Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Beggaring belief

Albert Barbusci

Albert Barbusci. Apparently the photographer cut the legs off his stool.

So, it’s done — Albert Barbusci of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP) has completed his work and all that stands between the Port of Sydney and a multi-million dollar terminal for ultra-large container vessels is our decrepit railway. Barbusci told the Cape Breton Post‘s David Jala (who described the former Montreal advertising executive as a “powerbroker,” you know, the kind of powerbroker who runs tree-climbing parks in Florida):

Everything else is in our hands, we have all the necessary shipping lines and port operators, we’ve been in discussions for years – but the rail needs to be rehabilitated and running again before we put a shovel in the ground.

Do you believe him? That’s what this comes down to. Do you believe he has shipping lines (plural) ready to transform the way they service the East Coast of North America by offloading cargo hundreds of miles from major population centers for transport by rail?

Because if you do (or if you want to believe him, because you would like to see the economic prosperity he’s been dangling in front of us for six years now), Barbusci has a job for you: contact your MLA and MP and say you want the province to invest millions in the Sydney-to-St. Peter’s Junction section of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway. (A private railway owned, since December 2019, by Toronto-based buyout firm Brookfield Asset Management and GIC, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, two well-heeled investors who could presumably afford to refurbish a rail line with a future as bright as our rail line’s.)

Barbusci says the timing of this announcement — weeks before a municipal election that could herald the arrival of a new mayor and council that might not be interested in renewing his exclusivity agreement when it expires in 2022 — is pure “coincidence.” (At least, I think that’s what he says, his actual quote was “The coincidence is with our timing.”)

Barbusci says he’s not “getting involved in the politics” but felt it was “important to get it out there on the street.”

Barbusci, who has done more than anyone to keep us in the dark about the project, says:

It’s an opportune time for the community. They’ve been left in the dark. I think it’s time for them to know that this is real. And if they like it they can call their MLAs and MPs and make some noise.

And how do we know this is “real?”

Because Albert Barbusci says so. Because, according to his website, he has “all permits in place and major global shippers and international port operators at the table.”

Which is what he’s been claiming since the beginning of this long, strange trip.

Because his website says:

With cargo shipments across the Atlantic Ocean expected to double in the next thirty years, global shippers are looking for an alternative North American gateway solution. The industry recognizes Novaporte and Sydney is that solution.

Oddly, the Post article features no interview with CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke or any members of council, whom Barbusci is supposed to be updating regularly on his progress according to the terms of that exclusivity agreement.

Odder still, Clarke isn’t even mentioning the container terminal project in his re-election bid. Here’s the case he makes for himself on his reactivated website:

The past 8 years have brought us unprecedented investments in our future. We’ve worked hard toward improving Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s roads and sidewalks, rebuilding our healthcare infrastructure, modernizing our police and fire stations, and expanding our wastewater system. We’ve built a second berth to better capitalize on our tourism assets, expanded transit to ensure greater accessibility, all while reducing our debt and managing our resources. 

So, we’re to believe that Barbusci is all but ready to ink a deal on a container terminal and Clarke, who has traveled the globe in its name, has chosen instead to headline sidewalk repair in his bid for a third term in office?

Do they think I just fell out of a shipping container full of turnips?


100,000 Voices?

100,000 Voices Port of Sydney brochure coverIn related news, a slickly produced brochure has appeared on the Novaporte website, bearing the awkward title: “100,000 Cape Breton Voices Shout Out Speak.

It was produced “in-house” in the summer of 2018 by the Port of Sydney Development Corporation (PSDC), which sent cruise marketing director Christina Lamey and local photographer Steve Wadden “on assignment” (because Ports do that) “tasked with answering the question: ‘Does your community support rail service, port development and new investment?”

Let me be brutally frank: as a premise, this is baloney.

It’s like a pharmaceutical company publishing glossy photos of people saying, “I will be very happy when we have a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19!” Like the only thing standing between us and an effective coronavirus vaccine is popular support.

The “report,” as Novaporte terms it, does not actually contain interviews with 100,000 people. It is a carefully curated selection of “voices,” which Lamey claims (again, awkwardly) “represent our whole.”

They are clear: “We are ready. We want growth. We want the opportunity for a brighter future.”

Because the only thing stopping the Port of Sydney from becoming a transshipment hub for ultra-large container vessels is the perception that people are “not ready” for it? That they don’t want growth? That they don’t want a brighter future?


Why the Port of Sydney is producing marketing materials for Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP) (even dated ones like this — produced pre-COVID and pre-Donkin closure) is a good question. The “100,000 Voices” brochure doesn’t even appear on the Port of Sydney website. Asked why, Usher replied:

It is not posted but has been distributed in a limited amount of hard copy.

So, we felt no need to share it widely, but we did foot the bill for a limited distribution of hard copies?

The PSDC no longer has responsibility for the container terminal project — its articles of association were changed in 2017 to remove the “greenfield” site earmarked for the terminal from its purview. But Usher apparently doesn’t see it that way. When I asked her why the Port was promoting the container terminal she said:

As far as our role in the container terminal the Port is an advocate for marketing the port of Sydney. The container terminal is one project as is rail. You should read the letters from our Chair on this topic recently published in the CB Post.

As it happens, I did read the letters from the chair of the Port board, Jerry Gillis, who, I now realize, was clearing the way for Barbusci’s big “announcement” by beating the “Ready for Rail” drum. All I can say is, the Port board continues to disappoint — it was supposed to bring an element of accountability and transparency to the corporation and instead it meets in secret and carries water for Albert Barbusci.


Ready for Rail

Barbusci’s “Ready for Rail” website is a real piece of work, starting with the, rather busy, featured image:

Train superimposed on container ship


Turns out it’s a combination of two stock images, this one:

Stock photo of container ship and craneAnd this one:

Stock photo of train


The site makes use of a third stock photo, titled “Container ship loading and unloading in deep sea port at sunset, aerial view of business logistic import and export.”

Stock photo containers and crane.

But the best photo?

It’s the one of our train tracks.

Because they’re not our train tracks. They’re train tracks in a stock photo that turned up 207 results when I ran it through the TinEye image finder:


But, let’s face it, they look better than our actual train tracks:

CBNS tracks near Point Edward. (Photo via Cape Breton Railway Victims Association)

CBNS tracks near Point Edward. (Photo via Cape Breton Railway Victims Association)


Travel, travel

The CBC’s Pam Berman recently crunched 2019 travel and expense numbers for Nova Scotia municipal officials and discovered that, in the category of mayors and wardens, CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke was the top spender, at almost $38,000.

To put that in perspective, in the monitored period, he outstripped Halifax Regional Municipality Mayor Mike Savage by $20,000.

Our councilors were no slouches, either, the 12 together racking up $96,247 in expenses — that’s just over $8,000 each, on average, compared to just over $6,300 each, on average, for municipal councilors in Halifax. But of course, that’s not really a fair way to look at it, you really need to compute each councilor’s expenses separately, which gives you the following totals for 2019:

District 1 Clarence Prince: $7,011.70 (Prince was on sick leave for much of 2019)

District 2 Earlene MacMullin: $4,042.40

District 3 Steve Gillespie: $613.33 (for training, Gillespie famously does not charge the CBRM for travel and expenses)

District 4 Esmond “Blue” Marshall: $9,597.89

District 5 Eldon MacDonald: $14,190.85

District 6 Ray Paruch: $0 (Paruch was on sick leave in 2019)

District 7 Ivan Doncaster (Deputy Mayor): $19,491.75

District 8 Amanda McDougall: $8,061.07

District 9 George MacDonald: $11,387.85

District 10 Darren Bruckschwaiger: $6,940

District 11 Kendra Coombes: $0 (Coombes was elected MLA for Cape Breton Centre in March 2020)

District 12 Jim MacLeod: $14,637.46

(I’ve done my best to calculate everything correctly, but feel free to check my math — you’ll find all the expense information here.)

A look at the 2020 numbers shows that Clarke may have been on track to beat his own record — he squeezed in an expensive month of travel in February 2020, just before COVID restrictions clipped his wings, racking up travel expenses worth $4,082.82, accommodations worth $968.35 and meals worth $713.30.

I can’t tell you where he went or why or what he accomplished because the site containing this information is called the “DataZone” not the “InformationZone,” but I can tell you his executive assistant, Mark Bettens, racked up $16,422.98 in expenses of his own in 2019 — meaning our mayor’s righthand man spent more than all the mayors and wardens in Nova Scotia except Savage in Halifax and his own boss (check out the table in the CBC story for verification).

NameFrom DateTo DateTravel ExpenseAccommodationMeal ExpenseTrainingTotal
Mark Bettens01/01/201901/31/20192297.12574.93389.350
02/01/201902/28/2019 1,450.56402.29381.550
03/01/2019 03/31/2019 2,480.58402.88449.150
04/01/2019 04/30/2019 1,479.86376.62626.50
07/01/2019 07/31/2019 333.5073.250
08/01/2019 08/31/2019 404.8375.36227.40
09/01/2019 09/30/201986.48186.5175.40
10/01/2019 10/31/2019 1,150.08351.32237.150
11/01/2019 11/30/2019 1,135.04292.6255.70
12/01/2019 12/31/2019 127.88000

In fact, Bettens’ expenses were higher than those of all the CAOs in the province with the exception of Halifax’s high-flying Jacques Dubé ($24,678). Bettens spent about $5,000 more than CBRM CAO Marie Walsh ($11,052.87) and more than any councilor except Deputy Mayor Doncaster ($19,491.75).

In short, the mayor’s “political hire” has not come cheap.