CBRM Council: Miscellanea

CBRM Council met for 18 hours last night (okay, not 18 hours, but it felt like 18 hours, I don’t know how they do it). Here are some quick hits from the agenda:

 

Library

Once again, I was left wondering what exactly is the relationship between businessman Martin Chernin’s grandiose plans for the Sydney waterfront and our new central library.

For some reason, the two have become inextricably linked, even though the library is to be completely owned by the CBRM.

Artist's rendering of CBRM Central Library.

Artist’s rendering of CBRM Central Library.

The result of this odd relationship is that Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development Ltd knows far more about plans for the library than our council does.

Last night, John Phalen, manager of economic development and major projects, asked council to apply for provincial and federal funding for the library. He did so on the basis of an Issue Paper I haven’t seen because he apparently submitted it too late to be distributed with the rest of the meeting agenda. In fact, his presentation began in confusion because many councilors hadn’t realized that they’d received his Issue Paper by email on Friday, rather than with their other agenda materials.

Councilors were provided copies of the paper which they were then expected to digest, debate and vote on immediately.

District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullen was not happy about this and said so, adding that it’s a situation council finds itself in far too often and it has to change. “Why do I know so much less than you, Mr. Mayor?” she asked. (The mayor, who is usually happy to add “clarity” during meetings, didn’t respond.) How, she asked, could she be expected to make a reasonable decision about a major capital project based on “five minutes with four sheets of paper?” (Another excellent question, but again, one that went unanswered.)

In theory, the reason for the rush was next year’s federal election, in the run-up to which, no federal funding will be forthcoming. The CBRM has to get its ask in early. But if this is true, then why wasn’t the Issue Paper presented last month? Or the month before last? Phalen asked Council in a letter dated July 31 for “clarity” as to the CBRM’s possible contribution to the library project, stating it was necessary to “facilitate” the proponent’s discussions concerning “provincial and federal funding.” Why did it take over three months to decide it was time to apply for that funding?

Phalen did say he visited the libraries in Halifax and Truro, although I can’t imagine that took three months. Still, it’s good to know the man tasked with overseeing our new library has been inside one recently.

Council voted to apply for the funding and Phalen dangled the possibility of upcoming answers, saying Chernin’s group might come to council before Christmas with a detailed plan for its waterfront development. This time last year, you’ll recall, it was our Chinese port investors who were coming to visit — possibly in time for Christmas, definitely early in the New Year.

Next year, I swear, they’re just going to straight up tell us Santa Claus is coming and it will almost be a relief.

 

Elsewhere on the waterfront

Phalen also asked council to okay a plan to rent the community room in the Civic Centre to an unnamed restaurateur (I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “major” project — perhaps it’s just garden variety economic development).

Councilors seemed to know who the lucky winner is, but apparently his name cannot be spoken aloud.

He will pay rent and take on the costs of renovating the space.

CAO Marie Walsh said although it wasn’t strictly necessary for council to approve this, staff decided to play it safe, after the flak (my word, not hers) they got over renting waterfront property to businessman Danny Ellis without a call for bids.

Some councilors, by the way, still don’t see why anyone was upset about that, even as they noted what a booming business Ellis did last summer and how many people he employed — a figure that went from 43 to 35 over the course of the evening, but why sweat the details?

I’m not sure what kind of restaurant this will be (other than that it will be the kind that serves food and drink) or when it will open or what it will be called, but I’m hoping for “La Maison des Secrets.

 

App for that?

The CBRM is creeping slowly towards greater transparency as it prepares to comply with new provincial government rules for reporting expenses.

I will note just two things about this: first, the age of computer software has been late in coming to our municipality, as evidenced by this description of current record-keeping practices from CBRM director of technology John MacKinnon:

In advance of the actual publishing of travel expenses, significant changes needed to be made in how the CBRM processes travel expense claims. Currently, the CBRM processes travel expenses for reimbursement through an Excel spreadsheet but does not contain the necessary intelligence to properly collate expenses and easily report. In some instances, the spreadsheet is printed out and claim details are handwritten on the printout for reimbursement.

Spurred on by the new provincial reporting regulations, the municipality is upping its game:

Recognizing that it was necessary to enhance our processing of expense claims and with the pending expense claim legislation, the CBRM began developing an online CBRM expense claims portal. The portal is a “one stop shop” for expense claim requests, approval, and reimbursement. It incorporates electronic approvals at each state of the process for future review and auditing purposes. The information contained in the expense claims is published to a secure relational database and gives the CBRM ability to publish expense information easily, efficiently, and accurately.

(I would have thought there was an out-of-the-box expense management software program for that, but what do I know?)

As for who must report, in addition to elected officials like mayor and council, “reportable employees” include the CAO, “mayor’s office contract employment, and other employees as deemed reportable by council.”

MacKinnon told Council last night the CBRM will be publishing more information than is strictly necessary by law, will meet the provincial government’s deadline of spring 2019 and will make everything available via The datazONE.

The second thing I’d note is that Yarmouth has been publishing expenses online since 2016, before the province even set up its task force to review the rules:

 

 

 

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