Councillors listen to a speech from Mayor Mike Savage at their swearing-in ceremony in October 2020. Photo: Zane Woodford

Halifax has the right number of councillors.

That’s the takeaway from the first phase of the municipality’s district boundary review, looking at the number of electoral districts in HRM — currently 16.

Municipal clerk Iain MacLean brought a recommendation to council’s Executive Standing Committee on Monday to stick with that number.

“Based on the consultation that occurred over the last few months, based off of the comparator municipalities that we are seeing, based on what we’re observing, it seems like the number 16 makes sense,” MacLean said.

The recommendation is the next step in the municipality’s application to the provincial UARB (Utility and Review Board), which will hold hearings early next year on the number and layout of municipal districts. The reviews must be conducted periodically, and they have to be based on five criteria: communities of interest, relative parity of voting power, geography, population density, number of electors. The last such review, completed ahead of the 2012 municipal election, cut the number of councillors from 24 down to 16.

Through Narrative Research, the municipality surveyed more than 1,000 people last month on the size of council, and concluded that the current number of representatives is adequate. Narrative COO Margaret Chapman told councillors most people surveyed knew the number of councillors and what they were responsible for, and a majority felt 16 was the right number. Chapman also conducted interviews with the current councillors and the mayor, and they had the same feedback.

In their report to the committee, MacLean and Liam MacSween, elections and special projects manager, wrote that the public and councillor feedback aligns with their jurisdictional scan of 14 comparable Canadian municipalities.

That scan found that the average councillor in those municipalities represented 6.72% of the municipality’s population, while Halifax councillors represent 6.25%. Toronto councillors (numbering 25) represent 4%, and Saskatoon and Kitchener councillors (10 in each city) represent 10%.

MacLean and MacSween noted that HRM’s continued population growth will affect future district boundary reviews, but the currents projections indicate 16 is still adequate for now.

Coun. Lisa Blackburn pointed out that District 16 — Bedford-Wentworth has seen significant population growth in recent years, and that’s increased Coun. Tim Outhit’s workload.

“He’s gone from Bedford to Bedford West, which has exploded, and that’s meant that his level of the representation, the number of people he represents, has sort of skyrocketed while ours have, in some cases, not grown as much,” Blackburn said. “But that type of situation can be managed at this point with boundary adjustments as opposed to just throwing another body at the situation?”

MacLean said that’s the conclusion staff arrived at based on the consultation, research, and analysis, but it’s ultimately up to council.

There’s also a District Boundary Resident Review Panel, which will work to determine the actual boundaries after council lands on the number of districts. That panel has its first meeting this Wednesday at 3:30pm.

The decision ultimately rests with the UARB, however, and Coun. Tony Mancini wondered aloud whether HRM was wasting its time working so hard on its application.

“Is this work for naught? Are they going to carry on their own way of doing it? Do you have any any sense of what weigh they’re going to give to this work?” Mancini asked.

MacLean said his office is basing its application on previous district boundary reviews, applying lessons from those decisions to frame its work.

“The hope and the intent is that while the parameters of the review may not have changed, the process that we are following should hit and deal with the recommendations that came so that we can hopefully move forward in a very positive approach,” MacLean said.

The report also recommended exploring electoral reforms stemming from the consultations with councillors, all of which would require legislative change from the provincial government. Those include designated or protected seats for specific groups like African Nova Scotia, Indigenous, or Francophone; reducing the voting age to 16; extending voting and candidacy rights to new Canadians; and using ranked ballots or a run-off ballot system.

The committee voted unanimously in favour of both parts of the recommendation, and will receive a staff report on the electoral reform proposals. The motion goes to regional council next month for a final vote.

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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