CBRM Council: So That’s How the Mayor Got the Port File

Respect to District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin for trying to get some accountability and transparency on the Port of Sydney file during last night’s general committee meeting.

On one level, she succeeded: I’ve been puzzled as to when, exactly, council tapped Mayor Cecil Clarke to head that file and last night, all was made clear. The previous council tapped Clarke to head the file in 2013,¬†authorizing¬†him to travel “anytime and anywhere,” in the interpretation of CBRM Solicitor Demetri Kachafanas, in the name of port development.

Here’s a copy of that motion (with thanks to Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan who supplied it to me on short notice), which was passed at a special meeting of council on 1 March 2013. In attendance were Mayor Clarke and Councilors Charlie Keagan, Mae Rowe, Eldon MacDonald, Ray Paruch, Ivan Doncaster, Kevin Saccary, George MacDonald and Darren Bruckschwaiger. Four councilors (Clarence Prince, Claire Detheridge, Lowell Cormier and Jim MacLeod) were absent. (Click to enlarge.)


Councilor MacMullin tried valiantly to contest Kachafanas’ interpretation of the 2013 motion, arguing it applied rather narrowly to port promotion efforts then underway involving the CBRM’s former port consultants Ed Zimny and Gordon Forsyth IV of Paul F. Richardson and Associates. She noted the CBRM now has a new council. She argued that “gathering information on the possibility of the development of a container terminal at the Port of Sydney” is surely a step that has been completed. She pointed out that the motion does not mention our current port promoters, Albert Barbusci and Barry Sheehy of Sydney Harbor Investment Partners (SHIP). She reminded council that the Chinese were not involved in the project in 2013, so the motion could hardly have envisioned travel to China. She noted that where the motion references the “Acting CAO” (Marie Walsh at the time) we subsequently had an actual CAO (Michael Merritt), another acting CAO (Walsh) and now another actual CAO (Walsh). In short, she suggested it was a stretch to imply that this very specific motion passed in 2013 should apply to all future port development activity.

But mayor and solicitor stuck to their guns: this motion, passed in 2013 — before the new council was elected, before Albert Barbusci and Barry Sheehy were signed as our port promoters, before the Chinese became involved in the project — is all the authority the mayor needs.

Clarke also argued that he has a travel budget and how he spends it is up to him. MacMullin said that in her experience, as an executive assistant at Marine Atlantic, having a travel budget doesn’t mean you can travel wherever you like — her boss, for example, although he has a travel budget, still has to get permission from his boss to travel.

Clarke’s answer was that as mayor of the CBRM he is like the premier of Nova Scotia, who gets a travel budget and can spend it as he likes. (I’m guessing there are some political scientists who specialize in municipal politics who might quibble with that comparison.) At the same time, however, he said that his port trips must have merit and fit into the “overarching” development plan for the port. And who determines whether any given trip has merit? Why, he does.

MacMullin proposed a different approval process: when the mayor wants to travel on port business, he must get permission from council.

Clarke was ready for this, and had Kachafanas deliver the above-mentioned interpretation of the 2013 council motion. Kachafanas expressed the opinion that MacMullin’s new motion contradicted the 2013 motion and therefore was out of order. If she wished to introduce her motion, she would first have to rescind the 2013 motion, effectively removing responsibility for the port file from the mayor, something MacMullin said she had no desire to do. (She was actually pretty blunt about it, saying that council had so little information about the port file, it would take too long to get up to speed.) She also knew, I’m sure, that there’s no way a motion to rescind would pass (and if she had any doubts, the comments of a number of her fellow councilors would have convinced her.)

MacMullin also requested detailed information about the expenses paid by the CBRM for port-related travel since 2013, including expenses related to the November 30-December 6 trip to China taken by Clarke, his executive assistant Mark Bettens, CAO Marie Walsh and Economic Development Manager John Phelan.

(For the record: staff travel must be approved by the CAO, so Walsh would have approved the China travel for herself, Phalen and Bettens. Asked by District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger whether she felt the trip was worthwhile, Walsh parroted the mayor’s recently published comments about “relationship building” and “trust” and “respect” and assured council the thousands spent to send the CBRM delegation to China was worth it because “the Chinese” really appreciated it. And by “the Chinese,” I do not know whether she meant the entire 1.4 billion population, the executives of the China Communications Construction Company or the string section of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra — I have no idea who she met with in China.)

Walsh told MacMullin a motion before council was not necessary for the travel expense information, that she, as a councilor, was entitled to that information and would receive it as soon as it could be gathered. Moreover, it would include details on the most recent China trip which will be finalized as soon as the “corporate Visa” bill comes in.


Finish line

Discussion surrounding MacMullin’s motion was quite dispiriting — far too many councilors dismissed her concerns as a waste of time. Don’t be carping about travel expenses. Cecil Clarke is “carrying the ball” on the port and has almost taken it across the finish line. (Note to self: find out what sport involves carrying a ball over a finish line.) This is the kind of conversation we should be having at Tim Hortons, not during council meetings. We can’t be arguing among ourselves — the Chinese are watching! SHIP is watching! Port Hawkesbury is watching! Halifax is watching!

But all MacMullin (and District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, and District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, and District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch) were doing was staking a claim for the importance of process — and process matters in the context of democratic government. Whether you land a $1.5 billion Chinese transshipment port or you don’t land a $1.5 billion Chinese transshipment port, the process you follow to get there (or not) should be as transparent and accountable as possible.

Paruch was especially riled up, questioning the necessity of the mayor’s executive assistant making the trip to China. Paruch said he himself was an executive assistant in a former life and when his minister went to China, he didn’t. He asked the mayor point blank why Bettens had been included on the trip. The mayor ignored the question.

But the majority of councilors seemed unconcerned that the mayor approves his own travel, nor were they too exercised about the lack of information about his recent China trip, although District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie said he would like very much for the mayor to report to them regularly on his port travels — thereby making it clear the mayor has not been reporting to them regularly on his port travels.


Expense reports

What struck me most forcefully about the mayor’s response to this discussion was that he gave absolutely no quarter — he did not offer to brief council on his most recent trip to China (that’s a job for “our partners” and will happen in due course); he did not offer to brief council prior to any future port travels (he didn’t have to, the very idea was pooh-poohed as unworkable by councilors who believe the mayor could be called to Ottawa to meet with Jean Chretien on port matters on a moment’s notice); he did not offer to provide an itinerary for his most recent trip to China.

He said, basically, you can remove me as head of the port file or you can deal with me on my terms.

MacMullin has said she will appeal the ruling that her motion was out of order, so it may be reintroduced. Perhaps it will take a slightly different form — there are options, after all. Council could easily allow Mayor Clarke to continue to lead the port file while insisting on regular updates or demanding the right to approve travel expenses over a certain dollar amount or involving international travel.

And while they’re at it, maybe council could demand more detail on his travel expense forms, to avoid entries like this one from March 2017 (click to enlarge):

The mayor spent $834 on airfare and $50 on meals to fly to an unnamed destination and meet with an unnamed minister for an unnamed purpose.

And you wonder why people get excited about transparency and accountability.