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TOM URBANIAK: Is your local candidate awake in Nova Scotia?

<p>Tom Urbaniak, associate professor of political science at Cape Breton University</p>
Tom Urbaniak, professor of political science and director of the Tompkins Institute at Cape Breton University.

Most municipal governments in Nova Scotia are “maintenance regimes.” And that’s not good enough.

Post-graduate students who concentrate on local government often dig into what is called “regime theory.” A key author on regime theory is the American political scientist Clarence Stone.

Basically, regime theorists have observed the following: Where local government manages to get things done, or even turn a community around, the politicians (and administrators) have successfully built a kind of governing coalition. In other words, they have drawn in allies, organizations, resources and community brainpower from outside the local government.

The most basic type of regime is a maintenance regime. It’s pretty passive.

We’ve all encountered maintenance regimes. The maintenance municipal politicians aren’t dynamos or organizers. They wait for calls and proposals, and then they answer them (sort of). They don’t have many goals. They wait for “staff issue papers,” which they may not comprehend. They spend their terms moving from one pothole complaint to the next one. If their community is declining, they barely notice it. They’re just happy to put in the time. They’re often content to hang around for decades.

They may be friendly and busy people, but they’re not really leaders of their communities. 

A more complicated – and potentially more exciting — kind of local “regime” is a development regime or a progressive regime.

A development regime usually has active ties to business, especially land developers. This can be a problem if the politicians are the junior partner, as the developers look after their own bottom line. They can destroy neighbourhoods and the environment if not kept under control. The Halifax Regional Municipality may now be experiencing some of the tensions of a development regime.

It can be tempting for local politicians to accept the role of junior partner in a development regime. Developers bring tax revenue and an appearance of progress. They often contribute to the campaigns of friendly politicians. But they don’t always act in the public interest.

(Maintenance municipal politicians) spend their terms moving from one pothole complaint to the next one.

A progressive regime is actually tougher to establish and to keep going than either a development regime or a maintenance regime. But it can have a huge impact. Progressive regimes that are effective still try hard to attract (good) business, grow the overall tax base and cultivate grassroots entrepreneurship. But they’re also big on quality of life, citizen participation and really good public services. They’re very opportunistic about sniffing out funding pots for community-improvement projects that they have designed together with community partners. They’re first in line with specific, ambitious proposals, not just vague complaints.

Local politicians in a progressive regime tend to be sharp and astute. They run on clear platforms with clear goals and an intimate knowledge of every corner of their neighbourhoods. They get impatient with lazy or naysaying bureaucrats. They have studied municipal government themselves. They have attended council meetings before running for the first time. They have actually headed organizations. They can show that they have executed serious projects in their community.

Do you have candidates like this running in your district? I hope so! 

It’s not enough for candidates to be nice people who are accessible, although that is important. Ask them to show you a full platform. Ask them how they’re going to transform crumbling parts of your district. How will they move around obstacles? Do they have the leadership skills to work outside the council chambers to actually organize complex projects with multiple interest groups? Do they have the communication and financial skills to draft business plans and policies themselves and then push them through? Have they ever previously brought partners together to write a complicated grant proposal?

Are they ready to push for more local and regional autonomy? And do they know what to do once they get it?

In July 2019, the Cape Breton Post’s Nicole Sullivan did an article about improvements to the Glace Bay Heritage Museum (Old Town Hall) and other capital needs in Glace Bay. The non-profit group’s proposal to the municipality was supposedly misplaced. 

I was struck by one of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality councillors in the article. He talked about the various anchor cultural institutions (and economic drivers) as if they were outside interests (“them”) looking for small favours. It’s as if the municipality’s role was merely to passively wait for proposals and then adjudicate them. Not a word about leading a major local revitalization plan comprising all of these partners.

Behold, a maintenance regime.

We need to upgrade — urgently. We should be looking for candidates who understand development regimes and can create progressive regimes.

Dr. Tom Urbaniak is a professor of political science and director of the Tompkins Institute at Cape Breton University. 


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