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August 21, 2015

Snow Job

Paul Vienneau, Halifax's secret weapon 
Two hours and eight minutes into the lengthy Committee of the Whole meeting on August 4, held to discuss the report on winter operations, Councillor Gloria McCluskey said this:

"...and one of the  big problems too, for residents; the buses were hauled off the road so often.  You know, I never heard of that, and I guess that told us something, when buses were not able to operate.  Residents couldn't get to work.  They were docked pay and even lost their jobs sometimes."

Even allowing for hyperbole, that is a startling admission.  People lost their jobs because HRM didn't do theirs.  To the credit of Council, the meeting laid bare a fault line in the way HRM is governed.

Because the Winter Operations Report was conceived and executed as an administrative exercise, practical considerations like getting to work take a back seat to accounting problems like the capacity to handle 311 calls.  You or I would think first of removing the reasons for the 311 calls.  More shoveling means less calling.  But the report's primary recommendation is increasing 311 staff.  If only we could count our mistakes better.......

In a similar way, the report discusses standards without reference to purpose.  As the Accessibility Advisory Committee pointed out, main arterials cleared in 12 hours and adjacent sidewalks in 48 makes no sense if the goal is getting people to work.  It makes sense if the goal is to force people to take automobiles and increase traffic congestion.  When snow removal is just a public relations problem, we hardly remember why we're doing it in the first place.  Like the snow report, HRM policy is often framed in terms of administrative detail, never referencing overarching goals.  

Welcome to my world.  For a month this winter you were 'mobility-challenged' as they say, not because of some inherent problem you have, but because of someone else's ineptitude.  Never mind the snow and ice, people with disabilities face needless barriers every day, even in mid-August, 2015.   

The disconnect between practicalities and purpose is a real problem in Halifax.  Take the pedestrian / vehicle encounters, which we blithely blame on bad drivers, bad pedestrians and bad alignment of the planets, never considering the bad design that is the biggest problem.  We paint lines to use up the paint supply, not aware that the two parallel lines of a crosswalk are nearly invisible to oncoming traffic.  We renew curb cuts according to a random set of priorities and a standard found nowhere else on earth.  We should use paint so drivers can see the crosswalk.  Our curb cuts should expedite safe crossing and allow easy snowplowing.  

Over the years, wheelchair users in particular have come to understand that the reason so little changes in Halifax is because there is so little accountability. Leadership is thwarted.  Our form of government seems to discourage the kind of cross-departmental discussion that can solve complicated problems. We throw up our hands when our right-of-way bylaw runs headlong into the need for access to business.  We're smarter than that, we can figure it out.

People have very simple goals: personal safety, health, getting ahead, getting around, fair treatment.  Everything government does should advance those goals.  A well-designed sidewalk or transit system is not only a way to get around; they enhance public safety, and further commerce.  When a snowy sidewalk is just an accounting problem, its purpose is forgotten.  

People with disabilities have unconscionable unemployment rates.  Our municipal services make it worse, as McCluskey candidly admitted.

We should take this opportunity to re-examine the basic structure of city government.  We don't care about blame, but we want accountability.  We need to figure out how to get our operations to match our aspirations.  

Our Councillors, are elected to execute our wishes.  When they don't, we usually get around to electing someone else.  This is accountability.  Departments need to report to Council, so they can report to us.  No one likes to fire anyone, but when no one is fired, no one is held accountable and citizens are let down.  And we don't want the guy (it probably is a guy) who's stuck with executing a bad plan.  We want the guy who's preventing good planning. World-class cities don't disappoint their citizens.

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