Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Low-rent Davos

Last week found me feeling hopeful about our municipal government, reporting on CBU Prof. Tom Urbaniak’s suggestions for streamlining agendas and shortening meetings and involving the community on committees.

And then, this happened:

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality is readying a new strategic plan for the next four years.

At least that’s part of the focus of a three-day session which has Mayor Amanda McDougall and councillors gathering at The Lakes Golf Club and Resort in Ben Eoin.

“We’re talking with the business sector, non-profits and health care, things that are outside the jurisdiction just to get a feel of what’s happening on the ground and get our heads around what we want to do as a council over the next four years and set in place a plan that will hopefully inform our priorities for many years after that.”

The sessions, closed to the public, will feature input from a number of business leaders from the municipality, including Carla Arsenault, Cape Breton Partnership chief executive; Kathleen Yurchesyn, CEO of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce; John Whalley, New Dawn Enterprises vice-president of business and finance and Brad Jacobs, general manager from the Colbourne Auto Group.

Suite at The Lakes Golf Club and Resort Ben Eoin

A suite at The Lakes Golf Club and Resort. The décor seems to be Real Housewives of Ben Eoin meets Downton Abbey.

I must have missed that part of Urbaniak’s memo — the part where he said, “And then sometimes, you should just go behind closed doors with the general manager of the Colbourne Auto Group.”

First things first: I don’t think this is legal.

We’ve been through this before — council cannot meet without telling the public it is meeting. There is no mention of these “sessions” on the CBRM website and I did not receive notification of them from the municipal clerk, who generally sends out meeting schedules the week prior to their happening. I asked the clerk about these meetings and Mayor McDougall herself responded:

We are currently engaged in the first steps of developing a strategic plan for the CBRM Council. Because this is a workshop and not a council meeting they are not posted.

There will be a public facing document produced from this workshop that we use to engage the public and fine tune our direction.

Calling it a “workshop” and holding it somewhere other than chambers doesn’t relieve council of the requirement to alert the public it is meeting. (Council’s budget workshops and its workshop with Urbaniak, for example, were announced and livestreamed.)

And yes, council may meet in camera but it has to give a reason for doing so (which usually just means citing one of the exemptions allowed under the Municipal Government Act).

I think CBRM council has, once again, violated the MGA. (Although I don’t think it will pay a price for this because it doesn’t seem to matter in this province when you violate the MGA.)

But you needn’t take my word for it. I wrote that on Thursday morning, but on Thursday afternoon, the CBC’s Tom Ayers (the reporter who discovered the CBRM council had been meeting repeatedly in camera without notifying the public between 2014 and 2015) asked Urbaniak about it and was told:

…the strategic planning meetings appear to breach section 22 of the Municipal Government Act.

“Municipal councils, when they gather to deal with public business, have to meet in public, unless the items fall under particular categories,” he said.

Councils can meet in-camera for sensitive personnel or labour relations issues, legal issues, land sales or public safety.

It’s déjà vu all over again.



Legal or not, council shouldn’t be doing this. The optics are godawful. Holding a secret meeting is bad enough. Holding a secret meeting at a resort with invitation-only guests, mostly from the business sector, like some low-rent Davos? What are they thinking? (And I don’t care if the odd non-profit was included, it still stinks. Davos let Greta Thunberg in, that didn’t make it any better.) And Rodney Colbourne of the Colbourne Auto Group is one of the owners of The Lakes — so council is not only throwing him some business, it’s going to listen to his GM?

Farewell Lunch at the Schatzalp at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos,January 2019 ©World Economic Forum / Pascal Bitz

Farewell Lunch at the Schatzalp at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2019 ©World Economic Forum / Pascal Bitz

And not one councilor said, “You know what guys? This is a spectacularly stupid idea.”

McDougall told the Post (whose reporter seemed to find nothing untoward about the proceedings):

“A lot of these conversations revolve around COVID recovery,” McDougall said. “We know that the federal government will be continuing to put forward funding programs for projects. But we need to be ready. We need to be prepared to have shovels in the ground ready to move forward in terms of infrastructure and supports for our community.”

So we’re going to have closed door discussions about the municipality’s needs in terms of infrastructure and support for the community?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, McDougall and a number of councillors say the choice of holding the sessions at The Lakes offered a more open space in terms of observing physical distancing protocols.

“That’s why we’re off-site,” said McDougall. “We had to find a venue that would be big enough not just to accommodate us but also some of our staff members that are helping inform us on different topics of discussion.”

Right, the problem is that Centre 200, where council has been meeting since COVID and from which it has the ability to livestream its meetings isn’t big enough.

And look at this Post photo, what COVID protocols are being followed here?

CBRM Councilors Gordon MacDonald, Glenn Paruch, Eldon MacDonald.

CBRM Councilors Gordon MacDonald, Glenn Paruch, Eldon MacDonald. Photo by Ian Nathanson, CB Post

Could it be the problem is not that Centre 200 isn’t big enough but that it isn’t nice enough? I mean, you could stay there overnight in a pinch, but you probably wouldn’t want to. And since it’s almost the end of fiscal 2020-21, and there’s lots of money left in the travel budget because no one has been able to travel, and god knows, there’s nothing else that money could be used for in the CBRM, and council has been hard at work for a full four months, why not splash out a bit?

I once mocked former Mayor Cecil Clarke for suggesting, at the very first meeting of the interim board of the Port of Sydney, that its members should go on a “retreat.” Had he announced the entire council (plus staff) would be meeting at a lakeside resort for three days of closed-door sessions with local businesspeople (catering included, over-nighting a possibility) I would have blown three gaskets (which I think I’m in the processing of doing right now).

McDougall told Ayers the cost of these sessions was “insignificant,” “a couple of grand,” which is an amazing thing to say in a municipality that gives out “sustainability” grants to community organizations worth half that.

But the money, while irritating, is not the real problem. The real problem is the secrecy — and the fact that no member of this new council recognized the secrecy as a problem.

Somebody call Prof. Urbaniak, I think they need a few more lessons.


Screwball comedy

For those of you who, like me, have been deeply dismayed by those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad council meetings, I present the antidote: screwball comedy.

I was first introduced to the genre — which dates to the 1930s  — by my younger sister, who had discovered it by staying up until 3:00 AM watching classic movies on CBC Late Night. (I’m guessing she was the only student in her Grade Seven class who would have listed Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant — released in 1938 — among their favorite movies). But I got to thinking about screwball comedies again this week thanks to an essay by film critic Eileen Jones. (I can’t link to it, it’s bonus content for those — like me — who subscribe to her Filmsuck podcast.)

Jones says the films, characterized by “zany fast-talking dialogue” and “slapstick pratfalls,” share a “consistent element” which she defines as “the figure of the so-called ‘New Woman'” who:

…had arrived at unprecedented freedom, independence, and autonomy. In America, she’d been able to get a divorce fairly readily since the 1910s, she could vote since 1920, and over the course of the ‘20s, if she were part of the “flaming youth” phenomenon especially, she’d shed movement-restricting clothing, cut off her long heavy hair and adopted the short, carefree bob, pursued athletic endeavors like golf, tennis, and cycling, taken up smoking and drinking, and acquired a certain amount of sexual liberty.

She first appeared in what Jones calls the “divorce comedies” of the 1910s to ’20s, but:

The founding of a new genre based on a reimagining of the couple that results from incorporating the New Woman into a more equal relationship, resulting in a marriage of fun-loving companionship instead of Victorian nest-building for the purposes of raising children, occurs in 1934 with the release of three films: It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, and Twentieth Century.

Nick and Nora and their dog, Asta

Nick and Nora and their dog, Asta aka William Powell, Myrna Loy and Skippy.

I love the male actors associated with these films — William Powell, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clarke Gable — as much as the next film buff, but it’s the women, both the fictional characters and the actresses who play them, who make these films for me. As Jones explains, the woman in a screwball comedy:

…must have some sort of independence, partly through money—she’ll tend to be either a “madcap heiress” worth millions or a young woman who works for a living and is used to getting along on her own in a tough, crazy world. She’ll also be self-willed, set on her own course (even if it’s a wrong-headed one), and ultimately formidable in some way, even if it’s only in her unique mode of daffy, eccentric thinking and acting that no one else can even fathom much less control. (See Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey or Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby for setting the standard on that one.)

I had watched The Thin Man over Christmas, and recognized it immediately in Jones’ description:

Technically a murder mystery based on a Dashiell Hammett novel with a central couple loosely based on Hammett’s own relationship with his longtime consort Lillian Hellmann, it owes its tremendous popularity to the way it represents the New Couple fully formed. Nick and Nora Charles, as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, are smart, elegant, humorous, hard-drinking, high-living, and perfectly happy.

(“Hard-drinking” is an understatement — there’s a scene where Nora wakes Nick in the middle of the night and his first action is to pour himself a drink from the bar in their bedroom.)

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Baby the leopard.

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Baby the leopard.

Somehow, I had never seen It Happened One Night, which Jones said created the genre, becoming such “an enormous sleeper hit” and critical favorite “it created a demand for more films like it overnight.” It swept the Academy Awards for that year — Best Picture, Best Director Frank Capra, Best Actor Clarke Gable, Best Actress Claudette Colbert, Best Screenplay Robert Riskin. Jones says Capra “who’d worked his way up from dire circumstances as the son of impoverished Sicilian immigrants,” was “overcome by the enormity” of the film’s success and had a nervous breakdown. 

He was only able to come back to filmmaking when he made a vow to himself and God that from then on he’d make only “movies that say something.” This new dedication to social message picture-making took his films right out of the screwball comedy genre he’d done more than anyone else to create.

So I watched it last night (and loved it) and will now move on to the other screwball comedies I haven’t seen, including Twentieth Century, Theodora Goes Wild, Easy Living, Bachelor Mother, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Awful Truth, Topper and Palm Beach Story. To be honest, the length of this list makes me think that rather than having watched lots of screwball comedies, as I thought I had, I’ve actually just watched a couple of them (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday) repeatedly.

Time to rectify that.

(I bet my sister has seen them all.)