The Case of the In Camera Email

I know I’ve already devoted a lot of space to the Port of Sydney this week — it’s like old times — but I really want to cover the mildly scandalous issue raised during that June 3 meeting between CBRM council and Port board members and staff; namely, the mystery of the potential information leak from an in camera session.

Nancy Drew with magnifying glassYes, it’s NANCY DREW TIME!

The background is that on May 18, CBRM council met with port promoter Albert Barbusci in a closed-door session. The reason for the in camera, according to the CBRM website, was “contract negotiations” but this seems to have been a big fat slice of bologna — Mayor Amanda McDougall told the CBC’s Tom Ayers afterwards that they hadn’t discussed Barbusci’s contract, which is set to expire in 193 days. (See the Spectator‘s handy-dandy front page Ship Exclusivity Countdown Clock.)

The meeting was about Barbusci’s rail crusade and should have been held in public. But Barbusci has long argued that everything he does must be kept secret from his “competitors” (meaning, Richie Mann and the Melford crowd) who always steal his ideas (Remember when Mann found out Barbusci had opened a tree-climbing park in Florida, so he opened one too? Yeah, me neither.) Council continues to indulge him.

After the May 18 meeting (within 24 hours, according to District 3 Councilor Cyril MacDonald), mayor and councilors received emails from Port CEO Marlene Usher and Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kathleen Yurchesyn, castigating them, in Usher’s case, for their failure to show “true leadership” on the port issue and encouraging them to support Barbusci’s call for the government to repair the rail line.

District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald, who raised the issue during the dying moments of the June 3 meeting, wanted to know how Usher and Yurchesyn knew what had been discussed during the in camera. Usher’s answer was that she knew what Barbusci intended to speak to council about because of her “relationship and role with Novaporte,” the name Barbusci has attached to his container port project.

I am sure that’s true, but I am also sure that Usher and Barbusci are in regular contact and Barbusci does not seem to be bound by the same rules of secrecy as CBRM staff and councilors are when it comes to in cameras. I stand to be corrected, but look at the relevant passage from the Municipal Government Act:

Any councillor or employee of a municipality who discloses any report submitted to, or details of matters discussed at, a private meeting of the council or committee, as a result of which the municipality has lost financially or the councillor or employee of a municipality has gained financially, is liable in damages to the municipality for the amount of the loss or gain.

I couldn’t find any penalty for third parties who blabbed about what they’d heard during an in camera council session. I think Barbusci was free to call Usher and complain about council’s lack of enthusiasm for his project and ask her to light a fire under them.

And Usher did so because, as she told Councilor Gordon MacDonald, the Port of Sydney and the Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Cape Breton Partnership “are working together with Novaporte on rail…we’re all working together with Novaporte.”

 

Private sector advocacy

That echoes what Usher had said earlier in her June 3 presentation when she told council her job as CEO of the Port of Sydney is “advocating” on behalf of private companies.

Personally, I think she’s got that backwards — her job, surely, is to “advocate” on behalf of the Port and its owners, the citizens of the CBRM; to ensure any port-related development is in the best interests of the community.

But Usher was pretty clear, she even provided a list of some of the private sector businesses on whose behalf she “advocates”:

 

PSDC private companies

 

 

It’s no accident “Sydney Harbor [sic] Investment Partners-Novaporte” is the first private company in that list. Although direct responsibility for the Novaporte container terminal project has been removed from the PSDC in terms of “spending money,” Usher said Novaporte continues to take up “quite a bit of time.”

…in terms of our mandate for advocacy…if I got calls from Novaporte…I wasn’t in a position just to not take the call. We never really stopped doing the advocacy work, I guess, was my point. And I don’t understand why we wouldn’t ever not be doing advocacy work for Novaporte and any other private sector company that wanted to develop in and around the harbor.

As noted earlier, she said she knew what Barbusci would be telling council in that May 18 in camera because of her “relationship and role” with Novaporte.

This didn’t sit well with Deputy Mayor Earlene MacMullin, who questioned Usher on the definition of “advocacy” in terms of the Novaporte container project — specifically, whether it meant speaking in favor of it or actively working to bring it about. Usher said they don’t spend money (anymore) but they do spend time — including meeting with Canada Border Services and the Scotia Rail Group and other “stakeholders” to promote the project.

MacMullin, after saying that seemed to be “contrary” to what council had expected when it removed the container terminal project from the Port of Sydney’s mandate, asked why no information about this “advocacy” work has been flowing to council. Usher said it was a “great question” that she couldn’t answer:

I have never been asked for any of that information…Historically, with CBRM or the council, there was a lot more back and forth in terms of sharing of information. But I completely agree with you that there is a lack of sharing of information.

A rather frustrated MacMullin pointed out that council wasn’t aware the Port was continuing its work on the container terminal project and so would not have known to ask about it. The subject, she said, clearly required more discussion.

 

Private sector project?

This is probably a good time to remember that in 2018, when he decided to throw caution to the wind and run for the leadership of the provincial Tories, then CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke assured everyone that his role in the container port project was over — he’d done all that was necessary on the part of the municipality and it was now in the hands of the private sector developers.

So why is the private sector developer back demanding the government build him a rail line?

Barbusci’s story, as he told the Cape Breton Post in September 2020, is that:

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.

But if he has shipping lines (plural) prepared to off-load cargo in Sydney, why is he not back in Montreal making his case to CN or in Toronto talking to the new owners of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway? (If you haven’t read the Spectator‘s account of Barbusci’s previous attempts to interest CN in the project, you really should.) Why isn’t he trumpeting the name of these “shipping lines” that have — at long last — joined his “consortium?”

During the June 3 meeting, Mayor McDougall said she’d been criticized for not being more enthusiastic about the project in an interview she gave following the meeting with Barbusci. But she said that if there’s “something [she’s] missing” in terms of “confirmation this project is going forward,” she would like very much to hear it. (Which makes it pretty clear Barbusci did not come to that in camera meeting of council to name any shipping lines.)

Having recently read Neil MacNeil’s “rejected” port report, I have to quote you from the section that pissed off then-Mayor Cecil Clarke so much he refused to let anyone see it for seven months:

A container port proponent should include in its consortium an experienced container terminal operator, a shipping company who will ship cargo to a terminal, a rail company capable of delivering cargo to central Canada and the mid-west of the United States, a financial partner capable of underwriting a development of over $500 million. CBRM’s investment in time and money to attract a potential container terminal operator should undergo a more rigorous analysis before expending scarce resources or creating expectations that do not materialize.

That was written in 2014, and instead of heeding MacNeil’s warning, the CBRM signed an exclusivity agreement with Albert Barbusci and Barry Sheehy; began talking up a Chinese financed, built and operated container terminal; spent about $1 million on consultants and studies and travel and legal fees; all to end up exactly where it was in 2014.

Which isn’t to say nothing has changed since 2014 — the shipping industry itself has evolved quite a bit, as MacNeil warned it would:

Dredging has taken place in Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, and Jacksonville to harbour depths of over forty feet. The main obstacle to the large container vessels entering the Port of New York was the height restriction associated with the Bayonne Bridge. By 2018, the Raise the Roadway program will lift the Bayonne Bridget to 215 feet, allowing the large container vessels to pass under the bridge.

In fact, on May 17, the Port of Halifax — which MacNeil didn’t even include in his list but which subsequently invested in dredging and dock extension  — became the first port on the East Coast of North America to welcome a 16,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent) container vessel, the Marco Polo, which went on to call at the Ports of New York, Virginia, Savannah and Charleston.

As MacNeil wrote:

Creating a competitive advantage over other North American ports by dredging Sydney Harbour has not been realized.

In fact, dredging Sydney Harbour, as was made obvious by last week’s discussion about the need for new navigational aids, hasn’t even benefited the handful of businesses located there.