Port In (Another) Storm

What is going on at the Port of Sydney?

All hell apparently broke loose after council (on the recommendation of its nominating committee) declined to reappoint board chair Jerry Gillis and vice-chair Al Pendergast, although both had re-offered.

Gillis has already served two, 2-year terms on the board (the articles say you can serve up to six consecutive years, but then you have to take a three-year break before offering again) and was applying for a third. Pendergast had only served the one term.

Port of Sydney director term limits

Both their terms expired on March 31 but instead of reappointing them, the nominating committee (Mayor Amanda McDougall, and Councilors Gordon MacDonald, Steve Gillespie, Eldon MacDonald, Glenn Paruch and Steve Parsons) recommended that council appoint the following candidates to the PSDC board:

PSDC board appointeesCouncil, as you can see, doesn’t name the candidates it’s considering, referring to them only by their numbers, so during its February 23 meeting, council appointed Candidates 2, 4 and 9 to the port board.


Then, during a May meeting of the nominating committee, Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell-Ryan informed council that two other PSDC board members — Glen Murrant and Troy Hulme — had resigned on March 24. The clerk didn’t get into the gossipy details surrounding the resignations, but Councilor Gillespie noted it was due to the decision made by the nominating committee and Murrant told the CBC’s Tom Ayers he didn’t agree with the decision not to reappoint the chair and vice-chair.

Port CEO Marlene Usher has written a memo to council saying she’s “not happy” with the decision either.

(The councilors on the committee, for their part, basically stuck to their guns during the May 11 meeting.  As Councilor Gordon MacDonald put it, he’d made his decisions based on the qualifications of the candidates and he was satisfied with his choices.)

On its website, the Port of Sydney now lists its board members as follows:

  • Sylvie Gerbasi (Secretary/Treasurer)
  • Alyssia Jeddore
  • Richard Paul
  • Peter Gillis
  • Greg Delaney
  • Dan MacDonald
  • James Kerr

This is the second time in two years the port board has imploded, although the 2021 exodus is nothing compared to the 2019 version, which saw the entire executive — chair, vice-chair, treasurer and secretary — stomp off in a fit of pique over council’s failure to approve their “strategic plan” in its entirety.

Then, as now, we were assured that the board is made up of hardworking, qualified, generous volunteers giving of their time and expertise in the name of public service, which may be true or may be self-serving piffle, I have no way of knowing because I have no idea what the port board does because the board does not meet in public or publish the minutes of its meetings.

That, to me, is the issue here, and I’ve yet to hear it raised by anyone at the Port or on council.



Ironically — oh so ironically — in deciding not to publish its minutes, the “permanent” board failed to meet even the very low bar for transparency set by the previous, “interim” port board. That board, made up of the mayor and a clutch of councilors who were not actually supposed to be on it but who were placed there through the magic of a “notwithstanding” clause, used to save up its minutes, edit them, and then post a bunch all at once on the Port of Sydney website, without notifying anyone it was doing so.

The new board apparently decided that was oversharing and simply stopped publishing its minutes at all. (It also seems to have removed the old board minutes from the website, or else it’s found a way to hide them even more effectively than they were previously hidden — at any rate, I can’t find them).

So secretive is this new board, it didn’t announce publicly that it had renewed Usher’s contract. Or that she is no longer employed by ACOA. Or that ACOA ceased paying half her salary even before the exchange agreement that allowed her to accept the port position had expired. As though decisions about the corporation’s leadership and compensation were not the business of the corporation’s owners — the citizens of the CBRM.

This latest kerfuffle is being attributed to a “lack of communication” between the board and the CBRM council. (Funnily enough, the CAO was initially to have been an ex-officio port board member and non-voting chair and the “conduit” between the board and the council. Former CAO Michael Merritt actually performed that role on the interim board. But in 2017, as the permanent board was about to take over, lawyer Jim Gogan announced that in “standard corporations” the board chair is elected by the directors, so they were going to go with that.)

But communication between the board and the CBRM wasn’t that hot even when the board was made up of the mayor and councilors and I think that’s indicative of a much broader problem: our municipality’s love of secrecy.



The point of this nine-member, upright citizens’ board was supposed to have been to oversee a corporation with a much broader mandate than that of the Sydney Ports Corp, which it replaced.

Where the SPC had overseen the marine terminal and cruise pavilion, the PSDC would oversee the entire harbor — including the greenfield site which the CBRM hoped to develop into a container terminal.

During the two years (from April Fool’s Day 2015 to April Fool’s Day 2017) in which the interim board was in place, it spent over $1 million (monies left over from the harbor dredge project) on “business development.” You can see the breakdown here, but it was all about funding consultants and commissioning studies and entertaining port executives in the name of the container terminal project.

Months before the permanent board was installed, the interim board (remember, that’s the mayor and a few councilors) recommended the PSDC’s mandate be reduced to the cruise pavilion and the marine terminal and responsibility for the broader harbor (and the container terminal project) returned to the CBRM. Lawyer Jim Gogan presented these recommendations to council and as I’ve written before:

It would have been very interesting to hear Gogan’s rationale for this change, given the PSDC had been incorporated precisely to fulfill the broader mandate he was now proposing to strip from it, but nobody asked him to elaborate. (I mean really, it’s like going through all the pain and expense of hair plugs and then shaving your head.)

We’ve been left with an organization that does exactly what the SPC used to do — only with a high-paid CEO and a nine-member board.



The only peek we get into the board’s workings is during its annual AGM and this year’s was given over mostly to discussing the terrible effects of COVID, which have canceled the cruise season and savaged the Port’s revenues.

The presentation Usher gave at the 2020-21 AGM focused largely on plans to turn the cruise pavilion into a “high-end” market (the “Liberty” emporium) and to add facilities like a play area for children and a Ferris Wheel (the latter on a temporary, not permanent, basis).

Liberty Emporium

As I wrote at the time, I’m not opposed to making the pavilion more attractive to residents — it is our facility, after all — but this seems like the kind of development that would benefit from public input and instead, it’s being discussed and decided by the port board in private.

Board members frequently stress the unpaid nature of their work and it’s true, they’re not paid, but they do get make decisions like these, which involve the expenditure of public monies and the use and development of public infrastructure.

There’s no excuse for not making their deliberations around these decisions public.


Where we are

During that previously mentioned May meeting of the nominating committee, Campbell-Ryan suggested council might be able to find two new port board members — one of whom should have a background in engineering and the other in marketing — among the unsuccessful applicants who’d answered the call for applications in January.

This prompted a roughly 40-minute discussion that ended in the decision to have the Clerk approach qualified candidates who’d previously applied to see if they were still interested in joining what has to be one of the most dysfunctional boards in the history of the municipality. If they are not interested, Campbell-Ryan will add the port board positions to the advertisement that will be going out soon for other citizen volunteers.

And once we’ve got the board fully staffed again, we can talk about making it meet in public.