Civic Centre to City Hall? The CAO Did It!

Remember that brief swirl of controversy around the mysterious renaming of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s Civic Centre to “City Hall?”

A front-page story in the Cape Breton Post on March 6 saying the issue would be on the agenda of that day’s General Committee Meeting (placed there by District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch), followed by this March 11 “rant/rave” on the editorial page:

RANT & RAVE: For name change. We’re somewhat torn when it comes to under publicized transition of our municipal government building’s official designation from Civic Centre to City Hall. On the one hand, its status as a dominant public building in downtown Sydney is completely in keeping with the definition of civic centre. On the other hand there are many residents in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality who don’t feel as if they live in a city. So why change? Still, there seems to have been an explosion of multi-purpose arenas in North America being tagged as “Civic Centre” or “Civic Center” in the past couple of decades, which conjurs [sic] up a different image when the name is used. In addition, CBRM also has Centre 200. It can get a little confusing at times, especially for an outsider.

Civic Centre, CBRM

Civic Centre, CBRM

(So true, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people leave Council Chambers in disgust when they realize the Screaming Eagles are actually playing elsewhere.)

But what’s missing here is nothing less than the best part of the story: CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke’s explanation for the change. THE CAO DID IT!

That, hand to God, is what Clarke told Council at that General Committee Meeting.

Apparently, the chief administrative officer’s duties include arbitrarily changing the names of public buildings. In the mayor’s version, Michael Merritt could wake up one morning and decide to paint “Graceland” or “Cadillac Ranch” or “Gryffindor” over the entrance to the building now known as City Hall without overstepping his authority.

Here’s my transcription of the Mayor’s explanation:

Since the last the four-and-a-half years ago now, after getting elected and coming in, I started the practice of referring to this facility as ‘City Hall.’ For the last two years plus, I do believe, all of the agendas have noted it as ‘City Hall.’ However, I’ve also looked at the issue of Civic Centre in a modern context, it is often referred to now as an arena, recreational and a community centre and the relevancy of what was a former municipal unit’s name on a building versus this municipality as we went forward in terms of being the other city of Nova Scotia with regards to being a city and reflecting that, as this is the building that all the administration of the municipal affairs are done with, I refer to that. However, I don’t, there is no naming policy right now, I don’t have that ability to do that.

The ability to name …buildings rests with the CAO, as was the case with any of the other buildings that would have been in effect. When the former County Council building would have been transferred to police, that was done by virtue of staff what I would [unidentified voice: ‘That was Council’] by virtue of the renaming of the building itself and the name on that building was done through the…CAO. That’s my understanding as I check and reflect the records and the decision of the CAO to do that.

Now, I would work through the CAO, the CAO would work through departments. From the point of view I’ve done, from a promotional point of view, when we’ve had New Year’s it’s been New Year’s at City Hall, the last two very successful events I refer to it as City Hall, but as far as the process of naming that would be with the CAO and I’ve checked the records around that…

Shorter Cecil Clarke: I totally want to be the mayor of a City.

The problem? We are not a city, we are a regional municipality. We could become a city — the regional municipality of Toronto did, in 1998 — but right now, we are not a city, so the term “City Hall” is, strictly speaking, inaccurate.



I think my favorite part of the discussion came when Clarke tried citing precedent — other times public buildings in the CBRM changed their names without any input from Council.

CBRM Council Chambers

For example:

[W]hen the former Town Hall in Sydney Mines, which was the Town Hall, became a police station, it just merely went over to North Division Police Headquarters. In terms of operations, those were again at a facility, so with the working name of those facilities, they would be there.

This isn’t a parallel situation — the Sydney Mines Town Hall became a police station. The Civic Centre was — and still is — the administrative center of the CBRM. The CBRM was — and still is — a regional municipality.

But his real precedent, pulled like a rabbit from a hat, was the decision to name police headquarters on Grand Lake Road after the late Myles Burke, a former police chief.

In Clarke’s telling, that was all the work of then-CBRM CAO Jerry Ryan:

I’ll show council a copy of those records that show the CAO was given the authority to make those decisions in the past. There was a closed-door meeting, an in camera meeting, that in camera meeting gave that authority back to the CAO when it came to the naming of the Myles Burke facility and it was vested with the CAO. I will produce the records associated with that.

So, then-Council gave then-CAO Jerry Ryan the authority to rename police HQ after Myles Burke and ever since CAOs have had the power to unilaterally rename buildings?  Clarke has promised to “produce the records” that prove this, but surely Council didn’t mean to abdicate all responsibility for naming public buildings ad infinitum? Doesn’t it seem more likely the CAO’s “authority” to rename buildings is like the CFO’s “authority” to sign checks — it doesn’t mean she can write checks for any amount she chooses to whomever she wants.

There followed a discussion in which Councilors Clarence Prince (District 1) and Jim MacLeod (District 12) said, basically, the name was not an issue, nobody cares about it, Council has more pressing matters to deal with and some people in Prince’s riding don’t even know what you mean when you say “Civic Centre,” which is why he personally calls it “Civic Place.” (Why a person who didn’t know where the Civic Centre was would clue in when they heard “Civic Place” is beyond me, but I’ll trust the Councilor on this.)

I think it actually does matter because the Mayor, once again, has acted without input from Council. How hard would it have been to put the question on the agenda and make his case for renaming the building? And what is the significance of the change? Paruch said one of two citizens who contacted him about the issue expressed the belief the name change for the Civic Centre is just the first step toward changing the name of the CBRM to “Sydney.” Does the power to rename the municipality also lie with the CAO? Somebody might want to check that.

The names of public buildings clearly matter — if they didn’t, the decision to rename Police HQ for Myles Burke would not have been considered such an honor. Here’s what one officer said at the time:

The chief’s presence is felt daily. It just resonates, and to have the building dedicated in his memory is just so appropriate because there’s not a day that I walk into this building that I don’t think of him and the legacy that he’s left behind.

And names CLEARLY matter to the Mayor, who has been referring to the Civic Centre as ‘City Hall’ for the past “four-and-a-half years,” who has slipped the phrase onto Council agendas, into municipal events and even  onto the web site.

Why so furtive? If you have a case to make, why not make it in public for all of us to hear?

You might even convince us.


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