Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

The Case of the Disappearing Audit Request

Several keen CBRM Council watchers on social media noted this next item this week.

During the regular meeting of CBRM Council in February, as Council was discussing plans for a Viability Study ordered by Minister of Municipal Affairs Derek Mombourquette, District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin put forward a motion that Mayor and Council also formally petition the province to audit the CBRM’s books. As she explained at the time:

[N]umerous times the province has been approached in regards to an audit and they’ve never come through, like, to open the books and say our funding’s not proper. Because we don’t have anything to hide, everything’s good, so I would like to add a number three that says we as a Council, Mayor and Council, are formally petitioning the province to come take a look at our books and take a look at our funding formula because, as [District 8 Councilor Amanda] McDougall had said, I think it goes hand in hand to this study.

In the end, the call for a provincial audit was passed as a separate motion. Here’s how the vote went:

Fast forward to the May 1 General Committee Meeting.

District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, citing growing public interest in and concern about the issue of equalization payments, put the subject out for discussion by Mayor and Council. Coombes suggested it was time they decided how they wanted to proceed in dealing with a situation which sees the CBRM receive roughly $15 million from the province in equalization each year while returning roughly $17 million in mandatory payments for education, corrections, public housing and the Property Valuation Services Corporation to the province.

In the course of discussion on Councilor Coombes’ “put up or shut up” motion, as she said she’d come to think of it, Councilor McDougall inquired as to the status of the February request for an audit. You can watch Mayor Cecil Clarke field this question on the video from the meeting. First he throws it to CAO Marie Walsh who says she believes Council passed a motion for a letter to be written to the province:

I think it was going to come from Mayor and Council so I don’t know [laughs] if that’s been written or not.

Clarke who, it would seem, knows nothing about such a motion himself, then consults Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan and while waiting for her answer, reminds Council that audits have been requested in the past with no success. He then tells Councilor McDougall:

It’s a matter of asking for it again in terms of what its…object would be.

McDougall says she thought that was precisely what they had agreed to do in February, ask again.

The Mayor says:

Yes, that’s what I’m saying, we’ll ask again, they didn’t accommodate the first time but asking again. So the Clerk’s going to check on exactly which format…

McDougall says:

So nothing was done since that motion?

To which Clarke replies:

I’m not certain.

Still from CBRM General Committee Meeting, 1 May 2018.

Still from CBRM General Committee Meeting, 1 May 2018.

Still waiting for the Clerk, Clarke takes the opportunity to suggest the previously discussed Viability Study would accomplish the same ends as an audit. CAO Walsh backs him on this.

But McDougall suggests a provincial audit would complement the Viability Study (as, in fact, both McDougall and MacMullin had suggested in calling for the audit on February 27).

And then, having received an answer from the Clerk, Mayor Clarke says:

[J]ust for clarity, the Clerk did present the motion and it specifically says with the Auditor General but we would just say the Department as well, in terms of the letter that would go. So we’ll attach the motion itself that was received, we just printed it, so we’ll recirculate and send that out, Councilor.

Note, he doesn’t mention to whom the Clerk presented the motion.

At this point, Councilor MacMullin joins the discussion and she is not happy:

I’m actually, I’m very disappointed, I’m shocked and I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little angry in regards to that, because I had dealings with a lot of individuals discussing that and trying to clarify what we were looking to as opposed to what people thought, there was interviews on CBC. I actually, I feel silly right now…This doesn’t seem like the norm, to me, is this the norm?…[T]wo months go by and we don’t actually make the ask — we advertise that we did it but we don’t?

And now, with his back to the wall, Clarke says:

In terms of the request itself, normally that was just an oversight item, it’s not the fault of the Clerk. Normally those things that come by motion would go by a letter from the Clerk to the department… In this case, the Clerk sent the memo to me and I didn’t forward it on. That was my oversight, not the Clerk’s.

So, two months ago, Clarke was presented with a motion passed by council — passage of which he presided over, discussion of which he participated in, approval of which he voted for — calling on him to write the province requesting an audit and he simply forgot to do it? Forgot, in fact, that such a motion had even been passed?

Are you buying that? Because if so, I’ve got a piece of contaminated waterfront property you might be interested in…


Free the Information

May 7-11 is Open Government Week in Nova Scotia — it’s like Tree Appreciation Week on Easter Island only with arguably less to celebrate.

Just in time for this event, I recently made two additions to the bulging file folder I have labeled Nova Scotia: (Lack of) Access to Information.

The first was courtesy of Erica Butler, transport columnist for the Halifax Examiner, whose latest column (behind a paywall but available to joint Cape Breton Spectator/Halifax Examiner subscribers) is about a transportation survey conducted by the QE2 Redevelopment Project in November 2017. Says Butler:

In Halifax, we don’t have too much in the way of detailed transportation data. The census “journey to work” section gives us the commuter mode share per census tract unit, which means it tells us how people get to work depending on where they live. This QE2 survey, on the other hand, promised to tell us something new: how people got to and from work according to where they worked. So naturally, I was interested.

Butler goes on to explain how she tried to get that data via a freedom of information/access to information (FOIPOP) request to the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), was denied access and subsequently filed an appeal with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. That office (as some of us know all too well) is currently clearing a two-year backlog, which Butler says is creating “a feedback loop:”

The easier it is for government departments to deny information without oversight, the more needless access denials will be made. This in turn will spark more appeals for review, thereby increasing the time they will take to process.


Sewer CCTV

I may actually change the name of my file folder to “Needless Access Denials.”

The other item I added this week came from a review report released by Nova Scotia Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully.

The case concerns a Halifax resident whose basement was flooded twice in August 2014 by water that smelled suspiciously like sewage. Hoping to discover the cause of the flooding, the resident contacted the Halifax Regional Municipality and Halifax Water. Says Tully:

Inspectors were sent, discussions occurred, and eventually Halifax Water commissioned a video inspection of the sewage and storm systems on the applicant’s street. The video inspection resulted in the creation of a report (the “CCTV Report”).

The resident requested a copy of the 40-page CCTV report and was given two pages and subsequently an additional five pages. Initially, Halifax Water gave no reason for withholding the bulk of the report but later cited “security reasons” as provided for in clause 475(1)(k) of the MGA.

Tully goes into great detail explaining why a blanket explanation like “security reasons” is just too broad for refusing to release a report about video footage shot in a section of a municipality’s sewer line. Halifax Water, she says, claimed releasing the CCTV Report could open the door to a human-caused threat to wastewater infrastructure. Such threats include physical threats, chemical contamination threats and cyber threats and since the CCTV Report didn’t include water supply, there was no chemical threat, nor was there a cyber threat. That left physical threats, which led to my favorite part of Tully’s report:

From a layperson’s perspective, the most vulnerable section of sewage pipe infrastructure appears to be the manholes. The manholes are easily observed by anyone walking on any street in Halifax. Manholes are where a motivated individual could reasonably be expected to access the underground pipe system. Pipes buried under streets are not otherwise easily accessible without heavy equipment. Further, the fact that each house on a street has laterals connected to storm and sanitary sewer mains is a matter of common knowledge. Halifax Water has already disclosed the only information in the CCTV Report that might be characterized as “big picture” – the mainline plans for part of the sewer and sanitary lines on the street. There is no evidence that such disclosure has resulted in any risk to the Halifax Water system.

I would have added a line pointing out that Nova Scotians of my generation, raised on a steady diet of Spider-Man cartoons, are very aware of the connection between manholes and the underground sewer system. (I bet I’m not the only one who assumed the CCTV footage would identify the blockage in the system as a life-sized, golden statue of a rhino.)

What I wish the CCTV footage had shown.

What I wish the CCTV footage had shown.

The moral of the story for Halifax Water? If you’re really worried about security, hide the manholes.

(I would be remiss not to point out that, earlier this week, a human-caused incident actually did result in raw sewage being dumped into Halifax harbor, but it was not the because someone watched footage of a section of underground pipe and hatched a nefarious plot. It was the result, as the Examiner reported, of someone “illegally walking on the catwalk under the MacKay Bridge”and “tripp[ing] a breaker, cutting power to Halifax Water communications equipment on the bridge, which in turn caused the shutdown of the sewage system on the Dartmouth side of the harbour.”)



These are just two examples of our broken access to information system in action. Or more precisely, not in action. If you’d like to hear about access to information systems that actually do function and will be in Halifax on May 10, consider attending this Open Government Week talk by Michael Karanicolas, president of the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia:

Open Government Week Event Poster


PCAP 2016

The results of the 2016 Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) for Grade 8 students were released this week to muted fanfare (the Nova Scotia Department of Education was more interested in discussing the schools it plans to build and buy over the next several years).

Reading was the primary focus of the 2016 tests, although math and science were also evaluated. According to the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), which sponsors the tests:

Today’s report shows that, at the pan-Canadian level, 88 per cent of Canadian students in Grade 8 achieve the level of performance in reading that is expected of them. Furthermore, 14 per cent exceed this level. In each of the 10 provinces, without exception, over 80 per cent of students are achieving at the expected level of performance in reading—in one case, over 90 per cent.

Three days before they were released, Grant Frost, NSTU president for Halifax County, sounded a warning in the Chronicle Herald about how the results would be interpreted:

Now, for those of you who are not necessarily up to speed on the nuances of large-scale standardized assessment, it should be understood that although PCAP focuses on one major domain, it also includes minor domains in each round of testing.

For this test, approximately one-third of the questions were related to science and math, but, as the CMEC points out, “caution must be used when analyzing the data for minor domains.”

Frost goes on to note that despite this call for caution, the 2013 results, which focused on science, were used to highlight “how poorly — at least according to some sources — students were doing in math.”

Sure enough, the Chronicle Herald headline announcing the 2016 PCAP results states: “N.S. below Canadian mean scores in Grade 8 student assessments,” even though the story opens with:

It’s a case of some good news and bad news for Nova Scotia Grade 8 students in the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program report in the most recent data collected in 2016.

The good news is that children here are in line with the performance scores of their Canadian compatriots in meeting overall reading proficiency expectations.

When it’s good news/bad news, apparently, you lead with the bad news.