These are the realities of our future, and we need leadership that's ready to think about about this together. In true mayoral fashion, no candidate will until the public does, which is already a bad sign, but I'm sceptical, not hateful. I'm willing to be persuaded.

I did try to think of some role models. I don't like to talk about dark water without some kind of metaphorical buoy, but would you really identify anyone other than Naheed Nenshi, otherwise known as "That guy with... the name... that's running Calgary!" Canada's mayors don't get our attention because so few deserve it. And we all deserve better than that.


Rebecca Jane said...

I shamefully admit that I generally think very little about municipal politics, although I really should. Case in point? I asked my mom - who is that? upon seeing an older fellow on the news. Turns out? Summerside's mayor of at least a couple of decades, and I had no idea who he was.

Now that I am helping my sis out with her community garden though I am starting to appreciate more of what happens at the city level. S'side was actually listed as the WORST (yes, worst!) place to live in Canada for the reason you write about here: Young people leaving. Actually, everyone leaving, since there is a major paucity of available employment options. We don't even have the attraction of universities to lure anyone in. Although Holland college will soon build a satellite campus..

I do think the city is working to change that, but like you said - it's hard to keep people when there is nowhere to spend that money - I think attracting new businesses - cafés, shops, restaurants, artists, and more would be a help, although I think they are certainly hindered by that "worst place to live in Canada" vote.

Definitely Mayors in Hali, Summerside and pretty well everywhere could do more to make themselves more visible, to contribute to making each city a desirable and great place to live. Where to start? By writing (and sharing) posts like this!

Isabel said...

Oh my god, this is so crucial. Everything you write just really hits home with me. I am so happy you write and SPEAK OUT on these issues that I don't even realize I care about until you articulate perfectly.

~ Faith said...

Oh gosh, our Mayor here in Regina is a money-grabbing, urban-sprawl-loving, waste of taxpayers dollars. He says he listens to public opinion about a more walkable, sustainable city, but then allows the urban sprawl to take over! If he wasn't retiring this year he'd probably never get voted out...


Anonymous said...

You should mail this letter in to the Mayor and the Premier.