Better Late Than Never: Council & Community Notes

My attention span has an inverse relationship with the temperature, so I’m just going to highlight a few items that have caught my eye on the local scene of late, one of which reminded me to send a FOIPOP, most of which just caused me to go “hmmmm.”

 

Marconi

Waterfronts are precious things.

Sydney has been blessed with a lovely one that we haven’t always treated with the respect it deserves. We’ve dumped raw sewage and steel-plant toxins into our harbor, allowed vessels to quietly rust at their moorings, permitted tank farms on prime downtown real estate, allowed landowners to extend their holdings by infilling the harbor, blocked view planes with seniors residences and fisheries offices — I could go on, but I won’t. It’s too hot.

We’ve never, in my memory at least, really understood the meaning of “esplanade,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as “a wide level path, especially one by the sea.” (We’ve made up for this somewhat by understanding “boardwalk,” credit where credit is due.)

As I write, though, Sydney’s Esplanade is as close to being an actual Esplanade as I can ever remember it being between the Cambridge Suites Hotel and the Sydney Central Fire Department. Yes, there’s a chain-link fence between you and the harbor, but it doesn’t obscure the view, which is really wonderful. If you haven’t experienced it, I advise you to do so while you can, because it’s about to be obscured for the foreseeable future (unless climate change has something to say about it) by this:

NSCC Marconi Campus artist's rendition

I’m not an architect. I’m not even an architecture critic (well, I am, just not a qualified one), but this design for the new NSCC Marconi Campus leaves me rather cold.

That said, I could deal with my dislike of the design better if I knew it had been widely vetted and carefully considered and weighed against other possible designs and chosen because it was what the people of Sydney — whose waterfront it will “grace” — had opted for. It’s the strangely obscure process by which the decision was taken to a) move the NSCC to the waterfront; b) house it in a series of buildings that look like the three bears parked their semis on the harbor, that bothers me.

I’ve tried to trace the decision back to its source and it’s been like following a trail of bread crumbs, but I recently FOIPOPed an Ekistics study that may shed some light on things, so if I ever get a copy, we’ll meet back up here and I’ll let you know what it says.

 

Hidden agenda setting

Here’s an item that caught my eye from the most recent (July 14) CBRM council agenda:

Proposed Amendments to Various CBRM Policies

ii. Council Agenda Policy

It’s a deeply wonky thing to worry about, in a way, but in another way, it’s a very practical concern: an issue a councilor can’t get on the agenda is an issue a councilor can’t get action on. (Not that getting an item on the agenda is any guarantee of action but it is a necessary first step.) So I always pay attention when I see “proposed amendments” to the process by which an item does or does not make it to the agenda.

CBRM Council Chambers, 2017. (Photo by WayeMason [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)

CBRM Council Chambers, 2017. (Photo by WayeMason, CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons)

Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan presented four agenda-related amendments to council and I want to focus on items three and four. Here’s item three:

Review of Draft Agendas: The agenda review working group comprised of the Presiding Officer, Chief Administrative Officer, Clerk, Solicitor and Deputy Mayor (or their delegates) may attend the agenda consultation meeting to review and approve the draft agendas.

Campbell-Ryan said her amendment was simply intended to:

Outline composition and responsibilities of the agenda review working group (i.e. Presiding Officer, CAO, Clerk, Solicitor and Deputy Mayor — or their delegates).

She offered no explanation as to why this clarification was necessary — were plebeians crashing the agenda review working group? Councilors from other jurisdictions? Roosters? (Since the animal husbandry by-law debate, I’ve begun seeing roosters everywhere). In her defense, she wasn’t asked for an explanation either.

But I think I may have figured it out. The point of the amendment was not so much to clarify the membership of the “agenda review working group” as to change the name of the “agenda review committee.”

Back in January, the CBC’s Tom Ayers raised questions about the agenda review committee which, he reported, met in private and kept no record of its proceedings in what CBU political scientist Tom Urbaniak called a breach of the Municipal Government Act (MGA) — committees have to follow the same rules as council. Mayor Cecil Clarke told Ayers the agenda review committee “wasn’t really a committee of council” and that the Department of Municipal Affairs agreed with this and that there was no need for it to keep minutes.

I asked the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing on Tuesday if it was, indeed, okay with this situation but as of press time I had not received an answer (this is my fault, for sending the question late on Tuesday, I will share the response when I receive it.)

But given the choice between meeting in public and recording its proceedings OR changing its name from “committee” to “working group” and dodging any requirement for transparency and accountability, would it surprise anyone to discover the CBRM had opted for the latter? (I’ll go further, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover it had done so on the advice of Municipal Affairs.)

This change is worth noting, though, given amendment four introduced by the municipal clerk on July 14:

Petitions: New section regarding the process for Petitions submitted to Council.

I don’t know what the CBRM has been doing with petitions up until now. The Halifax Regional Municipality seems to have been including them in its agendas for some time. To be fair, I only looked at agendas going back to 2017, but they all contained a slot for “Correspondence, Petitions and Delegations.”

I looked up the relevant procedures for submitting petitions to the Halifax Regional Council and it’s basically the text the CBRM has adopted with a few interesting differences. For example, the HRM rules specify that:

The content of all petitions submitted and accepted by the Council under this section shall be public information, including the names and addresses of those signing the petition.

The CBRM has dropped this reference.

Most interestingly, the HRM rules state:

(2) The Clerk shall list on the agenda every petition which has been delivered to the Clerk not later than 12:00 o’clock noon on the Thursday immediately preceding each regular meeting of the Council.

(3) The Clerk shall arrange that the communication be placed before the Council unless, upon examination, the Clerk is of the opinion that it contains matter that is impertinent or improper in which case the person presenting the communication shall be advised that the document is not deemed in suitable form for presentation to the Council; provided that the decision of the Clerk in the matter may be appealed to the Council. [emphasis mine]

Compare that to the newly adopted CBRM rules:

(3) Once received by the Clerk, the Petition will be reviewed by the agenda working group prior to inclusion on a meeting agenda. Once approved, receipt of the Petition will be duly noted on the agenda, highlighting the operative clause, and be included under the “Approval of Agenda” order of business.

The agenda review working group will decide which petitions council receives based on — well, who knows? Moreover, CBRM petitioners whose petitions have been rejected will not have the opportunity to appeal the decision to council.

The HRM rules also allow council, when it “considers that the petition or communication requires an immediate reply” to discuss it and dispose of it “forthwith,” which, when you think about it, provides citizens a very direct way of bringing their concerns before their elected representatives. (How often this happens I can’t tell you, but the possibility at least exists.) There is no such provision in the CBRM rules.

This isn’t accidental — this has been crafted to put control over petitions in the hands of the agenda review working group which — I strongly suspect — has changed its name from “committee” so it doesn’t have to keep a public record of its proceedings.

The clerk didn’t explain why we’re suddenly making rules for petitions or what we used to do with petitions and, once again, she wasn’t asked to explain any of it.

Council decided to consider all the clerk’s “Proposed Amendments to Various CBRM Policies” together and during discussion on the motion, precisely one question was asked.

(That question, by the way, was a good one, having to do with an amendment other than those to the agenda policy: District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie wanted to know why there is no citizen representation on the Fire and Emergency Services Committee. The answer was basically “Because that’s the way we set it up.”)

The clerk’s proposed amendments passed unanimously.

 

Sea-worthy

Does it strike anyone else odd that the Cape Breton Regional Fire Service has a rescue vessel it can’t operate?

That’s purely rhetorical. I know I’m not alone because a spectator drew my attention to the story about the boat that actually could float — it just couldn’t be taken to sea by anyone in the fire department.

CBC story about Cape Breton Regional Fire Services boat.

Or as the CBC explained:

A rescue boat owned by the Cape Breton Regional Fire Service that’s usually on land is now in Sydney harbour because a police rescue boat is being repaired.

Normally, the twin-engine boat stays on land so it can be transported to wherever it’s needed. For example, it was recently taken to Glace Bay for a search and rescue effort…

However, [Deputy Fire Chief Gilbert] MacIntyre said the boat requires a special ticket to operate and the fire service doesn’t have any personnel who can do that.

When the vessel is needed, they call one of four members of the Cape Breton Regional Police qualified to operate the boat.

The Fire Department had intended to train people “between winter and spring this year” but “COVID-19 cancelled it.”

Damn virus.

Except, the training was supposed to have taken place well over a year ago, pre-virus. The minutes from the 18 June 2019 Fire and Emergency Services Committee include a memo from “HR Generalist” Deanna Evely with the subject line “Update — Labour Management Committee IAFF,” in which she updates the committee on a number of outstanding items as of their 15 May 2019 meeting. These include golf shirts (not yet delivered as of May 15, but “resolved” as of June 18) and “Rescue Boat Training” of which she says:

Awaiting trainer to return from sick leave. Will proceed with training at that time.

COVID-19 did not begin disrupting events until March 2020. Was the trainer on sick leave for ten months? And even were that the case, is there really only one trainer? Isn’t this all a little…weird?

On an unrelated note: the minutes from that June 2019 Fire and Emergency Services meeting included an exhaustive inventory of fire department equipment including these:

Washer and dryer

The explanation was as follows:

To keep the families of the fire fighters safe we have installed clothes washers and dryers in the stations. These are so the fire fighters can wash the clothes they wear at work at the station and not bring contaminates home and run them through the washer in their house, possibly affecting the rest of the family.

Presumably, there are people within the department trained to use them. It would be really embarrassing to have to call in the police to wash the golf shirts.

 

Buckley-lite

I don’t usually read David Delaney’s Post column but occasionally he has a take so transcendentally doolally I can’t resist.

Such was the case with his most recent screed, published Monday under the headline “mayoralty candidates should have a definable platform.”

(For some reason, the accompanying stock photo of a hand dropping a ballot in a box bears the caption, “Cape-Breton Victoria school support staff have scheduled a vote for June 5.)

I have no problem with a candidate having a definable platform (something other than, say, “100 positive changes for the CBRM”), which may be why I got sucked into this particular column.

I could even find some common ground with Delaney in this opening paragraph:

Generally speaking, mayoralty elections offer little by the way of excitement and certainly scant policy discussion. Instead, they come down to which candidate can best package catchy slogans and, of course, encourage the public spirit of the well-heeled to selflessly donate money for the singular purpose of best securing the public good.

I too, am suspicious of the motives of generous political donors, and while I can’t remember the last time a candidate in this burg had a “catchy slogan,” I was willing to believe Delaney could, if pressed, cite a few.

But then William F. Buckley appeared and I started to get a little doubtful about the direction in which this was heading. Delaney takes us back to the 1965 campaign for the mayoralty in New York City (which he mistakenly dates to 1966) which found Buckley running on a small government platform:

A reporter…thinking he would embarrass Buckley, barked at him, “Mr. Buckley, your program then is against all of the public measures…for the alleviation of poverty, better education and more housing?” Instead of denying this or even trying to squirm out of it, Buckley, looking squarely at his inquisitor, said in his accustomed calm manner, “Why I don’t think I could put it better myself.” So much for political correctness.

Yeah, wow, Buckley SLAYED that barking reporter — why would a government care about education or housing or the alleviation of poverty?

Delaney thinks it would be “refreshing” to have a CBRM mayoral candidate adopt a similarly clear platform. In fact, he’s written one for anyone sufficiently audacious to take it on.

The first plank? Replace the CBRPS with the RCMP. Because what better time than the eve of a federal/provincial inquiry into their handling of the Portapique mass shooting to bring in the RCMP? I particularly like the sole criteria to be weighed before making the decision: cost.

Next, the candidate must privatize:

…all municipal services so that the public works, legal and perhaps other institutionalized departments can eventually be eliminated, with their respective necessary services being provided more cost-effectively.

It’s like Delaney had himself frozen just after Ronald Reagan was elected, was defrosted last week, and has yet to notice that the ideas he’s espousing — neoliberal ideas about the efficiencies and cost-savings and general magnificence of privatization — have had their day. (Nova Scotia Power, anyone?)

But he knows he’ll have critics — in fact, he even knows what they’ll say:

To those who are suggesting that what I am proposing amounts to dismantling, even emasculating the size, authority and role of how we practice municipal government, allow me to quote Mr. Buckley, “Why I don’t think I could put it better myself.”

Buckley, as you may have noticed, made that comment to someone else — an actual person (well, a “barking” reporter) expressing himself in his own words. He didn’t imagine what that person might say and then announce he couldn’t have put it any better himself.

Plus, “I don’t think I could put it better myself” carries more weight coming from someone who actually had a command of the language as Buckley, damn him, did. Coming from someone capable of committing the phrase “emasculating the size, authority and role of how we practice municipal government” to paper, it’s not such a killer line.

Delaney’s bio, which changes with every column, this weeks states that he “lives in Albert Bridge” and “has a keen interest in local government,” which is one way to put it. “Has a deep-seated desire to destroy local government and dance on its grave” would be another.

I have to admit, though, he is entertaining. I think I must start reading him more regularly.

 

Man with a Plan

Today at noon, Education and Early Childhood Minister Zach Churchill and Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, will announce their plan for reopening schools this fall.

Spectator contributor Kate Sircom has a plan of her own, which she will weigh against Churchill’s once it is revealed.

I will publish her article ASAP, so if you’re thinking you’ve been short-changed on content this week, fear not — there’s more to come.