Mayor Clarke and the December Hustle

What is it about CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and December? Does he hear that John Lennon song — And so this is Christmas/And what have you done? — and panic?

Does he look at his lists of 200 “positive changes” for the municipality and scream?

Because at a time when most businesses and institutions are thinking about slowing down for the holiday season, Clarke steps up the pace. Look at what has happened in our community during three recent Decembers:

 

December 2014:

On 2 December 2014, the Mayor called a “Special Meeting” of Council with a two-item agenda: the fiscal situation and a “port update” by then-economic development officer John Whalley on Archibald’s Wharf, a waterfront recreational property in North Sydney.

The “update” about Archibald’s Wharf was that the CBRM had received an offer on it from the company next door to it on the waterfront, Canadian Maritime Engineering (CME), a ship building/repair/breaking outfit.

The offer, contained in a 17 November 2014 letter from CME president Tony Kennedy, was for $200,000 and hinged upon the CBRM being able to close the deal — that is, push it through Council — in 30 days.

At that 2 December 2014 meeting, Council agreed to the sale (the mayor and nine councilors voted yes, District 7 Councilor Ivan Doncaster abstained, District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch was not present). CME would pay $200,000 for the property plus make a $50,000 contribution to local recreation ($25,000 of which would be used for “port development”).

The sale, however, required an amendment to the CBRM Municipal Planning Strategy which, with a few exceptions, does not allow the sale of CBRM-owned recreational land on a waterfront. Amending the planning strategy required a public consultation process “culminating in a Public Hearing of Council,” so a “committee comprised of the Mayor and senior administration [read former CAO Michael Merritt] was tasked with the responsibility of organizing and scheduling a Public Participation Program.”

That committee did such an excellent job that when it was time to vote on the amendment (at yet another Special Meeting of council on December 19), District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald and District 3 Councilor Mae Rowe voted against it, MacDonald saying he felt the process had been “severely flawed” and that he “did not have sufficient time to review the documentation provided;” Rowe arguing that while they may have followed the letter of the law in terms of process, she felt they hadn’t followed its spirit. The amendment passed by a vote of 12 to 2.

Fifteen months later, Nova Scotia’s ombudsman would validate the dissenting councilors’ concerns, ruling that the CBRM had rushed the sale of Archibald’s Wharf and had failed to adequately consult the public.

 

December 2016

After a relatively quiet December 2015 (that did, it should be noted, include a trip to China), Clarke was ready for action again in December 2016.

He started things off with an in camera meeting on December 7, then threw a last-minute addendum onto the agenda of the regular meeting on December 15. Council was asked to add five years to the two-year exclusivity agreement it had granted Harbor Port Development Partners (HPDP), our port promoters, in June 2015.

Everybody’s favorite lawyer, Jim Gogan, made the presentation on behalf of HPDP. (And if you look at the “Issue Paper” he presented to Council on the subject, you’ll note he dates the exclusivity agreement to 16 June 2014, which would have meant it had expired six months earlier. I thought lawyers were supposed to be super uptight about things like dates?)

Click to enlarge.

According to the minutes from that meeting, District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin suggested that the matter of the extension be deferred “until an independent legal opinion” could be obtained. During the discussion “some Councillors expressed the need for more time and information in order to make the right decision for CBRM.” Subsequently, Councilor MacMullin moved, and District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes seconded, a motion to postpone discussion until such a legal opinion could be obtained.

The meeting was adjourned, however, due to the sudden illness of District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie and debate didn’t resume until December 19. Prior to that meeting, however, as Councilors MacMullin, Coombes and McDougall told the CBC at the time, they were invited to a “technical briefing” with “prominent businessmen” MacMullin said had been brought in to convince them to approve the deal.

Coombes told the CBC it was “more like a bullying session,” and that it “felt like we were being put back in our place.”

During the actual Council meeting, the motion to postpone was defeated 8 to 5 while the motion to extend HPDP’s contract was approved 9 to 4. (Although they were referred to as HPDP throughout the debate, they had actually changed their corporate name to Sydney Harbour Investment Partners or SHIP in October 2016.)

All in all, another successful December hustle.

 

December 2017

And that brings us to 2017.

Just like the Christmas season seems to start earlier and earlier each year, so Mayor Clarke’s December hustle seems to be gathering steam earlier than usual. I would argue it started on November 16 this year, with an in camera session during which Council was presented with an Option and Development Agreement it was to sign with SHIP.

Emboldened by his past successes, no doubt, Mayor Clarke upped the ante this year — taking cell phones away from Councilors before allowing them into the Council Chambers and refusing to allow them to take documents home to read and digest.

He scheduled a second in camera session for November 20 which was followed immediately by a Special Meeting. Councilors had the intervening days to familiarize themselves with the contents of the agreement (with the help of CBRM staff). The proponents of the deal had also, conveniently, arranged to secure an “independent” opinion of the deal from a Montreal consultant of their own choosing.

This time only District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch held out, arguing Council needed more time to come to grips with the agreement. On November 20, Council voted to approve the Option and Development Agreement.

It was another triumph of the mayor’s tried and true pressure tactics — which, I need hardly add, only work because a majority of councilors seems ready to agree to his every demand — but it turned out to be only an opening sally.

Clarke then secretly went to China.

I know, I know. How crazy has this town become? The only reason I can type those words without having some kind of seizure is that Clarke actually set a precedent for going to China without telling the public back in November 2016. As his deputy mayor at the time, George MacDonald, told the Post:

“He left for China (Thursday) morning, I can tell you that,” MacDonald said. “I don’t know the details of the trip — as you know it’s always a puzzle, but we’re hoping that maybe we’re going to close the last piece of the puzzle … they’re meeting with some representatives in China in regard to some shipping lines, I guess.

This time, Clarke returned from China and immediately scheduled a whole pile of meetings for December 12, one of which is an in camera session at 4:00PM prior to the regular Council meeting at 6:00PM.

On Facebook, Councilor Amanda McDougall said:

I feel like I have been left out, even as a Councillor, the last week or so. My night has consisted of cramming agenda materials which are heavy in context, and am nervous for Tuesday. It is not due to staff, they work incredibly hard and efficiently. Admin and higher up staff arrived home from China this week and all topics had to be approved through them to make agenda. This is getting foolish.

Councilors Earlene MacMullen and Kendra Coombes pronounced themselves in agreement.

Later, McDougall repeated her concerns to CTV’s Kyle Moore.

What it boils down to is councilors asking for more time to do their jobs on behalf of their constituents. Why a mayor with a solid proposition to put in front of them would hesitate to give them that is anybody’s guess, but the December Hustle is all about ensuring that time — to read and consider and digest the materials the mayor is putting before them — is the one thing councilors don’t have. That should concern all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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