Some Thoughts on Bill 85

When Municipal Affairs Minister (and Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA) Derek Mombourquette first expressed the notion that the province could find a way to facilitate the CBRM’s port project without rushing through a “phase one” CBRM Charter focused entirely on the deal, I thought it was a good sign.

Derek Mombourquette

I was so wrong.

What it has actually meant is that the Charter has floated off into limbo while the changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) necessary to facilitate the port deal are being quick-marched through the Legislature.

This represents another triumph for our “port developer” Albert Barbusci, who may never have developed a port but sure knows how to create a buzz.

He did it in 2015, arguing that he and his partner Barry Sheehy (a consultant and historian who has also never developed a port) had taken things as far as they could possibly go on their own and now needed exclusive rights to market the Port of Sydney for two years.

He did it again in 2016 to demand that council extend that exclusivity agreement by an additional five years.

And he did it again in 2017, to demand that council approve an Option and Development Agreement with his firm.

Each time council is told time is money and tempus fugit and momentum is happening and if they don’t give Barbusci what he wants, they are anti-development, anti-progress, anti-hope and so anti-port they might as well torch the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion and be done with it.

In Barbusci’s world, the iron is always sizzling hot when he approaches council with his requests but cools down mysteriously the moment he’s got what he wants. Case in point: in December 2017, council was expected to digest and approve the Option and Development agreement — which will allow Barbusci’s company, Sydney Harbour Investment Partners, to buy and lease land from the CBRM at below-market prices — in a matter of days.

Moments after council voted to approve the deal, CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke said that a big announcement related to the development could be expected “early in the New Year” but the ink wasn’t dry on the agreement before Barbusci was walking that back, telling the Post “autumn” was a “more realistic target” for the positive news.

 

More haste…

Mombourquette has apparently caught the fever and believes it necessary to amend the MGA right now to give the CBRM the powers it needs to enter into this agreement.

He’s in such a rush, it hasn’t even occurred to him that along with greater powers should probably come greater responsibilities in terms of transparency and accountability.

He’s so determined to get the CBRM what it needs, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that no shipping line has agreed to use the proposed $1.2 billion container port and without a shipping line, there is no container port.

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and CAO Marie Walsh at Law Amendments Committee, March 26. (Craig Paisley/CBC photo)

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and CAO Marie Walsh at Law Amendments Committee, March 26. (Craig Paisley/CBC photo)

Nor does he seem to have registered that we have no functioning railway nor do we have a plan to upgrade our non-functioning railway. In Mombourquette’s defense, the project’s proponents swing back and forth on the importance of rail to the overall scheme of things, with Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher telling the Cape Breton Post in January 2018 that rail was “essential for [a] container terminal” and Barbusci telling the same paper a month later they had a rail-free option for the development which would involve “short sea shipment down the coast.” (Although, he was quick to add, that “won’t be as ideal for us as port developers.” Perhaps he has learned something about the international shipping industry.)

A recent report commissioned by the Port of Sydney Development Corporation put the cost of bringing the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia (CBNS) railway up to scratch at $100 million. No one has explained where that money is to come from.

And yet, this shipper-less, rail-less port project is so close to a done deal — the positive news is coming this autumn, folks — that we need those special powers assigned to the CBRM right now.

 

Pros and cons

Mombourquette’s Bill 85, the legislation that would amend the MGA in favor of the CBRM, went before the Law Amendments Committee of the Provincial Legislature on Monday.

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and CAO Marie Walsh appeared to make the case for the bill, which must have been a bit awkward for Clarke, given that the party he hopes to lead, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, oppose it.  According to CBC reports, Walsh told the committee Bill 85 will:

…secure future tax revenues [although the CBRM will be offering the developers tax abatements — ed] and encourage job creation in an area of high unemployment [although the port is sometimes described as “partly automated” and sometimes as “highly automated,” and the job numbers quoted in connection with the logistics park seem seriously overblown — ed] and one-third of its children living in poverty. [Whatever happened to the action plan to address poverty in the CBRM? No. 25 on Clarke’s “100 More Positive Changes for CBRM” 2016 election platform? — ed]

Support for Bill 85 came from Membertou Chief Terry Paul, who also appeared before the Law Amendments Committee (and took a swipe at Nova Scotia’s other container port project — Melford — by noting, according to the CBC report, that the Sydney project was “the only port project in Nova Scotia that has gone through the proper [First Nations] consultation process.”)

Clarke encouraged CBRM councilors to attend the Law Amendments Committee on Monday in a show of support for the Bill and  and judging by remarks made at last night’s CBRM council meeting, a number of them took him up on the offer (at public expense, presumably). In an email sent on Friday to councilors and CBRM staff (and seen by the Spectator), Clarke said:

I would encourage as many Councillors and senior staff involved with this request to be present at the Legislature. We, collectively, should meet with as many MLAs and look for one-on-one meetings to discuss the importance of the legislation.

Given that Bill 85 was introduced by the Liberal government which enjoys a majority in the House and that it passed second reading with the support of both the Liberals and the NDP, it seems the only MLAs in need of persuading were the Tories Clarke hopes to lead, which must have made for some weird conversations.

The Nova Scotia Legislature website has not yet been updated to include the list of witnesses or the written submissions received by the Law Amendments Committee on Bill 85, so I’m dependent on that CBC report for coverage. It notes that Laurie Boucher, the mayor of the Town of Antigonish, spoke against the amendments, as did Vernon Pitts, the warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (which, in passing, has an even worse name than we do), the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce and the Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN).

I do have some information to add to the mix, however. Here are the written remarks submitted by John Whalley, the former economic development officer of the CBRM (currently with New Dawn), who argues the legislation does not provide adequate protections of the public interest.

It can’t, he suggests, because the way the CBRM has gone about this project — signing “an exclusivity agreement with a promoter/independent contractor with no previous port development experience” without first having conducted “any form of a competitive process that would help define the options available for the development of the industrial/port lands owned by the CBRM” means neither the public nor its elected representatives can know “what options might be available and what international port development companies might be interested in developing the CBRM-owned properties.”

Law Amendments Committee Bill 85 Submission Whalley

 

And finally, I have the letter sent by the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM) to Minister Mombourquette, in which the organization comes down finally in favor of the amendments although there are points in the missive where, I must admit, I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go:

03-26-2018 LETTER--To Minister Mombouquette, re Proposed Amendment to Chapter 18 of the MGA--CBRM

 

In the end, the bill was sent back to the House without amendments for final reading, so I guess we can file all the “nay” presentations under: “Save your breath to cool your soup.”

 

 

 

 

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