Phalen Returns to Public Works as Library Stalls

I just watched last week’s CBRM general committee debate over funding for the new central library and heard Mayor Cecil Clarke declare the project “dead” because the federal government has not come through with its share of the funding (either for a programming and internal operations study or for the building itself.) And with a federal election looming in October, funding announcements, the mayor assured everyone, will soon dry up.

In the ensuing debate, it was stated a number of times by a variety of players that “finger-pointing” was neither helpful nor appropriate at this stage, but I beg to differ.

I think we very much need to point the finger at the person or persons who messed up the initial funding application and ensure they have nothing whatsoever to do with the next one.

Antigonish Town & County Library. “The People’s Place” (Source: Library website )

My own finger pointed, almost of its own volition, at Economic Development Manager John Phalen and Harbour Royale Development Limited’s (HRDL) Jim Wooder, the “project manager” overseeing Phase 1 of HRDL’s plan for the Sydney waterfront, which is to include, for reasons no one has ever credibly explained, a public library. And what do you know? It seems at least one of those two suspects will not be involved in the project much longer.

CBRM spokesperson Jillian Moore confirmed for the Spectator on Monday that Phalen has returned to Public Works and Engineering, where he has taken up the position of Manager of Public Works Central. Said Moore:

John is still working on certain economic development files at the moment, until a decision is made of how to proceed with the Economic Development Manager role.

Phalen took up his new post at Public Works on 1 February 2019, which means he must have been at least thinking about returning to his old department, if he hadn’t already applied to do so, in December 2018 when he submitted the library funding application to the province.

Moore tells me Phalen, “along with several staff,” is “still involved” with the library file.

 

Public v Private

Tellingly, Phalen’s main responsibility with regard to that file has been overseeing the municipality’s applications for federal and provincial funding. In that capacity, he has been assisted by HRDL. How that came to be is worth recapping:

It started when the CBRM called for bids to develop a stretch of the Sydney waterfront from the cruise pavilion to the Holiday Inn (a dubious proposition in and of itself) and HRDL put in a bid. In fact, HRDL put in the only bid.

In addition to Martin Chernin, who has been planning a development on the Sydney waterfront for over a decade, HRDL includes architect Spiro Trifos. Trifos had participated in a library feasibility study which involved him sketching pictures of three “representative” possibilities for a new library, one of which was a standalone structure on the waterfront. HRDL included that sketch in its waterfront development bid, the bid was accepted and — Hey, Presto! — HRDL was suddenly leading the library project.

I want to try a thought experiment now to show you how insane that is:

Imagine Trifos had been asked to sketch three representative designs for the second cruise ship berth.

Now imagine HRDL picked one of those designs and included it in its waterfront development plan.

Do you think the CBRM and the Port of Sydney would have sat back and allowed Chernin and Trifos to decide what the berth would look like and then lead negotiations for the provincial and federal government funding? I think not.

And yet, they have been allowed to do just that for the new library, a piece of social infrastructure far more important to the community than the second berth.

Atrium, Halifax Central Library.

Atrium, Halifax Central Library.

 

Property values

A person might just about be able to swallow this nonsensical state of affairs if HRDL were doing a good job leading the project but it has fallen at the first hurdle — it was given responsibility for securing provincial and federal funding and it blew it.

Here’s the documentary evidence that HRDL was given that responsibility:

Phelan_Memo

And here’s the documentary evidence that HRDL blew it:

Mayor and Council Library May 7 2019

A number of the councilors who spoke during the general committee meeting expressed anger at the provincial and federal governments for not warning the CBRM there was a problem with its funding applications, and Mayor Cecil Clarke was happy to direct the blame that way, insisting no one in the municipality had been warned it could not use land as part of its capital contribution (which, it came out during the discussion, was a problem with the applications).

But shouldn’t we reserve some of that anger for the (former) economic development manager and the private development company that submitted the flawed application? Wasn’t it Phalen’s responsibility to know what constituted an eligible contribution to the project?

It’s not like he didn’t have time to figure it out — he began floating the idea of using land as part of the municipality’s contribution to the project in July 2018 and the application wasn’t submitted until December 2018. That’s five months during which he could, presumably, have run the idea past someone at ACOA or the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs.

I asked someone familiar with such applications about it and he told me that determining what would constitute an eligible contribution from the CBRM would be the first step in applying for funding from either level of government. He also said that there is no shortage of CBRM staffers familiar with submitting such applications.

So the question becomes, were the provincial and federal governments purposely messing with the municipality, leading it to believe its application was in order when it wasn’t?

Did CBRM staffers suddenly forget everything they knew about funding applications and miss the fine print about land not being an eligible contribution to the project?

Or did HRDL, a private company with, presumably, little experience with the application process, have a little too much control over it? My suspicion, bolstered by what Phalen told council in November 2018, is that it’s the latter:

Mr. Phalen advised that Harbour Royale Development Limited…have been working actively with all levels of Government and First Nations to advance the project after being approved for a Pre-Development Agreement and a contribution of land and capital in principal by CBRM Council.

Surely at some point, while “working actively” with all levels of government, HRDL should have been alerted to the fact that the land contribution idea was a non-starter.

Phalen seems to be in the process of removing himself from the library file but it will be up to council to remove HRDL which it should do ASAP.

 

Bad form

I have identified a third culprit in this fiasco, but before the big reveal, I’d like to discuss what Krista Higdon, spokesperson for the Provincial Department of Municipal Affairs, had to say about the funding application.

She said the province is currently administering the federal government’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) which has four streams:

  • Public Transit
  • Green (3 focus areas – Green House Gas Mitigation, Community Resilience and Environmental Quality)
  • Community, Culture and Recreation
  • Rural and Northern Communities: supports infrastructure projects in rural communities (municipalities with a population under 100,000)

On 3 December 2018, says Higdon, Municipal Affairs issued a call for projects under the ICIP Green-Environmental Quality stream which supports “municipal solid waste, water and wastewater projects.” Funding for libraries, she said, “may be eligible under the ICIP Community, Culture, Recreation stream, which has not yet opened.”

[A]ll municipalities were sent the information package for the call for the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) Green-Environmental Quality stream. This package included program guidelines, eligible costs, and criteria for applying under the Green-Environmental Quality stream, which is the only ICIP stream currently open…This package is very clear on what type of projects are currently eligible for ICIP funding, as well as on the process and criteria for applying.

In response, the CBRM sent in the “unsolicited” library proposal which, Higdon says, “does not meet the criteria under the Green-Environmental Quality stream, and was not submitted as an ICIP application.”

Again, does that sound like the work of experienced CBRM staffers or does that sound like the work of people who don’t know what they’re doing? Mayor Clarke, on CBC radio on Tuesday morning, repeatedly referred to CBRM staff as having been behind the applications but how do you square that with what the province is saying about those applications? Namely:

There is a process for municipalities to apply for funding through federal-provincial infrastructure programs which includes applying under the appropriate stream and using the correct application forms and processes. Municipalities understand this process, and departmental staff work closely with them to identify their priorities and match them to funding programs.

Ouch.

And finally — and most damningly — Higdon says:

Land/in-kind contributions are not eligible expenses for cost-sharing under the ICIP program. 

Mayor Clarke repeated on CBC radio on Tuesday that they should have been told this after they’d submitted the applications but it seems pretty clear to me this is the sort of information the people making the application should have ascertained from the outset.

And clearly, they didn’t.

Omerta

There’s a third culprit in this library funding fiasco but it’s not a person, it’s a culture: the culture of secrecy that has been the hallmark of Cecil Clarke’s mayoralty. The library file reeks of it.

For instance, did you know, before you read it here today, that our economic development manager had returned to Public Works? I’m betting you didn’t. But it makes sense that Phalen would leave the position quietly because that’s the way he took it up in the first place; I still don’t know precisely when he was hired to replace John Whalley, who resigned in 2015. (And who subsequently sued the CBRM for constructive dismissal. A judge ruled against him last summer, but Whalley is appealing that decision.)

Truro Library. (Source: MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects)

All I could determine was that the job posting closed on 7 April 2016 and Phalen, according to what Mayor Cecil Clarke later told the CBC, was the only applicant. When Phalen actually began the job remains something of a mystery — as late as October 2016 he was still being cited in the media as the Public Works Manager. I first saw him referenced as the economic development manager in a (no longer available) Cape Breton Post article from February 2017.

But the mysterious case of John Phalen is not an anomaly, it’s business as usual in the CBRM where nobody, other than the mayor and a select few people around him, ever seems to know anything about anything. District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin said as much — about the library file, in fact — at that November 2018 council meeting cited above. As I reported at the time:

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.)

Those “four sheets of paper” are still not attached to the agenda for the 20 November 2018 meeting, but I requested a copy of them from the Clerk’s Office which I am including below:

Library Issue Paper - November 16 2018

If the mayor ran a more open administration, District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, who sits on the library board, would not have had to propose a motion (as she did last week) ordering staff to produce a copy of the funding applications. She would, presumably, have been consulted in the preparation of the applications or at the very least have seen them before they were submitted. (Her motion was immediately seconded by District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, who also sits on the library board. The third library board member, District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie, said Coombes beat him to it — he would also have been happy to second the motion.)

And District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, in whose district the new central library is to be built and who has been working on downtown development for a number of years, would have been consulted about plans to eliminate underground parking from the library design. MacDonald first heard about that plan during a public update on the project last month and, as someone grappling with the existing parking problem in the downtown, he is not happy.

That public update, as I remarked at the time, was notable for the absence of any representative — elected or otherwise — of the CBRM. Wooder and Trifos of HRDL provided the “progress” report on the library (with Wooder assuring the audience it was the “most advanced” element of the first phase of HRDL’s waterfront development, which tells you everything you need to know about progress on the other elements.)

It was pretty clear the CBRM had abdicated responsibility for the project to this private developer and it’s equally clear it’s time to take that responsibility back.

But even if Phalen has removed himself from the library file and HRDL is removed from the library file (which it should be) the third culprit, this mania for secrecy, will remain to plague the project unless council puts its collective foot down and tells Mayor Clarke enough is enough.

 

Champion

And speaking of Mayor Clarke, during the general committee meeting he declared it his role to “champion” the new library, a claim that actually took me by surprise.

I’ve never really thought of Clarke as a “champion” of the new library. Champion of the imaginary container port, sure, and even — to a lesser extent — of the second cruise ship berth, but he has never shown the same interest in the new central library. His chief contribution seems to be threatening every couple of years to tack it onto Centre 200. (Frankly, I had always chalked his lack of interest up to the fact that library advocacy involves road trips to Truro rather than business-class flights to Beijing.)

And I have a sneaking suspicion that we might be further ahead with the project if, between February and October 2018 — a period apparently crucial to the project, if what he says about funding announcements prior to federal elections is true — Clarke had focused on the library instead of running for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party. I think if he’d actually “championed” the cause of a new central library instead of publicly and vocally dissing the federal and provincial Liberal governments for eight months, he might now find it easier to work with those governments. He might find more of the “good will” he told the CBC’s Steve Sutherland was now necessary from the province — and not just the province, the premier, whose job Clarke was openly gunning for throughout most of 2018.

I think this possibility has occurred to Clarke himself, which is why he suggested at one point during last week’s discussion that council should “put the politics and me as mayor out” of the discussion and ask whether CBRM staff had done all that was requested of them in pursuit of funding. (The answer to which is, they may well have done all that was requested of them, but were the right things requested of them?)

Clarke himself couldn’t “put the politics out of it,” taking a petulant swipe at the staff of MPs Rodger Cuzner and Mark Eyking:

Well, I dealt with their staff about the second berth and it wasn’t very gracious and kind at times, let me tell you.

These would be, need I remind you, the same staffers whose “good will” the mayor is now depending on.

Clarke is a self-declared proud, card-carrying Tory and as such, he politicizes everything he touches. He made the bizarre choice to drag party politics into municipal politics — his first act as mayor was to hire two Tory hacks as personal staff — so is it really that much of a stretch to suggest what we’re now witnessing is, at least to some extent, fall-out from that decision?

For what it’s worth, by the way, Cuzner and Eyking issued a press release taking exception to the mayor’s declaration that the library project was dead:

The Mayor says the Central Library Project is dead, and we disagree wholeheartedly with his statement.

It’s extremely unfair to Cape Bretoners and the volunteers who have put countless hours into this project to call this project dead.

The Province of Nova Scotia is the lead in submitting infrastructure projects from municipalities to the federal infrastructure department. A municipality does not submit directly to the federal government. The Mayor should understand this given his experience with other infrastructure projects like the new Sydney berth, which the federal government funded.

We are urging Mayor Clarke to immediately contact Premier McNeil for the following:

1) Confirm that CBRM’s proposal fits the requirements of the program;

2) Work with the Premier to determine if a new Central Library for Cape Breton is a provincial priority;

3) And if so, request that the province forward the finalized application to the federal infrastructure department as soon as possible.

Our federal government is always prepared to work collaboratively in support of projects that are beneficial to Cape Breton. We know we can make this happen but that will first require both the municipality and province to make this project a priority and for the province to submit the required application to Infrastructure Canada. When that happens, we will vigorously do our part to secure federal approval.

Councilor McDougall wants an Issue Paper on the central library project so that the municipality can reset and have another go at securing funding. She also wants to put other options — like renovating the old library — back on the table, which makes sense because there was never a proper discussion about the best location for a new library. HRDL pre-empted it.

And look where that’s got us.

Clarke, true to form, is insisting the clock is “ticking down” on the project as though, if we don’t secure funding before October, the plan will self-destruct. I would suggest this is just Clarke conducting business the only way he knows how — in a hurry and in the face of completely manufactured pressure (see: pretty much every major decision council has made under his watch).

And frankly, if this particular plan were to self-destruct, I think we might all be better off.

I’ve chosen to illustrate this article with pictures of the new central libraries in Antigonish, Truro and Halifax to prove that it is possible for a Nova Scotia community to build a new library without incorporating it into a private development. In fact, it’s possible to build a spectacular new library that way.

If they can do it, why can’t we?