Q&A with Halifax's three mayoral candidates

Mike Savage (left), Max Taylor (middle) and Matt Whitman (right) are seeking your support for the top political job at Halifax city hall

Mike Savage, Max Taylor and Matt Whitman are seeking your support for the top political job at Halifax city hall.

Savage and Whitman are veteran members of regional council – Savage is attempting to win a third term as mayor – and both have experience campaigning for office in other levels of government.

Taylor is a 22-year-old Haligonian and copywriter who has been described in news reports as a social media personality with a large number of followers. This is his inaugural attempt at winning public office.

Savage, 60, was first elected mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality in 2012, the same year Whitman initially won a seat on council. In 2016, the mayor defeated his lone opponent, business owner and environmentalist Lil MacPherson.

Whitman, the 49-year-old councillor for Hammonds Plains-St. Margarets, has, at times, been an outspoken representative whose views and use of social media attracted controversy. His campaign platform includes a plank about protecting taxpayers’ money through cost-conscious spending decisions made by the municipality.

Savage, a Dartmouth resident, told NEWS 95.7 on Sept. 4 he feels the Halifax region is going to bounce back from the fiscal consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have a lot of work to do, obviously, with COVID – and people are hurting – but I think in the long term that we will continue to have a bright future in Halifax,” he said.

Savage is the third politician to be elected mayor of HRM, following the late Walter Fitzgerald and Peter Kelly. Whitman served as the municipality’s deputy mayor in 2015-16.

Taylor, who studied at Bishop’s University in Quebec and the Miami Ad School in Toronto, has said a big part of the reason he’s running is to try to motivate young people to vote.

The municipal election will be held Oct. 17.

Advance polls for voting by phone or online are open Oct. 6 to Oct. 14. Advance polls for in-person voting take place Oct. 10 and Oct. 13.

The municipality’s budget for the 2020 election is around $2.3 million. Under finance-accountability rules, mayoral candidates can spend up to $300,000 on their campaigns.

The civic election four years ago included about 290,000 eligible voters. Information for electors can be found here: https://www.halifax.ca/city-hall/elections/information-voters

Below are 10 questions HalifaxToday.ca sent to Savage, Taylor and Whitman. The candidates replied via email. (Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

HalifaxToday.ca: Why do you want to be Halifax Regional Municipality’s next mayor?

Matt Whitman: Since graduating from (Saint Mary’s University) in 1992 and (after) a 20-year career in tech, finance (and) communications and 8 years on council, I’ve gained a lot of valuable, relevant skills that help me make smart, informed, taxpayer-
friendly decisions. HRM deserves that leadership (and) experience. 

Max Taylor: I love this city. I think it’s the greatest city in the world. And I want people to care about it, and voting is one way to show you care. Hopefully, we’re showing people how easy it is to run. If I were mayor, I’d make a point of making it easy to have
your voice heard ... If you want something changed, you can work to get it changed. This is about doing something; it starts with voting and then it goes to working with (regional) council.

Mike Savage: I think being mayor is the most rewarding job I have had. I enjoy meeting so many people every day and enjoy seeing progress in the city ... I want to continue the work to grow our economy and increase efforts to ensure the benefits of economic activity help more people ... I believe the fundamentals are strong and we can continue to attract business and foster the innovation that will create new businesses. It’s important that our pandemic recovery plan include measures to improve support for those people who were left behind, and who suffered most. That means things like increased affordable housing and an acceleration of our anti-poverty work ... We need to continue to address the issues that have created historic inequities in our community. No one should suffer social or economic discrimination because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

HT: What do you consider to be HRM’s top two priorities at this point in time?

MW: Recovering from COVID and housing affordability. With a 1% vacancy rate, we need to make it easier for builders to invest and provide affordable homes for our residents. 

MT: Dealing with COVID-19 and how it’s impacted our mental health. How we attract and keep millennials in HRM.

MS: I am not committing to a top two. Managing economic recovery that includes opportunity for all of our citizens, preparing for the crisis represented by climate change, and addressing issues of racial inequality and discrimination are paramount.

HT: Aside from the municipality’s recast budget, passed in June, what else should city hall do to try to recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic?

MW: Transit (and) parking should never have been free. Layoffs (within local government) should have happened sooner and been deeper. City hall needs to watch every dollar. We overpay on every product (and) service purchased. We need a fiscally-responsible mayor leading the recovery. 

MT: Work with federal and provincial governments to support faster testing and (contact) tracing, so we can be safe in public. Make sure all HRM staff have the COVID alert app on their devices. Make sure everyone has someone to talk to. This is a really hard time, people are down, and a lot of people are lonely. Doesn’t cost money to pick up the phone and check in on someone. Why can’t we make that part of the plan? COVID-19 will be with us for awhile. We need to keep the safety messages going. Distancing, washing hands, masks – we all have a part to play.

MS: First, we have to continue to look at our own operations and manage the tax rate ... Currently, the tax rate in Halifax is among the lowest among major Canadian cities ... We have to continue to manage the budget to maintain essential services and programs that people need. In some cases, that will mean shifting priorities within the budget to protect people. We have to work with our partners to address those sectors of the economy that have been devastated by COVID. This would include the tourism and hospitality sector and arts and culture ... We have to continue to work with those sectors to adjust policies and practices quickly. We’ve continued to move on infrastructure and other projects that generate business and employment income. We need to continue with this practice, and encourage investments by other levels of government and the private sector.

HT: What’s your opinion of reallocating public funds earmarked for Halifax Regional Police?

MW: I think our police are too valuable to defund. I support DEFEND POLICE. We have a great police force. I’d consider subbing out some services that may bog down our officers.

MT: I believe an important conversation has started, and having mental-health crises dealt with care, not policing, would be a good idea. My mom was a police dispatcher, so I know a lot of kind cops and dispatchers. What I’m hearing is that most of them want
change, too.

MS: Council decided this year to reallocate money earmarked for an armoured (police) response vehicle to restoring budget cuts to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the non-police Public Safety Office, with the balance going to programs to combat anti-Black racism ... Halifax police services are frequently called on for services which would be more appropriately provided by other professionals ... Council has approved a comprehensive review of police services to identify those functions that can and should be moved to other services, leaving the police with core duties. Implementation of any recommendations will have to be done in concert with the province ... Our efforts should extend to better understanding and addressing social determinants of crime, and continuing to invest in (community services and programs).

HT: The much-discussed redevelopment of the Cogswell interchange, years in the planning, is currently (it seems) on the back burner. How and when can the project be reset?

MW: Cogswell progress has been disappointing. I supported further consultation (and) listening to the business improvement districts and local community groups when they wanted more input. Council pressed ahead. Cogswell is doable if we watch the costs and protect taxpayers’ dollars.

MT: It probably will need to be delayed until we see how much money we have left after COVID. It is a huge project, but this recession is not affecting the construction industry right now. It is affecting the service sector; we need to help keep our favourite restaurants and barbers and dentists in business.

MS: The Cogswell interchange redevelopment is progressing but it’s a huge project and will impact many people. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a new downtown precinct, and must be done right, with continued public consultation ... The project will reconnect neighbourhoods, invest in district energy, create separated cycling lanes, and achieve a Rick Hansen Foundation accessibility designation. It’s important that affordable housing be included in all residential development projects in the area ... We should apply a social lens to all policy and procurement decisions to ensure benefits of construction accrue to the local community.

HT: A potential multi-use stadium, which includes a pledge of a conditional HRM contribution of $20 million, is a proposed project that was put forward prior to COVID-19 reaching Nova Scotia. In your view, what should happen now regarding that?

MW: I voted against taxpayer dollars invested in a stadium. If it was a good business investment then business people would be investing. I love professional sports but I don’t want taxpayers to foot the bill. Make it easy for investors to invest in HRM.

MT: I think this project was a tough sell before COVID-19 and isn’t a priority at this time. I’d withdraw the pledge. Wait until we are in better shape to play football. Even though I would love to see a team in Halifax at some point.

MS: It’s always been my view that a stadium at the right price would be good for Halifax. I still believe a city of our size should have a stadium but now does not appear to be the right time. The proposed municipal contribution of $20 million on a $120-million facility was less than we spend on many of our public amenities, including hockey arenas, the Central Library, multi-sport facilities. I would want a stadium to have broader public use, not simply (be) the home of a CFL team. At this time, we have to think about all of our expenditures and this is no different.

HT: What will city hall do, if you’re the successful mayoral candidate on Oct. 17, to help the municipality’s most vulnerable citizens, such as homeless people and poor residents?

MW: We can do better looking out for our most vulnerable. We need to collaborate better with the province and federal government. We need to encourage citizens and organizations and corporations to step up, and acknowledge those who do. We
need to make it easier for good people to do good deeds for those in need.

MT: Give more money to the (community support) Navigator program. Get people in communities to tell us what they need. More help for addicts, and more mental-health services and find a way to make life easier for single moms and dads.

MS: We have introduced a number of positive measures to assist the most vulnerable. It has been a priority of mine and of council, and will continue to be ... Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our social supports. My platform specifically includes measures to address poverty, affordable housing, and food security as priorities. These measures may require some adjustment in spending priorities. Certainly, they’ll require cooperation with other orders of government, the private sector, and community organizations, but further action is imperative.

HT: More people are going to be using wheelchairs in the next decade and many will be relying on accessible transit. Why aren’t there more accessible taxis in this municipality?

MW: I think new taxi drivers often start with accessible taxis to enter the business then find it difficult and labour-intensive. They gravitate towards non-accessible taxis. We need to ensure accessibility for all.

MT: I did notice that was one thing that was cut from the budget, making libraries and other public buildings more accessible. That bothers me. This is where sponsorship would work – the (municipality) could kick in a little and get someone to sponsor a taxi.
Accessibility would be a priority for sure.
MS: Accessible taxis are licensed in Halifax as a proportion of the overall taxi fleet. My platform includes a commitment to increase the number and availability of accessible taxis through incentives and easing of licensing caps for taxis. This requires some provincial legislative amendments that we are pursuing.

HT: The race for the mayor’s office in 2016 saw 31.7 per cent of eligible voters mark their x, despite measures put in place over the years to make voting more convenient. What more needs to be done to improve voter turnout?

MW: Voters need to feel included and listened to. If not, they tune out. As a councillor and as mayor I will be accessible and listen to feedback and input. We have a huge, well-paid communications team that needs to communicate this message better.

MT: Give people a reason to vote. I’m running to get the vote out. Because if you’re young or if you’re old, ... the municipal election is the one that counts. This is the one that’s about affordable housing, and transit and green space. We need to make sure everyone knows how important it is. Make it fun to be involved, get more young people, more women. If I told you that you could work for Tesla tomorrow, or work for the government, no question: most young people would choose Tesla. Because it feels future-friendly. Why can’t this job be future-friendly?

MS: Voter turnout is a challenge at all levels of government, but especially so at the municipal level. I hope that the large number of candidates in some districts in this election will generate more excitement and interest in voting. I also believe that we must work to engage people more between elections. Through new offices in the (municipality), like the Diversity and Inclusion office, we’ve been working to provide a stronger voice to communities on decisions that may affect them. The Youth Advisory Committee and the Women’s Advisory Committee represent an effort to increase engagement. 

HT: What’s your Plan B, should you lose the election?

MW: I will stay involved (and) continue to give back. Maybe start a small business and employ some staff. Hopefully run another marathon and learn to play the guitar. 

MT: I really feel a win for me is getting more people to the polls and getting really interesting, fun, creative, smart people who have never run before to consider running in the next election. I will go back to being a writer. But I will continue to advocate for the city and (work) to get young people excited about politics. And keep dancing on the side.

MS: Take a long walk in Shubie Park with my wife and figure it out together.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth

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