Q1 2021: FOIPOP Findings

Full disclosure: I thought 2021 was going to be vastly different from 2020 but instead, it unfolded like we’d given 2020 a 12-month extension on its contract. The COVID pandemic continued to loom large in everyone’s lives although, as you’ll see, I modified my response to it. I spent much of the first quarter of this year with my nose in the documents the CBRM finally released to me in response to a FOIPOP I’d submitted in 2015. And I realize there is a piece of unfinished business here: I have yet to post these documents somewhere where you can access them. I fully intend to do this, but first I have to put them back in order and then I have to find a reasonable way to share them. In the meantime, allow me to jog your memory about what they contained.

 

JANUARY

As 2021 began, I’d resolved to start “living with COVID,” which, from a professional perspective, meant no longer covering the updates by the premier and Dr. Robert Strang. It was the best decision I made all year. COVID is a well-covered subject and while I don’t regret covering the briefings in the early days, I don’t think anyone needed my particular take on COVID as we prepared for Year Two of the pandemic.

That said, COVID did pop up regularly this year — it was all over the first Fast & Curious of the year, in which I questioned the wisdom of local “stakeholders” petitioning the feds for an airline bailout and commented on CBRM council’s decision to duplicate its weird council chamber configuration in its temporary quarters at Centre 200.

I began 2021 waiting for a late Christmas present from the CBRM: about 862 pages of port-related documents Nova Scotia’s information and privacy commissioner had recommended the municipality give me in response to an access-to-information request I’d made…in 2015.

As of my first issue of the year, James Gogan, the lawyer in charge of vetting and disseminating the documents (the same lawyer who had made a mockery of the access-to-information process in the first place by refusing me those pages without conducting a proper review) had sent me 14 pages. And then, on January 15, the mother lode arrived and I spent an intense few days poring over hundreds of pages of communications between port promoters Albert Barbusci and Barry Sheehy, then-Mayor Cecil Clarke, port consultant Mike Moore, CAO Michael Merritt and others.

I discovered all kinds of things, like:

  • Jim Kehoe initially wanted $7 million for the Sydport property he sold CBRM for $1.2 million to lease to McKeil Marine;
  • Jim Gogan represented every party involved in the McKeil deal — buyer, seller and leasee;
  • CN’s network strategies people refused to meet with Barbusci unless he could prove he had “a real live shipper” attached to his container port scheme; and
  • Barbusci wrote casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and asked him to help get Sydney an Israel “sister port” and an introduction to ZIM, the Israeli shipping line.

But the best thing I learned, by far, was that the $1.2 million of their own capital Barbusci and Sheehy were said to have invested in the port project represented the value they placed on their own consulting services — $2,500 per man, per day.

Tera Camus reported on campaign donations from the 2020 municipal elections and UFOs.

And Christina Lamey was hired as communications person for the CBRM, replacing Jillian Moore, but the CBRM took a comical amount of time confirming this information for me.

 

FEBRUARY

In February, TCI Management Consultants, Beth Ross & Associates and Trifos Design Consultants presented their $65,140 service, programs and operational plan for the proposed CBRM Central Library to council.

Although the library, at that point, was still firmly ensconced in businessman Marty Chernin’s plan for the Sydney waterfront, the report was billed as “location agnostic” (a billing I wasn’t buying).

The big news was that the library would have to be a lot larger than originally planned to comply with a new provincial accessibility law and would likely cost between $34.3 million and $35.5 million.

Architect Spiro Trifos' evolving vision of CBRM Central Library

Architect Spiro Trifos’ evolving vision of CBRM Central Library

Another startling revelation was that the new facility would cost $244,000 more a year to operate than the McConnell Library does. This figure got lots of play, but as I noted at the time:

What you may not have heard is that the McConnell — which is both the Sydney branch of the CBRL and the headquarters for the entire regional library system — costs only $83,025 per year to operate. Moreover, $74,300 of that is offset in the form of rent paid by the CBRL to the CBRM for the space used to accommodate the regional HQ.

Which means it costs the CBRM $8,725 a year to operate the McConnell Library.

Also in February, it was discovered that Robert Walsh, at that point “acting” chief of the Cape Breton Regional Police Services (CBRPS), had ordered up an armored emergency response SUV for the force and I was still hopeful a review, then underway, of the CBRPS would open the door to “more sensible conversation about the CBRM’s 21st century policing needs.” (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

South Bar resident Rod Gale, disturbed by the signs of homelessness and poverty he was noticing around the CBRM, wrote to every politician he could think of and spoke to the Spectator about who had answered — and who hadn’t. The update to this story is that Gale told me just last week he’d seen signs of people living in an abandoned Sydney building.

During council’s regular meeting that month, Mayor Amanda McDougall noted that then-Minister of Municipal Affairs Chuck Porter had refused to allow a representative of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities on the province’s Affordable Housing Commission on the grounds the commission is “not political in nature.”

Marie Walsh, Marlene Usher, Robert Walsh

CBRM CAO Marie Walsh, Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher, Police Chief Robert Walsh.

I continued picking away at the port documents I’d FOIPOPed from the CBRM, looking at a proposed feasibility study, a deal with Dundee Capital Markets, the sale of Archibald’s Wharf to Canadian Maritime Engineering (CME) and some of the many meetings taken by Mayor Clarke and the “port team.”

I also picked holes in plans by Rural Cape Breton Enterprises — a “social enterprise” — to build affordable housing in Cape Breton and applauded Tricia Ralph, the aforementioned NS information and privacy commissioner, who told the CBRM to waive the $3,859.20 fee it wanted to charge a citizen for an access-to-information request. (Mind you, the $3,859.20 fee was trimmed from the initial fee, which was $42,804.50 — half of which was to be paid up front.)

I wondered if the CBRM was actually going to replace Police Chief Peter McIsaac, who announced plans to retire after an extended sick leave, with acting chief Robert Walsh, a man related to the sisters, Marie Walsh and Marlene Usher, who serve as CBRM CAO and Port of Sydney CEO, respectively. Is this burg really that small? I wondered. And the answer (which arrived in April) proved to be yes, this burg is exactly that small.

I also reported on CBU Professor Tom Urbaniak’s proposals to improve the way the CBRM conducts its business and encourage greater citizen participation. Urbaniak led a January workshop with the new council during which he offered suggestions for shortening the length of its regular monthly meetings, in part by holding additional “themed,” informational sessions, focused on particular subjects. Urbaniak also recommended a follow-up meeting a year later to measure progress, but I don’t believe that happened. As for the “greater citizen involvement,” just wait until March…

 

MARCH

I started the month wondering what talk of moving Halifax’s casino might mean for Martin Chernin’s plan to convince the Sydney Casino to move to the waterfront (which was a bit disingenuous of me, given I don’t believe Chernin ever made any real effort to convince the Sydney casino to move.)

Elsewhere on the waterfront, I watched the Port of Sydney’s AGM and got a first whiff of plans to turn Pittman Hall in the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion into a “high-end” market and to construct a little line of shops on an extension to the boardwalk along what is now known as Desbarres Cove but which will be renamed Fisherman’s Cove, for no logical reason.

Retiring CBRM Police Chief Peter McIsaac went public with his PTSD diagnosis in a sort-of exit interview with the CBC and I was surprised to note that McIsaac totally grasped what “defund the police” is all about. Noting how much of the force’s work is really social work, he said:

You want to defund the police? Good. Take the money away from the police, give it to the people that are supposed to be doing it. Let us go and do some other things.

CBRM Councilors Gordon MacDonald, Glenn Paruch, Eldon MacDonald.

CBRM Councilors Gordon MacDonald, Glenn Paruch, Eldon MacDonald at closed-door March “workshop.” Photo by Ian Nathanson, CB Post

Very early in March, CBRM council took all the advice it had received from Professor Urbaniak, crumpled it up in a ball and threw it in the lake, choosing instead to hold a weekend of closed-door, unannounced “workshops” during which selected individuals and groups were invited to present to them. This caused a big stink — Urbaniak himself questioned whether such meetings were even permitted under the Municipal Government Act — but Mayor Amanda McDougall staunchly defended council’s right to get to know each other while learning about key municipal issues. (Some were really exercised over the cost of the meetings — held at The Lakes Golf Club and Resort in Ben Eoin — but I was more bothered by the secrecy. I still am.

Later that month, I did a long-overdue follow-up to my first story about the 2013 fire that destroyed the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club, using a report from the Cape Breton Regional Police Services and I joined in the fanfare surrounding the arrival of decommissioned car ferry at the Port of Sydney’s second berth.

I also, spurred on by a super-abundance of crime stories in the Cape Breton Post, all of which ended in “if you have any information, contact Crime Stoppers,” looked into the history of that organization, the weirdness of which is perhaps best encapsulated in a line about its motto, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The quote is attributed, more or less correctly, to Martin Luther King, Jr, meaning “Cape Breton Crime Stoppers has stolen MLK’s call for courage in the face of police brutality and turned it into a call to help police find stolen catalytic converters.”

I checked out CBRM travel expenses for the period between April and December 2020 to see who managed to travel despite COVID and read a Post opinion piece in which Craig Boudreau, owner of businesses and parking lots and commercial properties in downtown Sydney, proposed a special tax on people who work from home because they do not contribute to the economy.

In March, CBRM council voted against seeking funding for a scope of work study for a library on the Sydney waterfront — a study that would have locked the library into Martin Chernin’s private sector development. This after an hour-long presentation by Harbour Royale Development Ltd, Chernin’s company, that showed how very little it had accomplished in pursuit of a library — or any other element of its waterfront development scheme.

The Leaky Bucket

Slide from CBRM Forward presentation.

Meanwhile, we were introduced to Cape Breton Forward, a two-year project to:

…complete a new Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS), Economic Development Strategy, Land Use By-law (LUB), and other related enabling by-laws including the Subdivision By-law.

I watched a presentation to council by the consultants running the process and raised a number of red flags.

Also in March, I analyzed Stats Canada’s COVID death statistics, refused to apologize to Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher for getting her salary wrong, checked in on the land acquisition process for the Marconi waterfront campus and monitored progress on the new Sydney Fire Station.

And Tera Camus wrote about a “dramatic rescue on the Cabot Trail,” in which she and a friend featured as the people dramatically rescued.