With Greater Powers, Greater Transparency?

Transparency icon from https://www.eff.org/es

Transparency icon via Electronic Frontier Foundation

Discovering, thanks to the reporting of Rick Grant, that the CBRM mayor and council are holding a secret meeting today with port developer Albert Barbusci sends a chill up my spine.

The meeting is being held at the Holiday Inn to avoid the bother of calling a special in camera session of council. While in camera meetings are good for hiding the matters under discussion from the public, they have a huge disadvantage in that they must be announced, so the blighters will know you’re up to something. Meetings at the Holiday Inn are much better that way (until nosy reporters get wind of them, anyway).

Barbusci apparently wants to “update” council on his “progress” in establishing a container port for Ultra-Large Container Vessels (ULCVs) in Sydney harbor. I guess a visit from Barbusci, the president of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP), is a consolation prize for the visit Mayor Cecil Clarke told the Cape Breton Post we could expect in the early days of 2018:

I can say that…we will be welcoming a working group of both the Sydney Harbour Investment Partnership [sic] and their international partners, who will be coming in the early New Year to Sydney as part of the followup to that agreement and what it represents in terms of development of the container terminal.

I don’t think any “international partners” are accompanying Barbusci, which may be because he doesn’t seem to have any. The Option and Development agreement approved by council in November was supposed to have been finalized between the CBRM, SHIP (originally called Harbor Port Development Partners or HPDP) and the “strategic partners” (plural) that would “form the basis of the commencement of the project.”

Instead, it was finalized between the CBRM and SHIP which consists of Barbusci and Canderel, the Montreal-based real estate developer. The “consortium” doesn’t include a shipper and it doesn’t include a terminal operator, despite the much-ballyhooed participation of Ports America.

Details of that Option and Development agreement have never been made public and according to our economic development manager, John Phalen, they won’t be made public until after the agreement is finalized — unless the lawyers they’re consulting tell them otherwise. And even though we don’t know exactly what’s in this agreement, Nova Scotia Municipal Affairs Minister (and Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA) Derek Mombourquette is busy paving the way for it to be exercised. He’s introduced amendments to the MGA that would permit the CBRM to sell or lease land at prices below market value, provide tax abatements and enter into 99-year leases.

But let’s pause for a quick think: if the CBRM is going to be granted the powers to sell public land at bargain prices and sign leases none of us will be alive to see the end of, shouldn’t it also be required to be more accountable and transparent in exercising these powers?

Why are we not attaching some strings to these new municipal abilities? Why don’t we say the details of any such deals cannot be subject to confidentiality agreements? Why don’t we say that such agreements may not be discussed in hotel rooms down the street from the council chambers but must always be discussed in public? Why don’t we talk about outlawing exorbitant municipal fees for access to information requests? Why don’t we ask for the pro-active release of public information?

Why are we simply handing these new powers over to government without any way of ensuring they are not abused?


Featured image: Transparency icon from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.