Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Post truth?

The Cape Breton Post spoke with Alberta Barbusci, president of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP), after his secret, Holiday Inn meeting with nine CBRM councilors and the mayor on Wednesday — a meeting the Post no doubt found out about the same way everyone else in the CBRM did, through a Cape Breton Spectator story by reporter Rick Grant.

Excerpt from HPDP (SHIP) exclusivity agreement.

Excerpt from HPDP (now SHIP) exclusivity agreement.

While Grant (and I) consider the sheer secrecy of the meeting to be one of the most newsworthy aspects of the story (can you for a moment imagine the Halifax Regional Municipal Council meeting with developer Joe Ramia secretly, in a hotel, to discuss the new convention center?), the Post doesn’t seem fussed by it. In fact, the Post simply termed it “a Wednesday afternoon meeting with a number of high-ranking Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) staff and nine of the municipality’s 12 councillors.”

It’s not until the sixth paragraph that the story gets around to mentioning the meeting was held in “a downtown Sydney hotel,” and it never addresses the secrecy surrounding it. Nor does District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, who said:

It’s good that Albert reached out to us to have a meeting and let us know where things stand — it was more or less just a check-in…It’s been known that there are some of us on council, including myself, who have had questions throughout this process, so I do appreciate having a forum to ask questions when I am concerned about different things.

Leaving aside the fact that the exclusivity agreement between SHIP and the CBRM requires the port promoter to report to the CBRM “on a biweekly basis,” we HAVE a forum for asking questions of developers in the CBRM, it’s called COUNCIL MEETINGS. And while I don’t like the idea of issues involving public assets like the port being discussed behind closed doors, at least if an official in camera session is called, the public knows it’s happening.

Have we really come to the point where we’re simply grateful that the man poised to buy our harbor is kind enough to fly into town every few months to tell council (in secret) how “optimistic” he is about his project’s prospects?


Equal Voices

I attended “We Rise: Women in Politics” last night at the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation. (Full disclosure: I was there for an hour and a half at which point, I had to leave, but I watched the part I missed — the best part, it turns out — this morning.)

The event, sponsored by CB Voices and Equal Voice, brought together a group of 10 Nova Scotia women in politics, including a mayor, two municipal councilors, a band councilor, four MLAs and two women who had run unsuccessfully for office but remain politically engaged. From left to right, in the photo below, they were: CBRM District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, Richmond MLA Alana Paon, Cape Breton Centre MLA Tammy Martin, Pictou-West MLA (and interim PC leader) Karla MacFarlane, Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm Beaton, moderator Pamela Lovelace, provincial election candidate Katherine MacDonald Snow, CBRM District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, Membertou Band Councilor Gail Christmas, former provincial candidate Nadine Bernard, and Cumberland North MLA (and PC leadership candidate) Elizabeth Smith McCrossin.

CBRM District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, Richmond MLA Alana Paon, Cape Breton Centre MLA Tammy Martin, Pictou-West MLA (and interim PC leader) Karla MacFarlane, Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm Beaton, moderator Pamela Lovelace, provincial election candidate Katherine MacDonald Snow, CBRM District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, Membertou Band Councilor Gail Christmas, former provincial candidate Nadine Bernard, and MLA (and PC leadership candidate) Elizabeth Smith McCrossin

I felt the way I always feel when I hear politicians put aside partisan differences to discuss issues; the way I feel listening to the exit interviews with former MLAs done by the Springtide Collective — hopeful and puzzled. Hopeful, because although the women onstage were from all three political parties, they didn’t seem to have any difficulty having a civil discussion and they weren’t trafficking in party talking points.

Puzzled because I wonder why so much of our political discourse (particularly at the provincial and federal levels) is about parroting party talking points and scoring political points. I’ve often heard that part of the problem is that it’s the adversarial aspects of politics — the question periods and House debates and media scrums — that we see, whereas the more cooperative aspects — the work done in committees — remains in the shadows.

The power of the political parties seems especially problematic when contrasted with the women’s accounts of what it takes to get elected — chiefly, a lot of door-knocking and connecting with the people you hope to represent. Martin talked about amazing one man she’d met while campaigning by returning to visit him after she’d been elected. Paon not only identified her role as representing the people in her riding, she actually advocated for a bigger role for people in politics, suggesting there should be no cap on the number of people who can present during the law-amendments process — and that their “sage input” should be incorporated more frequently into legislation. And yes, I know these are the kind of things politicians say while in opposition and forget while in power, but the sub-text to last night’s discussion was that bringing more women into politics will change politics — Chisholm-Beaton described the women on stage with her as “change agents” — so why can’t this be one of the things that changes?

Another thing that struck me last night was that when discussing the barriers they’d faced or difficulties they’d encountered in running for office, nobody raised issues of bullying or harassment. In fact, it was left to the moderator to bring it up. With about 15 minutes left to go in the event, Pamela Lovelace of Equal Voice said:

[T]his hits really close to home for me and I know it does for many of the women sitting on the stage, but the intimidation, the bullying and the harassment that women face almost on a daily basis when they’re in public office must be recognized and it must be stopped.

By then, it was too late to pursue the subject at any length, which I assume means it will be addressed at a future such event — because I really hope there will be future such events.


Without Merritt

Olds, Alberta Mayor Judy Dahl and former CBRM CAO now Olds CAO Michael Merritt.

Olds, Alberta Mayor Judy Dahl and former CBRM CAO now Olds CAO Michael Merritt.

Remember Michael Merritt? The chief administrative officer (CAO) the CBRM hired in 2014 after an expensive executive search through a Toronto head-hunting firm? The guy who chaired the Port of Sydney Development Corporation board during those halcyon days when it was made up entirely of the mayor and elected councilors and was overseeing the container port project? The Michael Merritt who left us abruptly in 2017 to become CAO of the Town of Olds Alberta?

Ever wonder what he’s up to these days? I do, which is why I set up a Google alert for “Michael Merritt” to catch any press references to him. But as it turns out, there are a lot of Michael Merritts in this world. Here are some of the hits I’ve received over the past few months:

Michael Merritt…was given a community order and must carry out 150 hours’ unpaid work after admitting unlawfully and maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm in Chichester on November 25, 2016.

Officer George Perez and Michael Merritt were honored for their actions after responding to a reported battery at Hazel’s Bottle Shop

Michael Merritt, Comanche County emergency management director, said firefighters from Elgin and Fletcher were both initially called to provide aid but were turned back before they arrived.

Michael Merritt…of Syracuse, was arrested Thursday after police say he robbed a Colonial Laundromat employee at gunpoint.

I will not lie: I amuse myself by picturing our own, perennially be-suited Michael Merritt robbing laundromats or saving the day at Hazel’s Bottle Shop, but as for his new activities as CAO of Olds, I have no idea. He has never made headlines.

The last false-positive Merritt alert, however, reminded me of a little unfinished business I had with the CAO: when I reported on his planned departure back in April 2017, I did a preliminary calculation of how much he’d cost us. I realized I’d never updated those calculations with final 2016/17 budget figures for his salary and expenses, so I figured, better late than never. Here’s the final bill for the Merritt years:

Heading-hunting fees$38,903.26$38,903.26
Relocation expenses$25,000$25,000

Obviously, the salary would have been paid no matter who was in the CAO role, but the travel expenses seem high and the head-hunting and relocation expenses were a complete waste — those last two items alone, at $64,000, are more than the operating grant we just refused the Highland Arts Theatre (HAT), an institution that has added immeasurably to the cultural and social life of our community and shows no signs of packing up and moving to Alberta.

We really need to give our priorities a shake.


Equalization feedback

A reader, who shall remain nameless, gave me some grief for my comments in this space last week on equalization. He said my summary of the equalization situation was unfair and made it look like Halifax was hogging all the federal equalization funds for itself when, in fact, the bulk of those funds go toward supporting provincial services (like education and healthcare) from which we all benefit.

This is true, and I will admit that I need to be more nuanced when discussing the equalization issue and resist the urge to just throw back my head and howl (although the latter option is much more fun and startles the neighbors so).

Therefore, while it’s true the federal government will send Nova Scotia about $1.8 billion in transfer payments this year and it’s true the province will distribute only about $32 million of that to its have-not municipalities through the provincial equalization program, that does not mean the remaining monies are simply spent in Halifax.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that our share of those provincial equalization payments — about $16 million — is about the same as the mandatory payments we must make to the province to help pay for services that are supposedly provincial responsibilities (education, corrections, the Property Valuation Services Corporation and public housing). It doesn’t change the fact that the provincial equalization program has not been fully funded for years nor does it stop anyone from arguing that even fully funded, it is not adequate to the current needs of the CBRM.

So, while I will be more nuanced in my references to equalization, I will still, occasionally (possibly when the moon is full) howl a little.


Oh my singing heart

If we never attract an actual container terminal to Sydney harbor, at the very least — thanks to Destination Cape Breton (DCB) — we will attract a shipping container.

And what a container it will be!

Last summer, DCB used a repurposed container to advertise Cape Breton at Ottawa’s Inspiration Village — a row of Canada-themed containers set up in the city’s ByWard Market from May 20 to September 4. Besides Cape Breton, the villagers included PEI, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Nunavut, along with 10 other exhibitors. When the village shut down, DCB asked to keep the container (as did many of the exhibitors, according to Ottawa 2107 executive director Guy Laflamme).

Inspiration Village. Ottawa 2017.

Inspiration Village. Ottawa 2017.

I wrote about DCB’s plans for Inspiration Village last May, mostly because I found them to be very ambitious — the organization announced it would turn a shipping container into “a life-size depiction of the many unforgettable experiences Cape Breton Island has to offer tourists.” Those ambitions may have been scaled back, judging by the description of the Cape Breton exhibition on the Inspiration Village website:

The moment you step into the Cape Breton exhibit, you’ll experience Cape Bretoners’ warm hospitality. You’ll meet kindred spirits, realize that strangers are not really strangers here and your heart will sing! Chat with Cape Bretoners who will share personal stories about their beautiful island, share historical facts and help you plan your next visit! Discover some of Cape Breton’s most famous attractions including Cabot Trail, first-class golf courses, historical and cultural landmarks and five star culinary experiences. Plus, see two authentic lobster traps!

DCB’s expectations for the promotion were equally ambitious. (And rightly so — is there anything better designed to attract a mob of curious onlookers than an authentic lobster trap?) CEO Mary Tulle told the Post it meant “the opportunity to have 11 million people see Cape Breton…”

As it turns out, 11 million was a little optimistic. The actual number of visitors to Inspiration Village, according to Laflamme, was 340,000.

Still, Tulle was only off by 10,660,000 visitors and I, for one, will absolutely be ready to believe any future numbers she quotes me.

Besides, if our container was only lightly used in Ottawa, doesn’t that make it all the more suitable for its next job: tourist information booth on the Sydney waterfront? As Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher told the Post:

We have one (container) now that Destination Cape Breton did for an Ottawa event for tourism so we’re going to use that one for sure as a visitor information centre for tourists and that will be on the waterfront, but in addition to that, we have access to a couple of other containers so we would go and find out what it would cost to wrap them, because they have to be attractive, a container on its own is not much to look at.

I was afraid the use of a converted shipping container might contravene the CBRM’s Municipal Planning Act, which states:

A basic minimum architectural standard is needed to ensure structures which were never really designed by their manufacturer to be used by people as a dwelling or place to conduct business are not converted for such purposes. The use of bulk storage containers, recreational vehicles, trailers, and other similar pre-fabricated structures is to be prohibited as a main building from which to operate a business development on a full time, permanent basis. In support of the Policy of this Part focused on the aesthetics of our downtown streetscapes, they are also not to be used as accessory buildings with in the jurisdiction of any Central Business District Zone as well.

But apparently, this doesn’t apply on the wharf, which is in the Downtown Waterfront Zone (DWZ), where the only restriction I could find was on the use of mobile homes.

Then I worried about those two authentic lobster traps, but it turns out the Port of Sydney may be safe there too — although the dormant storage of fishery equipment is not permitted in the North End Residential (NER) and North End Downtown Fringe (NEDF) zones, there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping it in the DWZ.

So tell your heart to get ready, because this summer on the government wharf, it’s going to sing!