CBRM Council Meeting Highlights

Port pay

I always want to know what takes place at CBRM council in camera meetings, but I REALLY wish I’d been a fly on the wall for Tuesday’s discussion about renewing Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher’s $200,000 a year contract.

Marlene Usher (LinkedIn)

Marlene Usher (LinkedIn)

Usher, once second in command at Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC), had become just another Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) bureaucrat in 2014, after the Harper government dissolved ECBC in the wake of former CEO John Lynn’s spot of patronage-hiring bother.

But just when all seemed lost, Mayor Cecil Clarke, plucked her from her desk and deposited her atop the newly formed Port of Sydney Development Corporation in February of 2015 — oddly enough, through the same sort of competition-free hiring process that had just cost poor old Lynn his job. (In the CBRM’s defense, they could hardly have advertised the post — they might have received a response from an actually qualified person and that would have made everyone else involved in port development, including our port promoters, feel bad.) The deed was done during an in camera meeting in February 2015, then rubber-stamped by Council in public session.

Officially, Usher was seconded from ACOA, which was to pay half of the generous, $200,000 a year salary deemed appropriate to the CEO of a port that only ekes out a profit each year because it owes almost $2 million in rent to the CBRM. The CBRM was to pick up the other half of the salary, the money to come from the CAO’s budget. (The CAO at the time was Michael Merritt, remember him?)

And that’s how it’s been for the past three years, during which time Usher’s responsibilities have actually shrunk — the Port of Sydney having been stripped of responsibility for the container port file.

Her contract is up for renewal this month and, as mentioned, Council discussed it during an in camera meeting yesterday and last night, during the public session, they voted to extend the arrangement — with one huge caveat: that the CBRM’s $100,000 contribution to her salary be refunded in full by the Port itself.

I couldn’t believe my ears (I was watching the livestream and — no word of lie — eating popcorn), but District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes spelled it out in no uncertain terms: the Port is going to pay the CBRM’s half of Usher’s salary.

It should just about be able to cover it — in 2015/2016, it reported an operating profit of $127,758.


Waterfront development

I watched Marty Chernin and architect Spyro Trifos present their “vision” for the Sydney waterfront to council last night.

(There were some odd references to pictures and details of the proposal having “leaked” to the public which, if you consider the municipal clerk attaching information to the agenda of a regional council meeting “leaking,” is true.)

Chernin is billing this as a “private-public partnership,” which tripped a whole bank of alarms in my head; P3 developments being notoriously good for developers — and notoriously bad for governments.

But I can’t figure out what kind of P3 arrangement Chernin is picturing. In the case of Nova Scotia’s P3 schools, for example, developers were asked to design, finance and build the schools which the province then leased back from them on 20-year contracts. (And in the process, spent about $52 million more than it would have if it had built the schools the old-fashioned way, according the province’s Auditor General).

The main public element of the Chernin/Trifos “vision” is the central library, which Chernin was clear would be a publicly owned and funded building. If that’s the case, then the library is exactly where it’s always been: in limbo, with the CBRM needing to secure provincial and federal funding to build it.

And if we’re going to fund and build and maintain the library as a municipality anyway, what is the point of tying it into a private developer’s plans? Don’t get me wrong — maybe there’s a good argument for it. I just haven’t heard anybody make it.

Another question that had occurred to me, looking at the proposal, was “What happened to the ice cream kiosk and the $200,000 public washroom?” two facilities that actually exist on the boardwalk but are mysteriously missing from the “vision.” I was pleased when District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin inquired about their fates and was told by Trifos that they could easily be “re-located.” (Plumbing and all?)

District 7 Councilor Ivan Doncaster raised another question that had occurred to me, asking Chernin if he was in consultation with the government about the plan to move the NSCC Marconi Campus to the waterfront and if there might not be some connection between the two projects. This led Chernin to explain that although this particular development group of his was not involved in the NSCC move, he personally was involved in another development group that was interested in being involved in it.

At which point it struck me that we’ll know things are looking up in the CBRM when we have more than one developer.


Noise complaints

There was another funny moment last night when the CBRM’s economic development manager John Phalen took the floor to make the case for extending the waterfront lease of 3302009 Nova Scotia Limited.

I see your waterfront “vision” and I raise you waterfront reality.

(Numbers are so cold, let’s give him a name! Call him DANNY ELLIS. Local businessman and board member of the CBRM’s economic development entity Business Cape Breton.)

CBRM staff had granted Ellis a one-year lease to operate a “seasonal food, liquor and entertainment” establishment on the boardwalk. (For the record, Ellis’ establishment does not appear in Chernin’s waterfront “vision,” unless it’s under the library.) I questioned this (loudly) at the time, as the lease was awarded without any other businessperson having a shot at it and Ellis’ position on the BCB board seems like a pretty clear conflict of interest.

As it happened, Ellis’ operation didn’t open last season at all, so Phalen asked council to grant him another one-year lease. Councilor MacMullin, while saying she was willing to approve the lease, given Ellis’ investments, to date, in the operation, asked Phalen why the one-year lease came to council this time when it hadn’t last time.

Phalen said something about possible “noise complaints” prompting them to get council approval this time.

And by “noise complaints” I assume he meant people like me making noise about CBRM staff quietly offering Ellis another one-year lease.