Ahem…Port CEO Corrects Salary Numbers

Since 2015, when she was “seconded” from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) by means of an “interagency agreement” to serve as CEO of the Port of Sydney, I have been reporting that Marlene Usher’s salary was $200,000, half of that paid initially by the CBRM the other half by ACOA.

Perhaps “compensation” is a better term to use, as the $200,000 figure represented both salary and benefits for the position Usher was awarded without benefit of a job competition.

I repeated the figures recently, in a report about the Port of Sydney’s 2021 AGM, during which Port board chair Jerry Gillis lauded Usher and other port staff for taking a 20%, COVID-induced, pay cut.

Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher

Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher

But on Tuesday, I received the following email from Usher herself, who wrote:

I am not sure where you got your information however I have not been employed with ACOA for over a year and they were not paying half of my salary for the last 2 years of the interchange. The Port pays my salary. After the interchange expired the Board offered me a contract. My salary is well below the $200,000 that you reference (not sure where you got that) and has always been well under that amount even under ACOA.

Where did I get that information?

Let’s start with the video of the 15-minute 3 February 2015 CBRM council meeting during which the governance structure for the new Port of Sydney Development Corporation and Usher’s appointment were unanimously approved. (Council was able to accomplish all this business so quickly because it had already discussed the matters in camera.)

Mayor Cecil Clarke explains that Usher will be seconded for an initial term of three years at a cost to the CBRM of “approximately $100,000 per annum.” This was to come from the CAO’s $150,000 professional services budget until such time as the port was self-sustaining. Copies of the interchange agreement with the federal government were circulated during the meeting (Clarke makes a point of asking that they be distributed “to the media”) but were never posted to the CBRM website. The minutes of the meeting are available but state only that council approved “the secondment of Ms. Marlene Ushesr as the CEO for the Port of Sydney Corporation in accordance with the terms outlined in the Interchange Canada Letter of Agreement.”

The Cape Breton Post reporter at the meeting, though, would obviously have received a copy of the interchange agreement and he reported:

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality created the executive-level position to offer “strategic guidance” and enhance marketing efforts for future port development, CBRM chief administrative officer Michael Merritt stated in an issue paper before council Tuesday…

ACOA and the Sydney Ports Corp. will share the cost of Usher’s salary and benefits, which amount to $200,000 per year, over a three-year renewable term.

However, the CBRM will cover half the cost — $100,000 from its CAO’s professional services account — until the new port board is financially viable.

If the $200,000 figure was incorrect, why wait six years to correct it? For that matter, if you are going to correct a salary figure, why not provide the actual, correct figure? Usher’s salary was considered public information when the deal was initially sealed — has something changed in the meantime?

The Post quoted the $200,000 figure again in 2018, when the interchange agreement was up for renewal. At that time, CBRM council declined to continue paying half the CEO’s salary and the Port took over responsibility for CBRM’s share. But ACOA was to continue paying the other half of the salary — you can hear the discussion during this 6 February 2018 meeting, the relevant section of the video is labeled “Renewal of ACOA Agreement — Port of Sydney CEO.” If there was a public announcement to the effect that ACOA had ceased doing so in 2019, I missed it.

And I did not know that Usher had left ACOA “over a year” ago or that the Port board had offered her a contract when the interchange agreement expired because one of the board’s first decisions upon taking office was to cease publishing the minutes of its meetings. It could have offered a contract to Harry and Meghan and I would have been none the wiser.

So while I am sorry to have published inaccurate information regarding Usher’s salary, I would argue that the onus is on the Port of Sydney — a corporation owned by the citizens of the CBRM — to make accurate information public.

I made this suggestion to Usher but she has yet to respond.

I have one last Port point to make and it’s a bit of a tangent but who doesn’t like a tangent? During the most recent AGM, Usher said the Port had budgeted $50,000 to extend a waterline to the second berth. This was an important investment, she said, because selling water is a source of revenue.

So the question occurs, when the CBRM found itself with $100,000 to spare in 2019 (money that had been earmarked for an extension to the Sydney boardwalk that was no longer necessary due to the decision to locate the NSCC Marconi Campus on the waterfront), why did the Port agree to use it for a helipad? Why didn’t it say, “Hey, we could run a waterline to the second berth?”

And yes, that’s a rhetorical question — I know the answer. Because no local businessmen were writing letters in support of a waterline to the second berth.