The provincial government is moving ahead with legislation that the mayor of Halifax called “distasteful in a democracy.”
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr introduced Bill 225 on Oct. 21. As Jennifer Henderson reported for the Halifax Examiner, the bill amends the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter to give Lohr the power to “nullify” municipal bylaws passed in the last six months if they “impact housing or development.”
Lohr said the purpose of the bill is to strike down an amendment to the municipality’s noise bylaw that Halifax regional council passed in August. Council voted 12-5 to change the hours from 7am and 9:30pm Monday to Friday to 7am to 8pm.
But as MLAs on the provincial Law Amendments Committee heard during their meeting on Monday, the bill reaches further than the noise bylaw.
“Bill 225 is not about construction and blasting hours,” Mayor Mike Savage told the committee.
“It is about seizing new ministerial powers while striking a political pen through the Charter’s duty to consult the municipality it was designed to help govern.”
Savage, who voted against the noise bylaw amendments, said the bill has the potential to put the province in charge of the city.
“This bill is out of step with modern democratic principles,” Savage said.
The lack of consultation with HRM was Savage’s biggest beef with the plan. He only heard about it the night before Lohr tabled the legislation.
“Minister Lohr and I communicate regularly, and I’ve appreciated the relationship. That is why it was so disappointing that Bill 225 came with no notice and no respect for municipal authority,” he said.
“To be overruled without public consultation is distasteful in a democracy. It leads to the question, which bylaws will be nullified next?”
Duty to consult with municipality
Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace told the committee the province has a duty to consult the municipality under Section 382 of the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter: “The Minister shall consult with the Municipality respecting any proposed amendment to this Act.” She also referenced Section 91 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, requiring governments “to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada.”
“Stepping on a municipal institution is not how you keep peace, order, or provide citizens with good government,” Lovelace said.
“Indeed, the intended consequences of these reckless actions in Bill 225 will, by their inherent nature, cause disorder, disruption, distrust, and dissent.”
Coun. Sam Austin, like Savage, voted against the noise bylaw amendments. He spoke at the committee because he said the government “seems intent on interfering with HRM’s affairs.”
“This provincial interference isn’t wanted and it’s absolutely not helpful,” Austin said.
It’s not the PC government’s first intrusion into municipal decision-making. Lohr already assumed control of the approval process for nine proposed developments in HRM, so-called special planning areas, subverting municipal public consultation processes.
Austin said that history leads him to believe the bill isn’t just about the noise bylaw.
“It allows the minister to interfere in any HRM bylaw. This bill takes substantial authority away from elected representatives who do their work in public and hands it to the minister who could decide entirely on his own and in secret what’s best for communities that he doesn’t know or represent,” Austin said.
Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Amanda McDougall spoke as president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities. She said the bill “demeans the respect and autonomy of municipalities.”
“This bill is a step backwards in terms of a collaborative and respectful inter-government relationship between municipalities in the province,” McDougall said.
Developer in favour of changes
There was one speaker in favour of the bill: developer Peter Polley of POLYCORP Group.
“We can no longer afford to wait for HRM to get their act together,” Polley said.
Polley told the committee about his difficulties getting development proposals approved in Halifax over the past 20 or more years. He argued the bill should be broader.
“I think the province should undertake a review of other HRM bylaws that are impacting not just the current supply, but the affordability of existing units,” he said.
Following the submissions, Liberal MLA Lorelei Nicoll proposed an amendment to soften the wording to suspend, rather than nullify bylaws. The former Halifax regional councillor argued the change would be a show of good faith.
The four opposition members in attendance voted yes. Those were Nicoll, Liberal MLA Rafah DiCostanzo, NDP MLA Gary Burrill, and NDP MLA Susan Leblanc. All PC MLAs in attendance voted no: Dave Ritcey, Steve Craig, Brian Wong, Melissa Sheehy-Richard, and Kent Smith.
Burrill moved to send the bill back to the department for reconsideration. Leblanc argued it was a “bad bill, perhaps unconstitutional.”
“The lack of consultation part of this is deeply concerning,” Leblanc said.
The PCs again used their majority to block the amendment.
“I can’t believe that we’re sitting and contemplating another decision that would slow down housing development in HRM,” Smith said.
“So we won’t be supporting this motion. We’re going to carry on, we’re going to build housing as quickly as we can.”
The committee forwarded the bill to the house for third reading without amendment.