That was a peculiar performance by Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke Friday. At a hastily called, 3:30 p.m. news conference, the mayor denounced municipal affairs bureaucrats for piling $4-5 million in new charges onto the financially strapped municipality, while rejecting his reasoned pleas for help coping with CBRM’s fiscal mess.
Since his election in the fall of 2012, Clarke has quietly led CBRM officials and citizens through a deliberate process to identify efficiencies in the municipality’s far flung operations. They pared capital spending, and made what appeared to be an honest effort to come to provincial (and federal) negotiations with clean hands. Then, just as council was headed into budget discussions, the province downloaded $4-5 million in new costs for education, housing, corrections, lower payments-in-lieu by NS Power, and an actual reduction in equalization payments.
(Under the provincial equalization formula, CBRM qualifies for the entire equalization budget, but will receive less than half of it, because program’s budget has been frozen for more than a decade.)
Clarke’s timing was impulsive. Friday afternoon is when governments make announcements they hope will slide by with little notice. His worship arrived home from a meeting with Municipal Relations officials in such high dudgeon, he refused to wait for a more effective time to communicate his outrage.
Clarke did his best to walk an improbable line between arrogant, uncaring bureaucrats on the one hand, and a kindly, well-meaning minister, who will surely do the right thing once he receives the correct information his staff has been withholding from him, on the other. It was a seasoned pol’s thinly plausible way to ream out the province, while leaving the politicians in charge room to compromise.
Clarke’s credibility was undercut by his failure, earlier in the week, to raise even a mild protest against the Harper Government’s elimination of a development agency dedicated to Cape Breton. ECBC and its predecessors have pumped tens of millions a year into Cape Breton’s economy for 46 years.
A former candidate for the Harper Conservatives (who has promised not to run in the next federal election), Clarke all but cheered the closure, thereby making the feds’ adroit communications strategy that much easier. No doubt he believed himself powerless to avert the closure, and chose to keep his warm relations with the federal Conservatives intact. But to date, Clarke’s attempts to parlay his relationship with PM Stephen Harper and NS Political Minister Peter MacKay into anything useful for CBRM have failed. All this might make it easy for Furey and Premier Stephen McNeil to dismiss Clarke’s angry news conference.
They would be imprudent to do so. For 12 years—12 lost years—CBRM suffered under a mayor whose policy program consisted of a fantasy container pier and continual, childish attacks on the province. He portrayed Cape Bretoners as helpless in the face of cruel and manifestly unfair treatment at the hands of our rich Halifax cousins. It was humiliating and counterproductive.
Clarke campaigned against that style of government, and he has done everything the province could ask to put CBRM back on a constructive path to responsible government.
Do McNeil and Furey really want to create another John Morgan? No doubt Clarke could play that role. In fact, he’d be good at it—far better than the pathological Morgan. That would be a destructive outcome for the municipality and the province.
It’s time for McNeil and Furey to come to the table and negotiate a serious, concerted, cooperative effort to resolve CBRM’s budgetary crisis.
Grad student, cultural activist, and entrepreneur Mike Targett writes:
I appreciate a lot of Jay Macneil’s general complaint. I’ve made similar ones about decision-makers not trying hard enough to make this place more livable, and even actively trying to make it less livable. I can even be pretty cynical about council at times. Maybe that cynicism is what made me think twice about this vote, since Morgan the populist voted with Kim Deveaux the radical. Curious.
Did Morgan vote for what he knew would be the popular sentiment (“All he wanted to do was dance!”) despite testimony from the Chief of Police that the dances were phenomenally unsafe? But that’s not all council voted on. There were two motions put forward on Tuesday, and it’s the second one that MacNeil ignores in his rant:
- Councillor Derek Mombourquette brought the motion to council to ban the dances, not because he hates young people (he practically is one), but because the Chief of Police told him the dances were a danger to the kids who attend and the police could no longer ensure their safety. I suspect that, after this police testimony, council probably couldn’t continue to allow the dances at municipally-owned buildings, as such, without being liable for what goes on. (Maybe why the schools stopped holding the dances in the first place.)
- Council then agreed to put resources into a committee made up of police, schools, decision-makers, and kids themselves, to come up with a way to create a safe environment for kids to have fun. (Or, I suppose, more realistically: ways to provide a reasonably safe environment.)
So if you take  and  together, council didn’t really ‘ban’ dances at this venue, they only suspended the dances until those dances can be made safe(r) for the kids who attend.
The schools, on the other hand, seem to believe the dances themselves were the problem… rather than alcohol, drugs, and violence being the problem. The schools seem to have said, ‘Ban dances, problem solved.’
All the schools solved was their own problem of liability. Whereas, if we give council the benefit of the doubt (I can’t believe I’m saying that), what they’re really saying is that the problem goes beyond the dances themselves, and that creating a safe and fun atmosphere for kids is the responsibility of the community (and should be a priority of the community).
So the community — especially the “people in this community who spend their entire day trying to find ways to inspire and engage the youth of their community” — should get behind the new committee  instead of blaming council for doing what they (likely) had to .
Sydney radio newsman Jay MacNeil is attracting hundreds of comments, “likes,” and shares on his Facebook video denouncing CBRM council’s 10-2 vote to ban teen dances from civic facilities.
You’re making it hard. You’re just making it hard. There are people in this community who spend their entire day trying to find ways to inspire and engage the youth of their community, and around your council table there are a bunch people who find ways—on a shockingly recurring basis—to disengage youth.
View the whole rant here.
H/T: Jancie Fuller via Leah Noble
Each year, the Province of Nova Scotia provides equalization grants to municipalities with less-than-average fiscal capacity. The unconditional transfer is based on a formula that compares a municipality’s needs and ability to pay.
In the current fiscal year, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality received $16.7 million, which amounted to 52 percent of all the equalization money given out in the entire province. The next largest recipients were Amherst at $1.2 million, and New Glasgow at $1.0 million. Put another way, CBRM got 14 times as much money as the next largest recipient.
The numbers for 2009-2010 are expected to be similar.
The Supreme Court of Canada refusal to hear the Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s equalization lawsuit was not as predictable as the rising of the sun this morning. But it was close.
The lawsuit was cynical ploy by a mayor who likes to posture as a scrapper for the little guy, but refuses to do the hard work needed to reach political solutions to the little guy’s problems.
- Contrary to popular belief, even a total victory for CBRM would not have brought the municipality a single dime. It didn’t even ask for money.
- In any case, the lawsuit had no chance of success. Aside from Mayor John Morgan and his pricey Toronto constitutional lawyer, Contrarian has been unable to find a single lawyer who thought it had any chance of success.
- Although the case suffered a mercifully early death—it was thrown out before trial—the mayor’s insistence on appealing to the highest court in the land frittered away at least $500,000 in legal bills, and wasted three five years that could better have been spent seeking a political solution. During that time, CBRM ran up another $60 million $100 million in debt its citizens cannot afford.
- The mayor now says he will seek a political solution, but he is playing a weaker hand, having demonstrated that his constitutional claims lack legal validity.
I believe the municipality has a case for greater provincial assistance in meeting basic service needs. I hope the Dexter Government, financially strapped as it is, gives the problem a fair hearing. But the mayor’s legal adventure not only delayed a solution, it encouraged the worst impulses of Cape Breton’s culture of dependency, and it reinforced the rest of the world’s weary stereotype of Cape Bretoners as people with their hands out. In all these respects, it did a disservice to the very citizens Morgan claims to champion.
Elaboration after the jump.
CBRM Mayor John Morgan has convinced Jim Meek of the Chronicle-Herald, Wendy Bergfeldt of CBC-Cape Breton, and Gillian Cormier of AllNovaScotia.com that the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society is trying to punish him for criticizing a judicial decision.
Nonsense. Anyone can criticize a judicial decision. Lawyers do it all the time. Even the most cursory review of Morgan’s comments makes it clear that his offense was not criticizing a decision but impugning the impartiality of Nova Scotia judges in general, and Supreme Justice John Murphy in particular.
Morgan’s comments came in an interview with CBC-Cape Breton’s Information Morning host Steve Sutherland on April 24, 2008, the morning after Murphy threw out a CBRM lawsuit against the province. The key quotes come about two minutes in:
We knew this was going to be a long process from the outset, and one of the challenges we face as we work through the Nova Scotia system is [that] virtually all of the justices—not to their discredit—but a reality is that all of them are part of the political structures that are endemic in the province of Nova Scotia. And as we move to justices outside the Nova Scotia system, you do get away from that internal provincial government system where judges are appointed by political parties. And this justice in particular had ties to the Conservative party—not to his discredit—but it’s a reality we were dealing with.
I would have preferred to have one of the Cape Breton justices dealing with the case rather than a Halifax one. But it was a challenge that we were facing from the outset. That having been said, you had to go through the first level of determination in order to get to the later determinations.
Sutherland asked if Morgan was suggesting political bias in the judge’s decision. “No, no,” said Morgan, “I don’t mean to suggest that.” But of course, that’s exactly what he suggested:
I mean everybody involved in the judicial process in Nova Scotia gets there because, ah, or principally they have ties to political parties in political structures, and so they are not tree shakers, I guess is the best way to describe it. They are there because they are for the most part a part of the establishment. So it is difficult to get a Nova Scotia judge, I think, to arrive at a different conclusion than the one we’ve arrived at.
This is not criticism of a decision, it’s accusation of judicial bias—a clear affront to a lawyer’s professional obligation. It’s also outrageous. Murphy is widely regarded as an excellent judge, and there exists not a speck of evidence to suggest he trims his judicial sails to political winds. It’s also cowardly on Morgan’s part because, as a judge, Murphy cannot fight back.
One can reasonably argue that the Barristers’ Society ought to make an exception for lawyers who also happen to be politicians, allowing them to impugn the integrity of the courts in pursuit of their political agenda. Notwithstanding the shameful content of Morgan’s comments, I’m inclined to think they should. Freedom of political speech is such an overriding value in a free society, it ought to trump the equally valid but less critical principle of a lawyer’s obligation to treat courts with respect.
But let’s not get into high dudgeon over the pretense that Morgan was merely using colorful language to take issue with a decision.
[Update] The Contrarian Research Bureau confirms that John D. Murphy, whom Morgan accuses of Conservative Party ties and consequent reluctance to decide cases contrary to the wishes of the MacDonald government, was named to the Supreme Court on March 2, 2001 by Jean Chretien, a Prime Minister who has never been accused of Conservative Party ties.
The merits of His Worship’s equalization lawsuit (which was also rejected by unanimous decision of the Appeal Court) are also worthy of comment, but that’s for another day.
When I was a child my Grandpa would take me
Down to old Wentworth Park where we’d feed the birds
The majestic old poplars offered leaf-dappled sunshine
And a feeling so peaceful it silenced all words.
Oh Grandpa won’t you take me back to old Wentworth Park
We’ll tarry ‘neath the shade trees down by the duck pond.
I’m sorry my grandsons, you’re too late in asking
The city’s contractor has hacked them all down
(With apologies to John Prine)
[UPDATE: Most of the cutting is a fait accompli, but several large trees in the area of the planned tot lot are marked for apparent removal with spray-painted Xs. In a private email message, Councillor Ray Paruch, who has done a commendable job shepherding the park project, says he has spoken to the park contractor and asked them to save as many of the remaining trees as possible.]
[UPDATE II: Councillor Paruch reports that the contractor has altered plans for the tot lot so that no more trees will come down. A few will be pruned.]