Did Port CEO Marlene Usher ‘Leave the Politics at Home?’

Port of Sydney Development CEO Marlene Usher

Port of Sydney Development Corporation CEO Marlene Usher at Monday’s Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Port of Sydney Development Corporation CEO Marlene Usher began her “port update” to the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday by assuring the roughly 85 people in attendance that the timing of the talk — smack in the middle of a municipal election campaign — was “purely by chance.”

Afterwards, under questioning by the Cape Breton Post, she doubled down on the nonsense, saying she and Chamber executive director Adrian White had been discussing her talk for months:

“It had nothing to do with that…we started in the spring, it just ended up that it was (Monday),” Usher said. “Some people may like to make it political, but it’s not, it’s about an economic development project that would be so wonderful for our community, so I leave the politics at home.”

Right, and I guess we’re to presume that glossy Moving Foward: Port of Sydney Update flyer was delivered with the Post on Monday “purely by chance” too?

Do you know what gives the lie to all this? The fact that there was no new information in either Usher’s speech or the glossy flyer. If Usher absolutely had to do her port development speech again, if she goes into withdrawal if she can’t say “Great Circle Route” in public at least once a quarter, then she should have scheduled the luncheon for after the election — the day after, if she had to — but she shouldn’t have scheduled it during an election campaign. (That prĂ©cis of her talk on the Chamber’s web site was a total tease, by the way, Usher did indeed talk about the mega-terminal project, she just didn’t say anything new.)

And here’s a radical thought: if there were actual new developments on the port file to report, she should have updated the CBRM Council prior to the election period. Such an update would have been news in itself, since Usher has “never, ever not once ever” in the 18 months since the Port of Sydney Development Corporation was formed provided an update to the CBRM Council, District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch told The Spectator.

When it comes to the Port of Sydney Development Corporation, Usher can’t “leave the politics at home” because she is the walking embodiment of those politics. She was hired without a competition, at a salary of $200,000 a year, to do a job for which she is not qualified. She reports to a board that, in flagrant contradiction of the corporation’s own articles of association, is made up of the mayor and four councilors — all of whom are running for re-election this fall. All of whom stand to benefit from any excitement she can generate over port development. All of whom are no doubt desperately hoping a significant number of voters will look at the artist’s rendition of the second cruise berth on the cover of that glossy flyer and think, “They got ‘er done!”


Shiny Happy Port

And speaking of that flyer, I have to note some of the more remarkable content:

Here’s Usher:

Our communities surround one of the best natural harbours in eastern North America. It’s an exciting time to introduce our port, and its potential, to the world. It is through this belief in our potential, and the will to succeed despite the challenges, that keeps us going.

It is through this lack of proofreading, and inability to write a grammatical sentence, that keeps me laughing.Port of Sydney N.S. update brochure

And here’s that old salt who chairs the port board, CBRM CAO Michael Merritt:

Pardon the seafaring theme, but it takes everyone rowing in the same direction to move a ship forward.

Right? Just like that famous old sea shanty, “Row, row, row your ship.” But Merritt’s not done:

The federal government not only supports the secondment of ACOA executive Marlene Usher to lead the Port of Sydney for a three-year term, but also established a Foreign Trade Zone designation for CBRM.

Yes, folks, the federal government, by letting our broke-ass town pick up half of Usher’s $200,000 annual salary, is showing its unwavering support for our port project. I’d hate to see what federal opposition would look like.

As Chair of the Board, we welcome the support we have received in further developing the Port of Sydney.

Is that a royal “we” or are CBRM CAO Merritt and Port board chair Merritt two different people?

Don’t even get me started on the “Project timeline” that covers one entire four-panel side of the flyer. It’s a list of non-developments that starts with Bechtel coming to Sydney to begin feasibility work (BECAUSE WE PAID THEM TO) and ends with the Cape Breton Building and Construction Trades Council signing a memorandum of understanding with Harbor Port Development Partners “for labour for the Novaporte and Novazone projects.” (Actually, it was an MOU promising there would be no labour unrest during  construction, and it’s highly debatable whether any union could actually promise that.)



The Post actually acknowledged that Usher’s port “update” contained nothing really new. I was impressed. Until Wednesday, that is, when I was greeted by the front page headline, “A good first year,” illustrated by a picture of a cruise ship.

The accompanying article, which covered half the front page and a good chunk of A4, was an ode to Marlene Usher and the first year of operations for the Port of Sydney Development Corporation. The focus was the cruise industry which, you may recall, has been running for more than a year.

Usher called the first year of operations “a learning period,” noting that much of the port’s cash flow comes in the months of August and September.

Cruise ship and big fiddleI could be wrong, but I’m betting the volunteers on the old Sydney Ports Corporation (SPC) board — the ones who were unceremoniously dumped when the PSDC and its high-paid CEO and dodgy board of elected officials came in — could have shortened that learning period for her. Actually, I bet anyone who works at the port could have told her, “most of the port’s cash flow comes in the months of August and September.”

And the “good year,” comes down to “a surplus of $128,000,” achieved because passenger taxes, berthage revenue and government assistance were higher than anticipated. (Also achieved, although the Post doesn’t mention it, because the Port of Sydney “has not been able to make all of the lease payments as they have come due under the terms of the lease agreement with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.” The total payable to the CBRM stands at $1.5 million, according to the Port’s recently released financial statements.)

All in all, said Usher:

“…it was more or less an uneventful year except for the fact that we’ve started doing some business development and we hired a new person to help us with that, and he started in January.”

(Yes, they hired a “Certified Port Executive,” who gained his qualification by way of a five-day course and who hasn’t said a word in public since.)

But when did the year become so ho-hum? Back in January, when they issued their first glossy port update flyer, both Usher and Merritt were expecting great things from 2016. Said Usher:

The Port of Sydney Development Corporation is in the midst of great change and immense optimism…The year 2016 is a pivotal year and we are positioned for success.

Merritt was so excited he couldn’t write:

[T]he Port of Sydney Development Corporation is expecting an exciting and successful 2016 as we continue to building our port to meet the needs of Cape Breton and the world.

They spent $567,231 on business development this past fiscal year as they “continued to building” the port. It was their biggest expense after wages (although it is also listed as their second-biggest source of revenue, which I guess reflects that the money is coming from the navigational aids fund. Accounting is such fun.) Business development includes all their hard work promoting the greenfield site and yet, “greenfield site” isn’t even mentioned in this front page celebration of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation’s first year.

Why? Because POLITICS.

Don’t leave home without them.


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