Nova Scotia·Updated

Halifax council downsized

The Halifax Regional Municipality needs seven fewer councillors, the provincial regulator says.

Mayor: should be no 'great impact' overall

The Halifax Regional Municipality needs seven fewer councillors, the provincial regulator says.

In a decision Wednesday, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board rejected the municipality's application to maintain 23 councillors and a mayor.

Instead, the board slashed the number of districts to 16, saying a total of 17 representatives was "reasonable and appropriate."

The board said most cities the size of Halifax have 14 or 15 councillors and that its consultant recommended a council of 20.

But it also noted that a reduced council is what the public wants.

During public hearings, the board heard from many people demanding fewer councillors. Of the 63 letters it received, 59 were in favour of a smaller council, including many urging a "significant" cut.

"I'm very happy to see that the board actually saw fit to say 16," said Earle Wagner, a resident who spoke out during the hearings.

"A smaller council is going to be more efficient and more effective and is going to get the job done better for the citizens of Halifax."

The board rejected arguments that 23 councillors were costing too much money, even though cutting the number of elected officials by 30 per cent will mean savings of at least $500,000 a year in salaries alone.

The board said it wasn't willing to cut back to as few as 12 councillors because it didn't think the public would accept it.

Mayor Kelly: 'pleased'

Mayor Peter Kelly said overall he doesn't think the reduction in councillors will have a big impact on HRM residents.

"I think they'll still get the level of service they now get from the municipality. That will not change," said Kelly.

"When you look at the average across the country this is a fair number ... as we continue to grow and evolve as a mature council and a mature municipality these changes are inevitable."

Kelly said it will be up to councillors to ensure they bring their constituents concerns forward, even if that means filtering more calls through the HRM call centre.

While Kelly supports the board's decision, he said if council voted to, it could still appeal, however it would be a challenging process.

In other Canadian cities, councillors represent on average twice as many citizens.

But some councillors like Bill Karsten, who represents Portland-East Woodlawn, think the public will notice a difference.

"There are huge expectations that our residents, the public, those who elect us place on us, to look after their everyday needs and concerns and I do have somewhat the apprehension as to what the ability for council to respond as quickly as residents may request," said Karsten.

Some areas to gain representation

According to the Utility and Review Board, each new district must contain the same number of citizens, plus or minus 10 per cent.

By those rules, some areas of the city stand to either lose or gain.

Over-represented areas could lose influence on council. Those include Fairview, Rockingham, Eastern Shore, Quinpool, and Purcell's Cove

Under-represented areas like Cole-Harbour, Hammonds Plains, Timberlea-Prospect, Waverly-Fall River and Preston-Lawrencetown stand to gain influence.

The Halifax-Dartmouth District Labour Council says the whole process goes against democratic principles.

"Unelected, appointed boards should not be calling the shots in terms of democratic representation," council president Kyle Buott said in a statement.

Buott said many regional councillors will end up with districts larger than provincial districts and won't have the support staff that MLAs do.

It's now up to Halifax council to determine appropriate polling district boundaries, which Kelly said will happen over the next six to eight weeks.

The board has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 12-14.

Earlier this month, the board chopped the size of Cape Breton regional council from 16 councillors to 12.

Municipal elections will be held around the province in 2012.