Economic Development: Who’s In Charge Here?

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Why am I so interested in Business Cape Breton, the CBRM’s economic development “entity?”

Because I just can’t get a grip on what it’s supposed to be — it’s neither flesh, nor fowl nor good, publicly accountable municipal body.

It’s a non-profit society with a board made up of local businesspeople and yet it is funded by public monies and seems to be directing public policy in the area of economic development.

But let’s not talk in generalities, let’s use an actual case history.

Back in March 2017, I sent a request to the CBRM under Section XX of the Nova Scotia Municipal Government Act (MGA) asking to see:

…all documentation — emails, memos, correspondence, etc. — regarding the CBRM’s application for funding from the provincial government for a revitalization plan for Glace Bay & Area. the timeframe is 1 January 2016 to the present.

I eventually received 32 pages of information, most of which consisted of three copies of the revitalization plan (which morphs from a Glace Bay Revitalization Plan to a Glace Bay & Area Revitalization Plan) and one copy of BCB’s request for proposals for a consultant to draft said plan.

I think I can use these documents to show you what’s wrong with BCB.

 

Where’s Council?

The disclosure package contains no input — no emails, no memos, no correspondence —  from any elected CBRM official.

Mayor Cecil Clarke was the recipient of a number of emails (to which he apparently didn’t reply, at least, not in writing).

The three councilors whose districts are implicated in the plan (Amanda McDougall, District 8; George MacDonald, District 9; and Darren Bruckschwaiger, District 10) received an email after the project was chosen and the funding secured (to which none of them, apparently, replied, at least, not in writing.)

 

Where’s the CBRM Staff?

Then-CAO Michael Merritt and then-CFO Marie Walsh were included on a handful of emails, but do not seem to have replied to any of them.

The only CBRM staff member actively involved in the process was John Phalen, the former head of public works, who became manager of economic development and major projects at some point in November 2016.

Phalen’s role was to take the information he was provided by BCB CEO Eileen Lannon-Oldford and draft and send an email to DMA Deputy Minister Kelliann Dean requesting $225,000 for the revitalization project. He began his request this way:

I am following up in regard to discussions that the board of Business Cape Breton have had with the province in regard to a number of strategic projects they can pursue.

 

Section XX

There is no record of any such discussions in the disclosure package because, of course, BCB does not fall under Section XX of the MGA because it does not meet the definition of a public body.

(The only hint of the kind of lobbying that must have happened is an email exchange between BCB board chair Parker Rudderham and Glace Bay MLA Geoff MacLellan. Rudderham sends MacLellan a copy of their request for funding. MacLellan emails back that it looks “fantastic.” Lannon-Oldford then instructs Phalen to pull the trigger and send the application off to Municipal Affairs.)

Source: CBRM

In fact, the only reason I have any sense of BCB’s involvement with the project is that Lannon-Oldford sent emails to Phalen, Merritt, Walsh and Clarke — CBRM officials who are subject to access to information requests.

But Lannon-Oldford is simply keeping them posted on what she’s clearly doing under her own steam — choosing an economic development project for the CBRM, deciding what role her organization will play in that project, lobbying the province for support.

The Glace Bay & Area Revitalization Plan is a done deal from the beginning of this disclosure package to the end. Presumably, there were discussions as to what kind of economic development project the CBRM should undertake, what part of the CBRM it should focus on, why Glace Bay should be a priority, why Dominion and Reserve Mines should also be included, but none of these discussions seem to have involved any elected officials or staff of the CBRM — or if they did, they were conducted outside of formal channels.

 

Priorities?

I also FOIPOPed the Department of Municipal Affairs on this subject, and from their end I received a copy of an email sent by Deputy Minister Kelliann Dean to then-CBRM CAO Michael Merritt in October 2016. It’s a response to earlier letters from Cecil Clarke to Municipal Affairs Minister Zach Churchill. Clarke had requested Regional Enterprise Network (REN) status for the CBRM and 50/50 matching funding for its economic development activities (which he outlined and which didn’t include revitalization studies.)

Dean denies the REN request, then makes an offer, which I’ve paraphrased below:

  • Up to $100,000 in funding “for a process to examine the viability issues facing CBRM.” This process was to be “innovative” (of course) and involve public consultation.
  • Upon conclusion of this exercise, an additional $125,000 “for necessary studies to implement recommendations/solutions…for example, funding could be used to support  a wastewater infrastructure study that would examine the  cost of meeting the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) wastewater effluent standards in CBRM.”

I’m no fan of the provincial government’s nickel and dime approach to funding the CBRM — I’ve discussed the underlying problems of property taxes and equalization in detail — but I think our that wastewater issue is an important one that we’ve apparently decided to ignore in the hope that it will simply go away. (More on this next week.)

Maybe this is a completely stupid idea, using economic development money to fund a wastewater infrastructure study, but to me, it’s an idea that should have been discussed by our Council — or put to the public as part of that innovative engagement process to determine our priorities as a community.

Instead, it was swept aside by Business Cape Breton, which responded to this suggestion with a proposal to take $225,000, put half into its own operations and the rest into a Glace Bay & Area Revitalization study — a community priority it set without consulting the community or the community’s elected representatives.

Churchill makes a point, in a December 8 letter to Mayor Cecil Clarke, of saying this plan is not at all what the DMA had in mind — but then he funds it anyway.

 

The problem with BCB

The problem with BCB is that its unelected and unaccountable (to the public) board and staff are making decisions about how the CBRM should spend its economic development dollars.

Moreover, they’re making those decisions in secret, because they don’t have to hold their discussions in public nor are they required to maintain any record of those discussions.

Moreover, their decisions as to how the CBRM should spend its economic development dollars always seem to involve putting a big chunk of them into BCB staff salaries and “board expenses.”

Moreover, they’re at it again because the disclosure I received from the DMA included John Phalen’s request for funding for BCB’s 2017-2018 proposal  — which includes developing a revitalization plan for New Waterford and Whitney Pier.

And that, dear readers is why I’m so interested in Business Cape Breton.

Aren’t you?

 

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