CBRM Council: Mayor Clarke Brings ‘Clarity’ to Port Report

I begin with a caveat: I watched the CBRM Council livestream from 4:35 yesterday afternoon to 9 PM last night, at which point, I surrendered and switched to Netflix. I consider this a sign of weakness on my part — but I also blame whoever scheduled the economic planning and development session and the regular monthly meeting for the same day.

When the economic planning and development sessions were announced back in May, Tom Ayers reported for LocalXpress that council had decided to “meet the first Wednesday of every month — and more often, if necessary — to formulate an economic development strategy for the municipality.” Council then promptly held its first such session the first Tuesday in June, doesn’t seem to have held any such meetings in July or August (there are no minutes listed on the CBRM website) and scheduled the September economic and planning session for the third Tuesday of the month i.e. the day of the regular council meeting.

Yesterday’s agenda actually started at 1:30 PM with the Appeals Standing Committee. Why is it necessary to cram all these meetings into a single day? If it’s to discourage people like me from watching as much as I should, I’m embarrassed to say, it worked.

I was tuned in and wide awake for Port of Sydney Development Corporation (PSDC) CEO Marlene Usher’s presentation, though. Here are my highlights.


Presentation à deux

The Port of Sydney is an “arm’s length” corporation of the CBRM, but our mayor is so familiar with its workings and business it seemed at times yesterday that he, not Usher, was reporting to council.

Clarke interjected repeatedly to add “clarity” to Usher’s responses, although he hasn’t been a member of the Port board since April, when the interim board he was part of was replaced by the permanent board.


Just a minute, there

Usher professed herself delighted with the Port of Sydney’s new permanent board which, she said, has met three times since it was formed in April.

Isn’t that nice? I’m glad everyone is getting along so well. But do you know what would be even nicer? If they’d post the minutes from those meetings on the Port website. The last minutes made public are from 1 March 2017.

I had expected better from the permanent board.


Putting the “Fun” in “Trust Fund”

Councilors Kendra Coombes, Amanda McDougall and Earlene MacMullin tried to pin Usher down on spending from the so-called Assumption Fund, a trust created to hold the $2.5 million left over from the Sydney harbor dredge.

This summary of the trust fund spending was included in the council agenda (I’m assuming the “Port of 5ydney” is a typo and not a rebranding exercise):

Councilors received a more detailed breakdown of the spending (why that couldn’t also have been attached to the agenda remains one of God’s little mysteries).

Coombes asked Usher how the money came to be used for purposes other than those outlined in the original assumption agreement — chief among which was the purchase and installation of navigational aids.

Usher said the navigational aids proved more expensive than first estimated so the steering committee overseeing the fund voted to allow it to be used on other things — like business development.

What she didn’t say was that the steering committee decided it was okay to do this based on a legal opinion from Jim Gogan who, as of April 2017, had been paid over $135,000 from the Assumption Fund for his services.

Oh, and she also didn’t say that the assumption agreement specified that “any amendment must be set forth in writing and signed by each of the Parties to the Agreement” and I have never been able to find any such written amendment.

I wrote all about that here.


Rail study

The Spectator noted on September 6 that the Port is spending $80,300 on a rail study in support of the container terminal (or greenfield) project although, since April of this year, the Port of Sydney has not had responsibility for the container terminal project. I guessed that this money was coming from the Assumption Fund and that does seem to be the case.

If I understood Usher (and the mayor, who had a lot of “clarity” to add on this subject) correctly, she says it was okay to spend this money on the rail study because the decision to do so was made before April. This may well be the case, but the only reference I could find to the rail study in the published Port board minutes was from the 1 March 2017 meeting, during which Usher announced they needed $460,000 for a rail study and the board agreed that she should apply to Invest Nova Scotia for funding. Perhaps there were additional meetings in March during which the board actually agreed to fund all or part of the rail study itself — maybe, some day, the minutes from those meetings will be published.

In answer to a question from Councilor Ray Paruch about whether the $80,300 study was the “first phase” of the $460,000 study, Usher said that was “his” term for it. But it was actually her term for it, in the press release announcing it:

Cape Breton Regional Municipality and First Nations partners support the approval of funding from the Port of Sydney for this project. This first phase of the project is budgeted at $80,300 plus expenses.

To muddy the waters further, Usher also told Paruch that they had “reduced the scope” of the study and got a much lower price from Hatch, which will be conducting it, than that initial $460,000. So is this “the first phase” of a larger study? Did the Port board approve funding of $460,000? Why can’t the PSDC just publish its minutes and clear this up?


Missing article

The bigger question about the Trust Fund is, will the Port of Sydney continue to spend money from it in support of the container terminal project?

I think the answer is “yes,” on the grounds that this is “marketing” and they’ve already decided they can spend the Trust Fund money on port marketing. But the modified Articles of Association for the Port of Sydney specify very clearly that it is responsible for the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion and the marine terminal. How that can also include marketing the greenfield site is beyond me.

Usher (or the mayor) actually appended a copy of the Articles of Association for the Port of Sydney Development Corporation to last night’s meeting agenda but it’s not much help because Article 12, which lists “Activities of the Company Necessary to Support Port Operations” is missing. Go figure:

You can read the missing Article 12 in the full Articles of Association which are, actually, posted on the Port website.


Tug services

The Port of Sydney has “no readily available tug service.”

Did you get that? Although we paid $1.2 million to buy land from Jim Kehoe to lease to McKeil Marine — which operates tugboats — that doesn’t mean we actually have tugboat services.

As Usher explained to Council, when the Port of Sydney needs tug services — for “weather diverted” cruise ships — it needs them within “hours” and that’s “not how it operates currently.” Mayor Clarke (once again, providing “clarity”) said that although a tugboat may physically be in the harbor at times, the “operators have to come in.”

McKeil Marine and Heddle Marine (an associated company sharing the Sydport space with McKeil) would “happily” provide tug service to the Port of Sydney, said the Mayor and it’s hoped that with the construction of the second berth we will have enough business to hire them.

I guess we should just be grateful the tugboats were made available for photo ops as often as they were.


China no more?

Councilor Steve Gillespie asked Usher about the work done by the two law firms paid by the Port of Sydney — Dentons and Breton Law Group.

Usher explained that Breton Law (i.e. Jim Gogan) handles local business for the Port while Dentons (Jean Chretien’s law firm) was hired to help them with their business in China.

Gogan continues to work for the Port but Usher doesn’t seem to think they’ll hire Dentons again because…well, she didn’t actually explain why, but the answer doesn’t seem to be that their business efforts were successful and the Port of Sydney secured a Chinese shipping line as well as nailing down an agreement with the Chinese Communications Construction Company (CCCC) to build a container terminal.

No, their business with China just seems to be…over.


Harborfront development

One of the most eyebrow-raising items related to the Port of Sydney Development Corporation yesterday came not from Usher’s presentation but from planning and development director Malcolm Gillis’ discussion of harborfront development during the economic planning and development meeting.

Gillis suggested the Port of Sydney, in view of its status as an “arm’s length” public body, could oversee harborfront development, ensuring all projects respected the “holistic” approach of the 2014 Ekistics plan for the waterfront.

Wouldn’t that be great? Waterfront development could be handled during the board’s meetings. Nobody would know what was being said or who was being heard or how decisions were being made. Every now and then they’d release some (heavily edited) minutes and we could pore over them trying to figure out what they’d been up to.

I actually liked much of what Gillis had to say about waterfront development, but the idea of handing responsibility for any part of it over to the Port of Sydney sends a chill up my spine.



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