5 Things About Monday’s Charter Session

Excuse the clickbait headline. I was sitting here trying to decide how to structure a report on last night’s public consultation session on a Cape Breton Regional Municipal (CBRM) Charter and it struck me that limiting myself to five notable items might help me focus on what matters. So here goes:


CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke

Cecil Clarke

1. Cecil Clarke: One Mayor, One Road

If the documents attached to last night’s agenda represent the timeline of the CBRM’s charter negotiations to date, then that timeline looks like this:

26 November 2012:

Council approves “Shaping Our Future in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality: A reorganization plan for positive change.” Under the heading “The CBRM Charter Act,” that document states:

Immediate Action: Strike a motion to pursue a Charter Act for the CBRM — a positive and progressive path forward that will build on the Municipal Government Act, and give Council legally binding control.

Short-term Action: Establish a working committee to draft legislation for presentation to the House of Assembly in 2013-2014.

Long-term Action: Upon Royal Assent and Proclamation, establish a legislative and regulatory committee to address needed amendments to the CBRM Charter Act.

(If this were an old timey silent movie, there would be a calendar here with pages flying off it as four years pass without further developments.)

19 December 2016:

Council approves a motion to extend Harbor Port Development Partners’ (now Sydney Harbour Investment Partners’ or SHIP’s) exclusivity agreement with the CBRM. (SHIP promotes our container port project.)

That motion recommends:

THAT the CBRM continue to pursue a Municipal Charter, or other enabling accommodations, with the Province that outlines the needs listed above.

6 January 2017

Mayor Clarke writes to then-provincial government house leader Michel Samson:

Attached is the two-page backgrounder that officials have drafted for consideration as the CBRM’s request for an initial Charter specifically for economic and port development…The CBRM is seeking municipal powers for finance and taxation as well as for lease and land sales (including the authority to provide a 99-year lease on municipally-owned land).

I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and our respective officials to plan next steps leading to draft legislation from you [emphasis mine] for consultation.

10 January 2017

Samson writes to Mayor Clarke offering to arrange a meeting between representatives of CBRM and the Province of NS to discuss this matter further.

15 January 2018

Council, which has yet to hold any discussions on the Charter, holds a public information session on the charter.


Some questions occur: did council “immediately” strike that motion to “pursue a Charter Act for the CBRM” in 2012? I went through the minutes from the next four council meetings and found no such motion.

Why did the scope of the Charter narrow so drastically between 2012, when it was a “positive and progressive path forward” for the CBRM and 2017, when it was “specifically for economic and port development?”

Why was no “working committee” (presumably of council) established to “draft legislation?”

When was it decided to allow unnamed CBRM “officials” to draft the “two-page backgrounder” for submission to Samson?

And why did the mayor completely ignore this Charter-related motion introduced by District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch on 10 January 2017:

I just watched the video of the debate during which Paruch, who has just seen that letter from Clarke to Samson, wants to know why the Charter has been so pared down, telling the mayor:

You, unilaterally, have chosen to say that this charter should consist of four points. Nobody around this table has concurred with those four points. There has been no discussion. There has been no debate.There has been no input. And here we have a letter, signed by you, to the minister, telling him this is this council’s application for a charter.

After much discussion, council approved an amended version of Paruch’s motion that, in addition to the issue paper, called for councilors to meet with local political scientists and other municipal government experts for advice on the Charter. It passed unanimously. The mayor even voted for it. And then he carried on as though it had never happened.


The mayor does not want your input into the CBRM Charter.


2. Can Mombourquette save the day?

Derek Mombourquette

Derek Mombourquette

Cynic that I am, I had assumed that Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA and Municipal Affairs Minister Derek Mombourquette’s insistance on public consultation on the Charter was a sop to those critical of Clarke’s unilateral approach to the negotiations, not a serious initiative.

But after last night, I’m not so sure.

Mombourquette surprised me right out of the gate by drawing a firm line between port development and the Charter. The province, he said, will find a way to deal with port development issues if and when an offer is made and that will happen whether or not the CBRM has negotiated a Charter. (After all, council itself had passed a motion vowing to pursue a Charter “or other enabling accommodations” in 2016. I’m guessing such “other enabling accommodations” could include one-off permission to sign a 99-year lease or to sell a piece of municipal land at a below-market price.)

The Charter, therefore, need not be rushed nor need it be restricted to the very narrow set of asks presented by Clarke to Samson.

Mombourquette also announced, in no uncertain terms, that the NSCC Marconi Campus was moving to downtown Sydney. It’s been so long since I heard a local politician make a statement so straightforward, I almost fell out of my chair.

The Minister would not be drawn out as to what the Charter drafting process will look like, following the second and final public consultation session on January 20, but he did promise that council would be involved and that his staff would provide all possible assistance. At the same time, he didn’t (as Clarke has done at least three times in my hearing) launch into a long-winded explanation of “How a bill becomes a law” in Nova Scotia, for which I was deeply grateful.


I am cautiously optimistic that Mombourquette actually wants to see something of value come out of this Charter process.


3. Citizens speak. Council listens.

Erika Shea

Erika Shea

Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I honestly felt that last night’s show of interest by the (sort of) general public really woke a lot of councilors up to the possibilities of a Charter — and gave those already “woke” ideas they hadn’t previously considered.

The best example was probably Dr. Leigh Potvin’s presentation on food security and access on behalf of the Cape Breton Island Food Network. A number of councilors admitted afterward that they had been doubtful about the link between municipal charters and food, but as Potvin pointed to issues like community and school gardens (and their ability to win municipal tenders), and the relation between land-use rules and small farms, and the need to end our dependency on emergency food supplies (i.e. food banks), everyone seemed to warm to the idea.

A presentation by Nicole LaFosse and Erika Shea, representing a group called CB Voices (which includes District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall) was interesting because they’d taken it upon themselves to research other municipal charters (in Canada and elsewhere in North America). They unleashed a wild rumpus of ideas about everything from taxation to immigration to provincial/municipal relations to municipal elections. (How about we extend the municipal franchise to 16-year-olds and permanent residents? How about that?) Mostly, though, they cautioned against rushing a process that needs to be done carefully and they left council with some questions like:

If the MGA is going through revisions, and if there is not a broad, thorough, and sound plan for a CBRM charter, is this premature? Is it not better to wait until the MGA has been amended to consider what further changes are actually needed in a Charter?

Other presenters included Parker Rudderham, who appeared in his capacity as chair of the board of Business Cape Breton (BCB), private businessman and citizen of the CBRM (and Montreal where he “also lives.”)  Rudderham spoke in favor both of a charter and of greater transparency and accountability generally, which I can only assume means we will soon see changes in the way the quasi-public body he heads operates. Rudderham also claimed that on a recent trip to Montreal he tallied up $40 billion in ongoing, federally funded infrastructure projects while “we get nothing.” (My sources in Quebec felt that figure was what the French would call exagéré.) He also raised the issue of transfer payments about which, more later.

Alfie MacLeod

Alfie MacLeod

Jennifer Deleskie presented on behalf of Membertou Corporate, sharing some interesting stats — for example, 50% of the employees in Membertou come from “the broader CBRM.” Membertou is the third-largest employer in the municipality, with a core staff of 550 that can rise as high as 700 in summer. Membertou is open to participating in Charter deliberations and is a “shining example” of the benefits of decision-making power. Deleskie also assured all those present that the port project is “charging ahead.” Sadly, there was no follow up on this so I have no idea how she knows this or if she is a reliable source on the matter.

Carla Arsenault presented on behalf of the Cape Breton Partnership, which led to some discussion of immigration, and Cape Breton’s Tory caucus — MLAs Alfie MacLeod, Keith Bain and Eddie Orrell — appeared to express support for the Charter and to vow to do all they could to speed its passage through the legislature.

By the end of the evening, Council was ready to strike a committee then and there to oversee development of the Charter and when the Mayor suggested it might be too unwieldy for all councilors to sit on it, District 12 Councilor Jim MacLeod stated, quite forcefully, that he disagreed and felt they all needed to be part of it, scheduling issues be damned. (He didn’t say “scheduling issues be damned,” I’m paraphrasing. Or projecting. But I’m not twisting his meaning — he definitely wanted all 12 Councilors involved with the process.)

And District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin, during a roundtable discussion following the presentations, said she now had “no idea” what she wanted to see in a municipal charter — and thanked the presenters for “throwing me for that little loop,” meaning (if I’m interpreting her words correctly) that she had had no idea what could be in a municipal charter and now had a whole bunch of them. But she also made a plea for more ideas — inviting other citizens to attend the January 20th information session or make a written submission to council. (The Mayor said these would be accepted until January 23rd).


There’s more than one way to draft a Charter.


4. When it comes to municipal charters, less is more.

CBU political science prof Tom Urbaniak also presented last night, making the case for a “simple” Charter, rather than a lengthy or complicated one.

Tom Urbaniak. (Photo by Rob Beintema)

Tom Urbaniak. (Photo by Rob Beintema)

Urbaniak pointed to the Halifax Regional Municipal Charter (as did other presenters) as a “How Not To” guide for municipal charter adoption. The HRM Charter Act basically replicates the Municipal Government Act (MGA) while “adding a few things.” as District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger put it, including Halifax By Design, its planning component. The problem is that any amendments to the Halifax charter must be approved by the provincial legislature and apparently the municipality has a backlog of changes pending.

Urbaniak suggested the CBRM simply state that it would be governed by the MGA but with a notwithstanding clause. If the municipality wants to “empower” neighborhoods or creative incentives not permitted under the terms of the MGA, it could invoke the notwithstanding clause — but not lightly. Urbaniak suggested the process could involve giving 90 days’ public notice, giving formal notice to the province, holding a public hearing and passing it by a “supermajority” of council.

Besides “keep it short,” Urbaniak had two other suggestions for the Charter: talk about the money and property.

“Talk about the money” means address the equalization issue (just maybe don’t call it equalization). Build a sunset clause into any financial aid if necessary (although I would argue equalization has a built-in sunset clause given that, were a community to turn itself around and improve its economy, it would no longer receive equalization). Maybe create a covenant within the Charter giving the CBRM a share of total provincial casino and lottery funds. Interestingly, this would be following the example of Membertou, which has also cashed in — no pun intended — on gambling revenues.

(I got nervous about the idea of basing our economic turnaround on something that can be as socially problematic as gambling but then I asked myself a question: would I be as worried if Urbaniak had suggested bringing back the Rum Tax? And I realized that I would not, although alcohol is just as socially problematic as gambling. And then it dawned on me: my view is entirely colored by the fact that I like rum but I have no interest in gambling, so I see it purely as a problem. I’m like the gambling equivalent of one of those Women’s Temperance ladies with the bonnets — and the axes.)

Urbaniak’s property idea is very cool — we could create a community land trust and take over vacant or tax delinquent properties, “sell some, use some, use the sales proceeds to tackle the delinquency problem.” (Maybe sell some to artists, like they did in Paducah?)

Councilors were very receptive to Urbaniak’s ideas and he was urged, particularly by District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie, to continue to participate in our Charter deliberations.


I should have taken more Poli Sci courses.


5. Did somebody say “equalization?”

Eldon MacDonald

Eldon MacDonald

Yes, yes indeed somebody said “equalization.” In fact, a surprising number of people — including Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald, Bruckschwaiger, Rudderham, even Urbaniak (although not in so many words).

I heard equalization stated out loud in the Council Chambers more last evening than I’ve heard it in all the meetings I’ve attended or watched over the past couple of years.

Maybe Urbaniak has the right idea and we should talk about equalization but call it something else — something with less baggage attached. Something grand like, our patrimoine. Or maybe something entirely un-grand, like our annual “check.” But whatever we call it, it seems it’s once again okay to bring the subject up in polite circles.


We’ve got lots to talk about.


The next public consultation session on the CBRM Charter will be held Saturday 20 January at 1:30 PM in the council chamber at the Civic Centre. If you would like to present, you need to register in advance with the Municipal Clerk.





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