Whatever happened to the CBRM Council?

Guys, I’ve figured out what’s wrong with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality: it’s the Council.

There’s one exception: District 6 Councillor Ray Paruch. He tries to bring more transparency to proceedings but it’s like trying to make Lady Gaga wear pants.

It all became clear to me at the Port of Sydney AGM on Saturday. There I was, drinking the (excellent) coffee, wondering why they’d given me a 2009 Government of Canada pamphlet on Free Trade Zones—which basically said, “In Canada, there are no free trade zones”—and waiting for Council (the “members” of this company) to ask some good questions.

But as the minutes, then hours, ticked by, it slowly began to dawn on me: Council has no questions. Council likes the way the Port operates. Council created this monster. And the more I thought about it (drifting off during the “Port Security” presentation—although I did register that everyone working at the Government Wharf is now trained to fight terrorists), the more I realized it was true.

Council lost the plot when it agreed to meet (repeatedly) in camera to discuss Port matters, operating so furtively, the CBRM has actually adopted a new motto: Non in fronte, Cives which is Latin for “Not in Front of the Citizens” (at least, I think it is; I used an online English-to-Latin translator).

Council wandered further into the weeds in February 2015, when it secretly approved the secondment of ACOA exec Marlene Usher as CEO of the new Port of Sydney Development Corporation at an annual salary of $200,000.

No fuss, no muss, no advertising the position. I mean, think about it, poor old Geoff MacLellan called for applications for 13 call centre jobs and got 600 responses. Can you imagine how many applications would have poured in for the Port of Sydney CEO job if they’d said “You don’t need to know anything about ports and it pays $200,000 a year?” They could have built a second cruise berth out of resumes.

Council was totally down with this deal that saw Usher appointed CEO of the Port of Sydney Development Corp before the Port of Sydney Development Corp even existed (it was registered on March 31, 2015). Usher was appointed CEO before the board of directors that is supposed to be responsible for choosing the CEO and setting her salary even existed. That is bordering on magical realism.


Opposite Board!

On the subject of the board of directors, I actually have some sympathy for Council, because the Port of Sydney Articles of Association which describe it contain a classic bait and switch:

The bait:

“We’re going to have an awesome board (I’m paraphrasing here) that will consist of as many as 12 but no fewer than seven directors. There will be NO elected officials or employees of the CBRM on this board, although the CAO will be the non-voting chair. The board will comprise at least one accountant, one engineer, one lawyer, one marketer and three businesspeople. It will be so amazingly competent and accountable, you’ll want to marry it.”

The switch:

Article 5.24: (Which begins with “notwithstanding” so you know you’re not going to like it.)

“Until we put the real board together, we’re going to have OPPOSITE BOARD! It’s going to be made up of everyone who’s not really supposed to be on it—the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and three councillors. The CAO will still be the non-voting chair.”

But don’t worry, Opposite Board is only temporary, according to the motion to create the Port board, moved by Councillor Jim MacLeod, seconded by Councillor Kevin Saccary:

“A new Board with public membership will be created in 2016, and consultation will continue with Membertou and Eskasoni First Nations with respect to Board representation.”

CAO Michael Merritt is now saying the interim board won’t be replaced until sometime after the fall elections, so dream on about your lawyers and accountants and representatives of First Nations communities, these old white guys are gluing their butts to their directors chairs and it will take an election to pry them loose!


Assumption Fund

Council also made sure this interim board had funds other than those from the actual operations of the Port, because the Port breaks even the way college students can afford to drink every weekend—by not paying rent.

The Port of Sydney was given access to a fund (called the “assumption fund”) which held the $2.5 million left over from the harbor dredge and which was earmarked for new navigational aids. Now it funds the Port’s business development budget. All the CEO has to do is ask the interim board for permission to spend and the board says, “Go for it!”

To date, Usher has spent $492,904. And before some Crossing Guard who lost her job to save the municipality $12,000 starts chirping about that being a lot of money, Usher wants you to know it’s really not:

“It may look like a lot of money but I can tell you when you’re dealing with consultants and legal, it’s expensive.”

Yes, she really said that.

Next year, the Port of Sydney will take another $420,000 from that fund, along with $205,000 from “project funding,” whatever that is; and $105,000 from the CAO’s budget, for a total 2016/2017 “business development” budget of $730,000 (or as I like to think of it, 61 Crossing Guards.)
This budget, with the exception of the $105,000 from the CAO’s budget which must be approved by Council, has been okayed by the interim board.


Harbor Port Development Partners

Of all the strange things Council has approved on the port file, the strangest, to my mind, is the exclusivity deal with Barry Sheehy and Albert Barbusci, the port marketers with no experience marketing ports. But Council approved this and so Council either knows what the real deal is — meaning, have Sheehy and Barbusci actually spent $3 million of their own money promoting our port? Will the CBRM eventually have to make them whole? Or, Council has no idea what the deal is — and that’s actually even more disturbing.

There was no discussion of this arrangement during the Port AGM.


In Conclusion

I don’t know anything about port development, which puts me on par with the Port of Sydney CEO, its marketers, its business development manager and all five members of its interim board, but it seems odd to me that while the Chinese Communications Construction Company is doing a study to see if our container port project is “feasible,” the Port of Sydney is preparing to spend $730,000 on business development. Isn’t that putting the barge before the tugboat?

There are so many questions. Getting answers seems like a job for, oh, damn, what’s that thing called? That elected body that represents the interests of the citizens in a municipality? It’s on the tip of my tongue — you know, it holds the Mayor accountable for his actions, scrutinizes the spending of tax dollars, makes sure constituents are kept informed?

COUNCIL, that’s it!

Anybody heard from it lately?


This article first appeared on goCapeBreton.com