About Last Night’s General Committee Meeting

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I have to start from the end of last night’s general committee meeting because things took an unexpected (and quite fascinating) turn that has knocked everything else out of my head for the moment.

If you have been following the Spectator’s “Where’s Cecil?” feature, then you’ll know I’ve been critical of CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke’s decision to remain mayor of the municipality while running for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party. I simply don’t see how he can both be mayor and court delegate support across the province (especially on the mainland) for eight months, the period of time that will have elapsed between his announcing he’d run and the PC leadership convention scheduled for end-October.

I also don’t see how he can keep his campaign activities and mayoral activities separate and last week’s Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference in Halifax was a case in point. Clarke, while in Halifax for the FCM, also attended at least one event (the CARP AGM) as a leadership candidate.

And to further muddy the waters, he attended another event (an appreciation breakfast sponsored by the Council of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray) as mayor of the CBRM but brought along a volunteer from his PC leadership campaign to “take pictures.” (At least, I have to assume Hunter Bettens, “the youth in question,” is a volunteer from Clarke’s campaign — what the mayor actually said, as you will hear if you watch the video below, is that Bettens is a volunteer on “a” political campaign.)

That incident came up at the end of last night’s general committee meeting, when District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin told the mayor she’d been fielding a lot of questions about the event and the role played by this “person” who was not a CBRM employee and who was rumored to be an employee “of a political party.” She told Clarke she was not comfortable speaking for him and asked that he clarify the situation.

“Clarity,” although one of Clarke’s favorite words, is not necessarily his strong suit. You can watch the entire response here (with subtitles, all courtesy of Citizen Joe Ward). Note, that Clarke begins by calling Councilor MacMullin “Councilor McDougall,” confusing her with District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, who was not at the meeting but who was clearly on his mind:

 

 

Let’s consider some of the mayor’s arguments:

The breakfast was not an official FCM or CBRM event, but an “informal” gathering

What he seems to be saying is that the Council of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray, which hosted the breakfast to thank the CBRM for its support during the 2016 wildfires, could have had the event included on the official agenda of the FCM annual conference but preferred it to be more low-key.

That’s clearly ridiculous.

But the bottom line is that whether the gathering was formal or informal, he was invited and attended in his capacity as mayor of the CBRM, not as a candidate for the provincial PC leadership, so why bring a campaign volunteer along to “take pictures?”

 

“[A]ny of us can be members of political parties in terms of our democratic rights and freedoms and we’ve come through a few World Wars and a number of other disputes around the world.”

I don’t have time to unpack all of this (how many World Wars does Clarke think we’ve had?) so I will simply cut to the chase: municipal mayors and councilors can, of course, be members of political parties — District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes is open about her membership in the New Democratic Party (NDP) — that’s not the issue here.

The issue is Clarke attending a function in his capacity as mayor of the CBRM and bringing along a volunteer from his PC leadership campaign to “take pictures.”

 

“In fact, the deputy leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Lisa Raitt, was in town and I could’ve invited her to come as my guest as mayor and take a picture for me.”

This is such a weird defense I can only assume Clarke actually considered doing this before realizing it was a bad idea. (In which case, kudos to him for realizing it was a bad idea.)

 

“[I]t would have been something to cross the line had I left that function and chosen to use social media or other communication means to promote that for political purpose and gain within the PC Party of Nova Scotia. Had I put something on a campaign or political social media related to that, then that would be a fair criticism to have but in the point in question I do believe the tweets and pictures that may have been put out there were put out there by Wood Buffalo in their own appreciation and enthusiasm to communicate.”

There is an obvious problem with this: if Clarke had no intention of using photos from the breakfast to promote his leadership campaign, why invite a campaign volunteer along to “take pictures?”

As a dedicated (obsessive?) reader of candidate Clarke’s Facebook feed, I know he frequently posts photos of events a day (or even days) after the fact. The controversy over Bettens’ attendance at the Wood Buffalo breakfast (I love writing that) broke the day of the breakfast, so Clarke may simply have rethought his plans to post the photos — taken by his campaign volunteer — on his campaign social media feeds.

Also, the photos I saw of the event were posted by District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger.

 

Morals & Ethics

Although the question was raised by Councilor MacMullin, the mayor, in responding, singled out Councilor McDougall for criticizing him “on the public record.” Clarke read aloud a tweet from McDougall’s Twitter account (@CouncillorMcD) in which she joined in a discussion about the breakfast photos:

 

Clarke also outed McDougall as “a member of the PC Party of Nova Scotia,” without saying how he knew that to be true or why it was germane to the discussion.

I can see where being accused of showing “a complete lack of morals” would be upsetting, and I can understand Clarke wanting to address the comment, but was it really necessary to bring it up during last night’s meeting? With Councilor McDougall not there to defend herself?

Again, what’s at issue here is not councilors belonging to political parties, it’s the mayor blurring the line between his role as mayor and his role as a candidate for the Progressive Conservative leadership. It’s this: are the citizens of the CBRM financing and facilitating their mayor’s job search?

 

Equalization

Okay, now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

CBRM Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Jennifer Campbell may have accomplished a superhuman feat last evening  — I think she has explained the problem with the municipality’s provincial “equalization” or “transfer” payments in a way that even non-CFOs can grasp.

Campbell, at the request of council, produced an Issue Paper on “Municipal Transfers for Provincial Costs” (it begins on Page 92 of this abbreviated version of a previous council agenda):

 

Council_Agenda_May_29_2018reduced_for_email.split-and-merged

 

Campbell doesn’t get into the issue of federal transfer payments to the province (which members of Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness have been accused of “confusing” with provincial transfer payments, although I would argue they know the difference very well). Instead, she focuses on payments the CBRM must make to the province for services that are — clearly — provincial responsibilities. That is, education, public housing, corrections and the Property Valuation Services Corporation. The difference between what the CBRM must pay the province and what the province pays the CBRM in equalization (which has been frozen for a number of years now) is clearly highlighted:

Source: CBRM

Source: CBRM

Back in February, when he spoke to CBC Information Morning Cape Breton about his decision to run for the PC leadership, Mayor Cecil Clarke actually touched on this issue, saying:

Well, here’s an example that I’ll be bringing forward for discussion during the campaign…When I was part of the Rodney MacDonald government, we started to take off mandatory costs to municipalities, like for corrections and education costs and there was a phasing in so the municipality was doing better with getting more resources.

Clarke made reference to this again last night, saying that the NDP government of Darrell Dexter, who followed Rodney MacDonald as premier, canceled this initiative. Clarke’s plan, as explained to the CBC, wasn’t optimal — rather than simply allowing municipalities to keep their money, he wanted to put it in a fund and have them apply to get it back on a project-by-project basis — but it was something. However, if he’s brought it forward for discussion during the campaign to date, I haven’t heard it.

Councilors all aired their views on equalization last night, and they all sounded pretty feisty. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted the notes I took down while watching the meeting, so you’ll have to watch the council video (which has already been posted on the CBRM website — way to go CBRM).

I do remember District 11 Councilor Coombes, who put the Issue Paper on the general committee agenda, suggesting that our mandatory payments are actually closer to $19.1 million annually, a total she reached by adding in the costs of crossing guards and abandoned schools, both of which, she argued, should be the responsibility of the Provincial Department of Education.

I also remember District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie suggesting that if this were 1718 instead of 2018, this would lead to a  “revolution.” (Update: I just double-checked that quote by watching the video and Gillespie actually said it would lead to a “friggin’ revolution” which is even better.)

District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch suggested that writing to our MLAs about the issue would be like writing to “Santa Claus.”

Deputy Mayor (and District 5 Councilor) Eldon MacDonald revealed that he had spoken to staff of Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau about equalization during a recent trip to Ottawa and was told that the CBRM was facing “a monumental task” and that “it would be unprecedented for change to happen to the degree that we expect it to happen.”

But don’t rely on my memory — watch the discussion yourself.

 

Agenda setting

CBRM Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan produced an Issue Paper on council’s agenda-setting policy for last night’s meeting and it’s very thorough and I need to read it and think about it before I write about it, so I’m putting a pin in it until Friday’s Fast & Curious.

 

 

 

 

 

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