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Mayor Mike Savage: Right time for new ideas, new people

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Leadership
March, 2024

When Mike Savage thought about running for mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality, he never imagined being in office for 12 years. But one thing he did know, he wasn’t planning to stay in the job forever.

Savage said that when he first ran for mayor in 2012, he did so because he felt Halifax needed a change. After his election, he didn’t think he would necessarily do a second term. But then he did. And then a third term came along.

Even while dealing with the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Savage said he recalls thinking he still loved being mayor. But, around that time, he also realized that 12 years was enough. Savage had reached an age where he wanted to do other things before shifting into retirement. But more importantly, he wanted to go out on his own terms.

“A lot of people put a lot of thought into how to get into politics, but not enough about how to get out of politics,” Savage said. “For me, I’ve known for some time, probably in my heart, that I wasn’t going to run again. There comes a time when somebody else needs to come along and bring some new ideas and energy to a job. I think that for me, that’s this year.”

Focus on Growth

After more than a decade in the mayor’s office, Savage has plenty of memories of the days gone by.

For one, Savage said he finds it easier to think about the arc of time he has been in office alongside how much the city has grown. And that growth has come, he said, in “in a generally very positive way.”

A common refrain from members of the public before he was sworn into office was that there wasn’t a single construction crane in the sky of Halifax. Over the last number of years, the city has seen what he describes as “incredible development.” Today, he said, he’s been told there are more than 40 cranes dotting the city skyline. It is a change he takes a lot of pride in given how the municipality has focused on well-designed, sustainable development.

Savage also reflects on how far things have come in the city’s relationship with local First Nations. As a city, Savage said, there wasn’t enough serious consideration of the importance of working with the Mi’kmaq people. But, he adds, he is proud of all the efforts that have come in the years since.

This also goes for his pride in a city program called the African Nova Scotian Road to Economic Prosperity plan. Savage said he is proud that Halifax now has systems in place to assist another significant population in the community that hasn’t had access to the economic development tools that are available.

Facing the Climate Challenge

A third significant accomplishment, Savage said, is reflected in how Halifax has chosen to take on the impacts of climate change.

The city’s climate action plan is called HalifACT. Halifax is one of the few cities that actually put a levee on property taxes specifically to pay for climate action. It was not an easy thing to put in place, Savage said, but it was unquestionably the right thing to do.

“When I ran in 2012, the three things I said I wanted Halifax to be was more inclusive, more entrepreneurial, and more livable,” Savage said. “We’ve made progress in all those areas, not withstanding that with growth come challenges and that’s homelessness and social exclusion, transportation. And so, certainly there have been challenges, but I feel pretty good when I look back on the last 12 years where the city is versus where it was.”

State of Local Government

While Savage feels the Halifax region is taking strides, he admits to concerns about the state of local government in general.

These are challenging times for local politicians, Savage said. As an example, one needs look no further than the resignation of France Bélisle, the now former mayor of Gatineau, Que. Bélisle resigned due to the toxic atmosphere in politics. Savage also pointed to Calgary’s Jyoti Gondek as another mayor forced into coping with “extraordinary challenges,” including a controversial recall petition.

Savage said there is a lot of “unpleasantness” in politics today. Much of that, he adds, being “misogynistic, sexist, and hateful.” But that said, he is also quick to suggest that these challenges are what must call good people to get into politics, not to pass it up. As such, he would still encourage people who care about their community, about making a difference, to step up and run for a position on council – whatever that position might be.

Savage is quick to admit – and he says this having run a company in the private sector, as well as served as a Member of Parliament – being mayor is the best job that he has ever had.

“It’s challenging. It can be frustrating. Certainly, it can be irritating. But it is very transparent. Everything we do is done in the open in municipal politics. And that comes with challenges” Savage said. “If you really believe if in your heart in discussing issues and making good policy decisions in the public square, it almost only leads you to municipal politics these days.”

Wicked Problems, Local Solutions

While Halifax has taken a lead on dealing with issues such as inclusion and the environment, the city still faces a litany of challenges. These obstacles fall under the banner of so-called wicked problems, which includes everything from addictions to housing to mental health.

Despite the scope of these challenges, Savage said he does believe solutions can be found. Unfortunately, too often, as Savage puts it, one learns in politics – and probably in life – “urgent crowds out the important.” And so, until things become a crisis, it can be difficult to get all orders of government to work together.

Savage’s hope for the future comes from the fact that if people can work across party lines, without worrying so much about who gets the credit and just be focused on the solutions, then anything can be accomplished.

This has proven to be the case in everything from addressing homelessness to dealing with climate change. In fact, Savage also derives hope from how communities came together during the pandemic as proof that success is possible.

“My hope is that people can start to get into things, can work on things, before they’re urgent,” Savage said. “More and more I think we’ve tried as a city here to get out in front of some of those things before they’re urgent. We need to work with the other orders of government to get it done.”

Love for Today, Excitement for the Future

Savage is quick to reiterate that he isn’t walking away from city hall because he dislikes the job or doesn’t believe in the future of the city. He simply believes it is the right time for new people and new ideas.

Savage has always been one to get a great deal of people energy from his interactions with the public. In fact, there have been many days where his office staff has asked him why he doesn’t go home. The answer is often that he has some event he wants to attend – even if it means not getting home until after 11 p.m.

He is quick to admit that it will be nice to be home on a Saturday night to watch the Canadiens play. In fact, he’s looking forward to just have more time in general. Yes, he did joke about considering a run for the Alberta NDP leadership, but then noted, “One of my former colleagues (former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi) has beaten me to it, and I wish him well.”

But one should not look for him to be in politics anymore. He said with confidence he doesn’t plan to be on the local radio shows making comments about what the mayor and council of the day is doing. Whatever he might do, it will still likely include some way of contributing to the betterment of the community he cares so much about.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s a public sector thing, but most likely for me, I’ve always wanted to go back into the private sector and do something,” Savage said. “There’ll be something else for me, don’t know what it’ll be, but it’ll be another chapter in my life that my wife and I look forward to very much.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean Meyer’s article: Local government champions look ahead to new experiences.

Sean Meyer is digital content editor for Municipal World.

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