Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Premier Monkey’s Paw

Homer Simpson and the monkey's pawI was watching that Simpsons’ Halloween special where they spoof “The Monkey’s Paw” (a short story Wikipedia informs me was published in 1902 by the English author W.W. Jacobs) when I had a sudden revelation.

It’s a “three wishes” story—the wishes being granted by the monkey’s paw of the title—in which all the wishes go horribly wrong. Watching it last week, I realized it’s the story of my experience with the current Nova Scotia government.

I wished for fixed elections—and Premier Tim Houston fixed them in July, when many Nova Scotians are on vacation and turnout will likely be low, benefiting Houston’s incumbent government.

I wished he’d do something about Innovacorp and he combined it with Nova Scotia Business Inc, called it Invest Nova Scotia, appointed his “longtime personal friend” Wayne Hickey (who promptly quit) to shepherd it into existence and put it under the direct control of the minister of economic development.

I wished he’d do something about affordable housing and he gave his government the right to “nullify” any Halifax Regional Municipality by-law that slows residential construction.

I have been burned and I have learned: be careful what you wish for.

 

Check it out

As I mentioned in this week’s power lines story, my research had me reading the minutes from the City of Sydney’s 1983 and 1984 council meetings, and while I really appreciate the effort made by the municipal clerk’s office to get the minutes for me (they’re stored in Glace Bay) I wish the municipality did more to make them easily accessible to residents. I had to make an appointment to visit the Civic Centre and see them and that shouldn’t be necessary: they should be stored at the library or in the Beaton Institute.

But I digress.

One of the things that struck me about the old records was the detailed spending reports—council was presented with a list of every check written by the city’s finance department each month, and I mean every check. Here’s an excerpt from the accounts for February 1984 that ranges from $141,148.10 to the Royal Bank to cover income tax, Canada Pension and UIC deductions for the month, to $20 to the ticket seller at the Sydney Forum, to $15 to cover a volunteer’s expenses:

Excerpt, City of Sydney general account, 13 Feb 1984

 

A separate list of checks covered capital expenses—which that month included $640 to the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation for a used Ford Truck and a used ABCO spreader and $25,428.83 to Joneljim Concrete Construction Ltd for work on the Sydney Forum (or Centre 200; if you’ve been reading my articles, you’ll know there was a difference of opinion as to whether the work being done in February 1984 was to refurbish the old Forum or lay the groundwork for the new “mini-Metro Centre” as it was referred to in council).

You not only knew what the city was buying, you knew who it was buying it from and how much it was paying:

 

Excerpt City of Sydney Capital Account, 1984

 

This is one of those things that makes 1984 seem like another planet. The budget statements provided to council each month these days offer none of this detail. Here’s the CAO’s budget from August this year:

CBRM CAO budget August 2022

The 1984 version of this would have told you what conferences were being attended, who was doing the training, who was supplying the computer hardware, what “professional” services were being provided—and by whom.

I know the argument against offering that sort of detail in 2022 is that the Cape Breton Regional Municipality is a bigger, more complex beast than the old City of Sydney and such information would run to hundreds of pages.

On the other hand, 2022 technology means you could generate that information with much less effort (nobody would have to manually type up the month’s checkbook stubs) and you could make it available online.

The reason for the detailed reporting in 1984 remains valid in 2022: this is public money and people have a right to know not just how much is being spent, but how it’s being spent—and who is on the receiving end of the spending.

There are many things about the ’80s I do not miss (shoulder pads being the first that comes to mind) but this kind of openness on the part of government? I wouldn’t mind that coming back into fashion.

 

Lights out

Another aspect of 1984 public life that differs wildly from our 2022 reality is the access local reporters used to have to politicians. Post reporters spoke regularly to the mayor, aldermen, MLAs, MPs and provincial ministers—even the premier could be reached regularly for comment. And what’s more, the pols replied in their own words.

How very different from today when, even at the municipal level, the press is often forced to direct its questions to a communications person who provides a carefully worded “reply” that rarely rises to the level of an “answer.”

Betsy Chambers, the reporter who wrote for the Post from Halifax, regularly buttonholed people like Development Minister Rollie Thornhill for comment on issues of interest to readers in Cape Breton. Today, such questions would be routed through the provincial communications department and the answers, when they came, would be both evasive and dishwater dull. Which is not to say Thornhill, in his exchanges with Chambers, wasn’t sometimes evasive—he was—but he was never dull.

It’s all of a piece, really—the lack of detail in financial reports, the lack of easy access to public records, the lack of access to elected officials—it’s like the powers that be have been quietly turning out the lights, one at a time, and we, the public, have suddenly found ourselves to be pretty much entirely in the dark.

This was driven home for me just minutes ago when I checked the agenda for the November 8 council meeting and discovered this item:

Council Agenda excerpt

I plan to watch the livestream of the meeting, so will not have a copy of the presentation to consult and I know from past experience that the information provided to councilors can be more detailed than that contained in the presentation I will watch.

I will probably be able to get a copy of the presentation the next day but I would really like to have it ahead of time so I can do a little ground work. That said, I did what I could with the limited information I had, i.e., the name Doucet Developments.

It’s a Bedford-based development group that began life as rcs, a general contractor founded by Doug Doucet in 1996. The Doucet empire now includes Mill-Right Woodworking, Tier Too Developments and PMCo (a building management firm).

The company claims to “inspire communities” and “unify people” through the construction of what appear to be mostly strip malls, although they are presented on the web site as though they were wonders of the modern world:

Doucet Developments web page

 

Tune in to the CBRM council livestream on Tuesday, November 8 at 6:15 PM to find out what Mr. Doucet has in mind for Sydney’s waterfront (or read the next day’s Spectator).

Have a good weekend, everyone!