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Tristan Cleveland: Bureaucrats need thicker skin at Halifax City Hall

Halifax city staff should focus more on improving cities, and a little less on attacking columnists.

Halifax city staff should focus more on improving cities, and a little less on attacking columnists, writes Tristan Cleveland.

Jeff Harper/Metro / Halifax

Halifax city staff should focus more on improving cities, and a little less on attacking columnists, writes Tristan Cleveland.

I have been found unethical.

On Jan. 17, I received a letter informing me that Halifax Transit filed an ethics complaint against me to the Licensed Professional Planners Association of Nova Scotia about my column, “Tristan Cleveland: Halifax Transit isn’t listening to experts.” I stand by that column.

The Association held that I violated the code by making, “ill-considered and uninformed criticism” (violating 1.2 and 3.5 of our ethics codes). In particular, they took issue with this line: “Fundamentally, my concern… is that they feel they already have the answers, when there is so much this city needs to learn.”

Turns out that concern was valid. A year ago, council voted to have an outside consultant suggest changes to the Moving Forward Together Transit Plan. Six months later, Transit came back saying they didn’t think they needed anyone else’s opinion. Council had to tell them to get it anyway.

I won’t criticize Transit anymore than that, because I think they are doing amazing work right now. Just this Monday, they are holding consultations on Bus Rapid Transit, a network of high-speed transit lines like they have in Ottawa. That is awesome. I am seeing major, impressive progress being made in that department.

Yet, this misuse of ethics to attack speech raises two issues that need attention.

First, bureaucrats need to grow some thicker skin. I criticize politicians, and some weeks hundreds of people criticize me, and we all accept that as part of our jobs. But I have seen bureaucrats, not just in Transit, push back with shocking aggressiveness.

The problem is likely that they aren’t used to it. There is an old idea that politicians should take the public heat, so government workers can get their job done.

I reject that idea. Bureaucrats have enormous direct power that councillors can only partially check. Transit runs a $115-million system on which thousands of families rely on for keeping jobs and getting home safe. Our well-being depends on how highly-paid bureaucrats run that system, so they damn well should be held accountable.

Second, while the planning Codes of Ethics has a lot to say about planners treating each other nicely, it says all too little about the public’s well-being.

There are nine points on how planners should treat clients, and 11 points on how they should treat each other. There are only four points about the “public interest,” and these cover nothing more than consulting, being accurate, recognizing diverse goals, and acknowledging that stuff is complicated. There is absolutely no mention of health or safety.

Meanwhile, the decisions planners have made over the decades are hurting an awful lot of people.

In the words of a report from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, “The rise of urban sprawl is … linked to sedentary lifestyles, easy access to unhealthy food, more time spent driving, less physical activity and higher rates of obesity.”  All of that sprawl is in no small part the responsibility of planners. As a result of it, in part, “Chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease are the leading causes of death in Canada.”

In the 20th century, we made progress on healthcare because doctors are held to ethical standards for how they treat their patients. Buildings and cars are safer because engineers are held to ethical standards. No one, however, is held accountable for communities that do not support the basics of a healthy lifestyle, and it is now the greatest source of ill health in our country.

My profession needs to take ethics more seriously - and that does not mean stopping columnists from their legitimate democratic role in holding decision makers accountable.

When to go: Bus Rapid Transit Open House

Halifax Central Library, BMO Community Room 2-4:30 p.m., 5:30-8 p.m.

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