Budgets, Transparency and What the Mayor Said

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke being less than transparent.

What to make of that?

I just attended Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) Mayor Cecil Clarke’s special pre-budget meeting with the business community. I would estimate attendance at 40, including press, council members and “facilitators”—Mistress of Ceremonies Eileen Lannon Oldford of Business Cape Breton (BCB) and keeper-of-the-microphone Christina Lamey.

The purpose of the meeting seemed to be to convince the CBRM’s business community to throw itself wholeheartedly behind Mayor Clarke and all his projects (and, although he didn’t come right out and say it, to vote for him in October) in return for which they will get greater transparency in municipal tenders.

He discussed the budget, which he announced would not be a “good news” document for the benefit of anyone in the audience who’d come expecting otherwise (I don’t think this was a very big contingent). More diligent reporters than I will recount the details; I’d like to focus in on a word that recurred several times during Clarke’s speech: “transparency.”

Apparently, our mayor wants desperately to be more transparent on things like the port file but cannot get the provincial Auditor General to tell him how. The problem, said Clarke, is that the municipality has “no legislative mandate to get into economic development.” (I’ll give you a moment to digest that; he basically said, “We have no official mandate to do the things we’ve been doing for the past three years.”)

When it comes to projects like, say, a $1.5 billion international container pier, the mayor is making it up as he goes along. He spoke to Auditor General Michael Pickup on May 3 and asked him “What can we do for greater transparency?” To which the Auditor General apparently replied, “That’s outside of my scope.”

The only option, according to Clarke, would be to have Council vote to ask the province to send the Auditor General in to do his thing. Clarke declared himself prepared to do that. Of course, if that happens at all, it’s certainly not going to happen before the October elections, so it’s kind of a strange declaration to make: if you distrust me to the point that you want the Auditor General to audit my administration, vote for me and I’ll call him in!

I’m not the Auditor General (I just heard the entire province of Nova Scotia emit a sigh of relief) but I could tell the Mayor how to be more transparent on the port file: don’t hold 30+ in camera council meetings; don’t hide behind non-disclosure agreements with private companies; don’t rush land sales, like that of Archibald’s Wharf, through council without sufficient time for public input; don’t hire port marketers and CEOs in secret; don’t stack the “arm’s length” Port board with elected officials and municipal employees; seriously, I could go on (you know I can). But do I have to? Does Mayor Clarke really have no idea how to be more transparent? In the “About Mayor Cecil Clarke,” section on the Mayor’s Office page of the CBRM web site, he says:

“The Cape Breton Regional Muncipality [sic] is becoming a more open and transparent [sic] under Cecil Clarke’s leadership”*

Okay, so maybe that typo-riddled sentence fragment raises more questions than it answers, but it does seem to suggest Clarke has some understanding of the concepts of openness and transparency. It certainly doesn’t say, “I am trying to be more transparent but the Auditor General won’t let me.”

On the bright side, there is a way to hear about what’s happening with the port (and things are apparently happening—Clarke and his “team,” including CAO Michael Merritt and CFO Marie Walsh—are fresh back from “negotiations” in Montreal), all you have to do is fork over $250 to attend Ports Days and…

Come to think of it, maybe he doesn’t know what “transparency” means after all.

Random Observations:

  • Clarke, who has staked his reputation on the development of a container pier and who, in a June 2015 speech, waxed eloquent about development plans for downtown Sydney that included “a multi-purpose complex with anchors of the Nova Scotia Community College and the library,” now says that “exciting as they are,” such projects are not his focus. No, three years and change into his mandate, the Mayor has decided his focus is “the immediacy of putting people to work.”
  • Clarke referred to himself not once, but twice as the president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM), a position he holds because the actual president, District 4 Councillor Claire Detheridge, is unwell.
  • Local businessman Jim Kehoe thinks it’s time to call Ottawa and tell someone (he didn’t specify whom) that we need that infrastructure money to start flowing. Also, we need more public-private partnerships between local companies and any and all levels of government.
  • Both Lannon Oldford and Clarke called on members of the business community to rally around the CBRM as they have rallied around the residents of Fort McMurray, an uncomfortable parallel that seems to suggest the community Clarke has been leading for almost four years has a lot in common with a city devastated by forest fire.
  • Non-cynical moment: Respect for those business people who took time out of a busy morning to attend that meeting. I question many things in this world, but not their desire to see better days for the CBRM.

*I imagine this sentence will be edited once the CBRM communications department reads this piece, so I took a screen capture of it to prove I’m not making it up.

Screen capture from Mayor Clarke's message re: Transparency on CBRM web site


This article first appeared on goCapeBreton.com