Earth to McNeil: Cut Cecil some slack

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.)

cecil-clarke-220Clarke’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.

Using tax money to kill jobs

CBRM Mayor John Morgan, facing serious opposition* for the first time in 12 years, is scrambling to justify his cash-strapped municipality’s snap decision to spend $6 million in tax money to block a private sector development that promised immediate jobs.

On just two days’ notice last month, CBRM outbid a private sector developer to buy the Greenfield Site, a 400-acre parcel on Sydney’s freshly dredged harbour.

At the time, Morgan said the so-called mystery developer planned to use the site for a bulk terminal that would permanently preclude its use as a container pier, the Great Big Project Morgan continually upholds as post-industrial Sydney’s only hope for a viable economic future.

In fact, Morgan knew who the bidder was. Prior to submitting CBRM’s own bid, he had received a letter from Atlantic Gateway Shipping Terminals Ltd. outlining the consortium’s previous efforts to promote a Sydney container pier, promising continued efforts in that regard, and offering to meet with CBRM to detail its plans for a bulk transshipment terminal as a stepping stone toward the shared goal of a container pier.

Morgan is best known outside CBRM for having launched a showy constitutional lawsuit to demand higher provincial equalization. The suit was an early and expensive flop in court, but it reinforced the mayor’s reputation at home as a scrapper, albeit a spectacularly ineffective one.

In fact, CBRM receives more than half of all the municipal equalization handed out by the province, but Morgan claims its anemic tax base can’t support essential services without a massive increase. So how could his cash-strapped government, already nearly $100 million in debt, whistle up another $6 million on two days’ notice?

No problem, said the mayor. CBRM will transfer the Greenfield Site to the Sydney Ports Corporation, which operates the city’s cruise pavilion and has the wherewithal to support the $6 million loan.

Not so, it now appears. The Ports Corp. is already $1.5 million in arrears on lease payments for its own facility, and has neither the inclination nor the financial capacity to take on a $6 million loan.

So CBRM taxpayers will be stuck with the $6 million tab after all, they will lose the tax revenue a $6 million property would have produced, and they may face a lawsuit from the rival bidder, angry at the city’s handling of the matter. They will not get the jobs required to build and operate a bulk transshipment facility, and the faint dream of a container pier has grown just a little fainter. More workers will move to Alberta, and more Cape Breton families will be torn apart.

En route to this triumph, Morgan has routinely vilified CBRM’s private business community, government agencies, politicians, the courts, and the other two levels of government — in short, everyone needed to help the struggling Cape Breton economy recover from the loss of two major industries.

This is Morgan’s schtick: he portrays Cape Bretoners as helpless victims and demands continual handouts, then throws rocks at anyone who might actually lend a hand. He is the single biggest impediment to Cape Breton’s economic stability.

* [Disclosure: I provided some early assistance to Owen Fitzgerald’s mayoralty bid, and may do so again, although I have no formal ongoing role in the campaign.]

Dredge it, and they will come. And we will throw them out.

Headline: CBRM to seek control of Laurentian Energy’s greenfield site
Headline: CBRM warns harbour site suitor

Let me see if I have this straight:

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality, which is $102.9 million in debt, and which constantly complains that it can’t afford to provide basic services, is going to borrow $6 million to buy 400 acres of harbour-front land, or a lesser amount to buy a controlling interest in the company that is selling the land, all to block — yes, block! — a proposed industrial development, so it can “save” the land for a fantasy container pier that will never, ever happen.

CBRM can afford to do this because it is overflowing in industrial development, and because a glorious fantasy in the bush is worth a real industry in the hand, especially in an election year.

CBRM can borrow beyond its already unsafe debt-service ratios, because it will be rolling in cash as soon as it gets the evil oppressors in Halifax to start forking over its rightful level of handouts, or rather, equalization payments. (The current level is more than what Halifax sends to all other municipalities in the province, combined.)

Dredge it, and they will come. And we will put the run on them. This is what passes for economic development strategy in the fervid brains of CBRM’s mayor and council.

There may be legitimate reasons to question this proposed development. But pretending Sydney is going to get a container pier isn’t one of them. That fraud has gone on long enough.

CBRM’s war on young people — a different view

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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 [1] and [2] 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 [2] instead of blaming council for doing what they (likely) had to [1].

CBRM Council’s war on young people

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

Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat

I don’t know which is more disturbing: The NDP Government’s success in persuading a Supreme Court justice to impose a $5,725 fine on a man found innocent of the crime with which he had been charged; or Finance Minister Graham Steele’s crowing about this ‘victory” in a news release.

”]CBRM’s finest didn’t have the goods on John Joseph Reynolds.They raided his Sydney Mines apartment last February, seized a bit of pot and and some hidden cash, but they couldn’t prove he was selling marijuana, and they knew it. So they withdrew the unsupportable charge against him, and a Provincial Court judge pronounced him not guilty.

In our system, a not-guilty verdict is supposed to be tantamount to a finding of innocence. Instead, taking cues from the Queen of Hearts (“First the verdict; then the trial!”), Nova Scotia now imposes criminal sanctions without regard for criminal trials.

To circumvent the presumption of innocence in Reynolds’s case, the justice system allowed police to launch a second trial, one that masqueraded as a civil proceeding. The pretence liberated cops and prosecutors from the strict standard of presumed innocence. It enabled them to punish Reynolds, effectively finding him guilty, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but despite one.

The courts, to their shame, let them get away with it.

Like Justice Minister Ross Landry, for whom he was acting yesterday, Steele couched his government’s end-run around the presumption of innocence in bland platitudes, describing the abuse as “a tool” that “government and police are collaborative using” to deter crime. You can call horse turds road apples, but it won’t make them smell any sweeter.

The presumption of innocence is a defining characteristic of a free and democratic society. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe.

Free societies insist on this principle for the simple reason that most people are not criminals. The Latin maxim quoted in the headline above is sometimes more fully rendered as Ei incumbit probatio, qui dicit, non qui negat; cum per rerum naturam factum negantis probatio nulla sit – “The proof lies upon him who affirms, not upon him who denies; since, by the nature of things, he who denies a fact cannot produce any proof.”

The presumption of innocence means the state bears the entire burden of proof, and the defendant none. An accused person need not testify or call witnesses, and his failure to do so cannot be taken as evidence of guilt. Neither jury nor judge can draw any inference from the fact a defendant has been charged with a crime. The case must be decided solely on evidence presented at trial.

Does all this make it hard for police to put away bad guys? You betcha, and for good reason: you really don’t want to live in a country where police find it easy to throw citizens in prison.

Apologists for the Civil Forfeiture Act try to brush these misgivings aside on the flimsy pretext that it concerns civil not criminal matters. Steele’s news release puts the lie to that fig leaf in the first sentence, which describes the act as, “legislation that helps make sure that crime doesn’t pay” [my emphasis]. To which Steele himself adds, “The success of this case sends a message that crime will not pay in Nova Scotia” [my emphasis]. It’s all about crime, and nothing but crime.

By pretending seizures under Nova Scotia Civil Forfeiture are civil in nature, when everyone can see they are criminal, the government and the court have turned criminal safeguards upside down. They  have enabled cops to punish suspects whose guilt they cannot prove. This is a clear abuse of democratic principles we fought wars over, and it brings the justice system into disrepute. Not to mention Graham Steele, Ross Landry, and the NDP Government.

The real CBRM stands up

At long last, someone on the Cape Breton Regional Municipal Council has delivered a stinging rebuke to Mayor John Morgan’s portrayal of Cape Bretoners as helpless victims of Halifax.

Council is scrambling to meet a March 31 deadline for producing a sustainability plan, without which it stands to lose $7 million per year in federal gas tax rebates for four years. It has to scramble because senior governments rightly rejected an earlier grandiose plan proposing virtual provincehood for CBRM, with Comintern-like powers for its  “legislature.”

That nutty document, cobbled together with mayoral encouragement by CBRM’s Gyro Gearloose development director, was submitted to the provincial government without council discussion or approval. Submitted, and rejected, putting $28 million at risk for the revenue-strapped municipality.

Speaking at the start of hastily convened public consultations in support of a new, rational sustainability plan, Councilor Ray Paruch detailed Council’s rejection of the Mayor’s blame-everything-on-Halifax approach. [Audio from CBC-Cape Breton’s Mainstreet program.]


Fifteen councilors in the CBRM said no to that document… They said no to the idea that our region should become a province in virtually all but name. Council rejected a separate legislature. Council rejected taking over the school board. Council rejected taking over the health board. Council rejected the idea of taking over the board of directors of Cape Breton University…

How arrogant and bold are we to even contemplate doing these things? Who do we think we are?

Saying this took courage. Mayor Morgan is famously popular in CBRM, having won re-election by 80 percent. But the unequivocal rejection of his absurd lawsuit by three courts has eroded his support. More and more residents are questioning his caricature of Cape Bretoners as pathetic supplicants.

The Cape Bretoners I know and admire are self-reliant and resourceful. High time someone gave them a voice.

CBRM equalization: reality check

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.

Death of a destructive lawsuit

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.

Continue reading Death of a destructive lawsuit

Mayor Morgan plays the race card

Contrarian reader Kirby McVicar offers an interesting take on Mayor John Morgan’s problems with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society:

“The mainlanders are out to screw us all!”

This is what I call Mayor Morgan’s race card. Morgan says the Halifax/Ottawa bunch are keeping Cape Breton down with unfair distribution of wealth, with judges who are political appointees, and by using ECBC as a political tool that lets “outsiders” and “mainlanders” have it all.

Cries of “Go, John, go!” can be heard from 80% of the kitchens in CBRM. And when the mainland media take on Johnny-Boy’s opinions, you’ll hear this same group say, “See, they are out to get us!”

As damaging as Morgan’s “race card” has been and continues to be, from a purely selfish re-election plan, it is genius. Because it works.