Mr. Bettens Goes to Ottawa

One of the (many) messed up aspects of our access to information system here in Nova Scotia is that responses to municipal FOIPOP inquiries are not made public, unlike federal and provincial responses, which are published online.

Fortunately, some civic-minded Cape Bretoners share the results of their municipal FOIPOPs with the rest of us and that’s how the Spectator came to find out a little more detail about that December 2017 trip to China by CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, CAO Marie Walsh, Economic Development Officer John Phelan and the mayor’s executive assistant, Mark Bettens.

In fact, the additional information is entirely related to Bettens: our citizen requested information about the seconded fireman’s expenses generally and for the Beijing trip in particular. I’m going to start with the Beijing trip because what the information shows is how poorly organized it appears to have been.

CBRM Response to FOIPOP_China


Rush visas

Officials in a chronically broke Nova Scotia municipality, one that is constantly telling its community groups it cannot afford to fund them, should probably do all they can to keep costs down when planning a four-person, business-class jaunt to China, and yet the documents released by the CBRM suggest this wasn’t at all the case.

For one thing, they seem to have been considering sending even more people — they applied for NINE travel visas, five of which are “subject to reimbursement (through the CBRM cost-recovery process.)”

I lost a few valuable minutes today imagining who might have filled out a nine-person, CBRM delegation to China — the police chief? The municipal solicitor? The head of solid waste management? Seriously, it’s a dangerous rabbit hole to fall down.

But whatever the number of visas, our officials chose the most expensive possible method of obtaining them. They could have applied by post — anyone who is a citizen of Canada and physically in the country at the time of the application may do so. Postal requests take (on average) 10 days to process, and applicants are advised to apply six weeks in advance of travel. That means that to leave on November 30, as the CBRM delegation did, they would have had to have known they were traveling as of October 9. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me for a $25,000 trip to China — especially given that Mayor Clarke traveled to China at almost exactly the same time (November 26) in 2015.

Instead, the CBRM paid for Bettens to go to Ottawa in person and pick up “rush” visas. Actually, it paid for him to fly to Montreal, on November 25. There’s no record of his accommodation for the next two days, so presumably he paid his own expenses for a weekend in that city. He turns up at the Marriott Hotel in Ottawa on November 27 and checks out on November 29.

I can’t find the itinerary for his return trip to Sydney, but again, presumably, he flew back on November 29 because the entire party left for Beijing the next day.

According to the Chinese Visa Application Center website, postal applications cost $163.28 each. So four would have cost $653.12 (plus postage and fees.) If the CBRM had applied for its visas through the post, it could have saved almost $2,000 on airfare and accommodations and Ubers and taxis and $450 on rush fees. As I’ve pointed out before, in a community that distributes <$1,000 sustainability grants to local community groups, that’s not peanuts. (Or maybe, more accurately, that is peanuts, but peanuts are what we deal in here in the CBRM, so they shouldn’t be thrown away unnecessarily.)

Or hey, if it’s just a matter of getting the passports to the visa center, maybe they could have made a deal with Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking, who has staff in Ottawa, one of whom could have, I don’t know, gone down the street to the visa center? I’m just spit-balling here, but it seems to me there are ways to get even rush visas without incurring almost $2,000 in travel costs.

It just seems like sloppy planning, especially when you already know, as we do, from a previous FOIPOP, that Clarke, Phelan and Bettens paid $1,200 in change fees on their airline tickets because, as Walsh previously told the Spectator, “everyone left earlier than anticipated as our business was done.”

And do I need to add that we still don’t know what this CBRM delegation did while it was in China? That the CBRM “does not have any records relating to the details of meetings or schedule of events for the trip to China…?”

The notion that Clarke, Bettens, Phelan and Walsh were suddenly, urgently called to China and had no choice but to book last-minute flights, obtain rush visas and dash to the airport without any clear idea as to how long it would take to accomplish their mission is, frankly, laughable.

That they have yet to tell anyone what in the name of Confucius they did there is less so.



Our citizen asked for (and received) a copy of the secondment agreement under which the Mayor’s Office borrowed Bettens from Fire Services.


But the citizen also requested a copy of Bettens’ expenses from the time he’s been in his position as the mayor’s executive assistant and here, he ran into a wall not unlike the one that spans China.

Admittedly, the ask was significant — the citizen requested details on any and all expenses Bettens’ has incurred in the line of duty, including travel, accommodations, cell phone charges, car rentals, meals and more.

But any expense that has been refunded should be documented, and since the period involved — 2012-2017 — is one in which the use of computers was widespread even here in the backwoods of Cape Breton, getting a copy of said records should involve typing a few search words and hitting “print.” In fact, there’s no need to hit print, electronic copies would do.

This apparently isn’t how records are kept and accessed in the CBRM though, because Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan gave the citizen the following estimate for responding to his FOIPOP:


Yes, that would be $2,645.

Half of which — $1,322.50 — would be required up front. To be clear: to find out how much public money has been spent on Bettens — a “political” staffer taken on outside of municipal hiring regulations — will cost this concerned citizen $2,645.



Stephen McNeil, his fellow Canadian premiers and a large, stuffed fish in Washington, DC. (Source: Twitter)

Stephen McNeil, his fellow Canadian premiers and a large, stuffed fish in Washington, DC. (Source: Twitter)

But I have a new theory about Mayor Clarke’s travel: I think he’s doing it to show he can be premier of Nova Scotia, because being premier of Nova Scotia involves a lot of travel. Travel that must be undertaken in the company of political staff.

As Global TV reported on Tuesday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil was the top-traveled premier in Canada in 2017 — spending 43 days traveling internationally compared to his closest competitor, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn, who traveled only 23 days.

And not only must the premier of Nova Scotia travel a great deal, he must be very, very secretive about it. Global (and therefore we, the great unwashed Nova Scotian public) only found out what we found out about McNeil’s travel because Global filed a freedom of information request about it.

And even then, we didn’t find out that much. Take McNeil’s August 6-13 trip to the United Kingdom. According to Global:

The press release announcing the trip said McNeil would meet with “various groups and individuals in the energy, insurance and information technology sectors.”

A draft itinerary for the trip, released through access to information, shows McNeil had eight meetings scheduled for the eight-day trip. Two days of the trip are fully redacted, only showing the hotel that he stayed in. The partially-visible meetings include the consultant for Play Fairway, Wood MacKenzie and Bulkhead Interactive.

On June 29, 2017,  Angela Ralph at Nova Scotia Business Inc., emailed the province’s director of international relations to say, “I haven’t gotten very far with discussions for Europe in August. Everyone I’ve talked to says the same thing about the time of year.”

On July 20, 2017,  another email says a proposed meeting for August 8 is a “no-go as the executive are on holidays.”

See? Clarke could be premier of Nova Scotia — unless Nova Scotians suddenly wake up and smell the lack of transparency.