Reality Bites provides the best coverage of current affairs and political issues related to Halifax and City Council anywhere in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Oh, and we bring the snark, too. Contact jacob@thecoast.ca to send a tip.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Parking ticket revenue way up

Move from Corps of Commissionaires to Securitas brought millions of dollars into city coffers

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 3:02 PM

HRM parking ticket revenue has increased 45% in three years, a direct result of the city taking the parking enforcement revenue away from the Corps of Commissionaires and awarding it to Securitas. That switch was made on September 1, 2008, soon into the 2008/09 fiscal year (which runs from April 1-March 31). Here are the total fines paid over the last three years:
2007/08 $2.4 million
2008/09 $3.4 million
2009/10 $3.5 million
According to Jerry Blackwood, who oversees the city's parking programs, the $1.1 annual increase came because the Commissionaires only kept five enforcement officers on duty at any one time, while Securitas has 10 on enforcement officers on duty.

As Bruce Wark pointed out last year, the Commissionaires-employed officers were paid $12.50 an hour, while Securitas' officers only make minimum wage.

Parking enforcement officers give tickets for expired meters, but also for illegally parking in other areas, and for parking too long in an unmetered space.

Interestingly, HRM collects more from parking fines than it does from parking meters. For each of the three years listed above, parking meter revenue was essentially flat, at $2.6 million.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to kill 220,000 seals on Sable Island: the DFO plan

One method involves clubbing, shooting, incinerators and modified logging vehicles, according to a detailed study of a potential cull.

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 1:21 AM

news_feature1.jpg

A massive seal slaughter on Sable Island would involve bringing in mobile crematoriums and modified tree-harvesting equipment, and would cost upwards of $35 million, according to a study commissioned by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The 2009 study, obtained through an Access to Information request, examined the costs and logistics associated with "managing" the grey seal population on the fragile island, a whelping ground for the world's largest grey seal colony.

For years, the fishing industry has been lobbying the DFO for a seal cull on the island, arguing that seals, not humans, are to blame for eating too many cod. Under growing pressure from the fishing lobby, the DFO commissioned the study and asked CBCL Ltd., a Halifax-based engineering firm, to consider two options. One was to explore what it would take to execute a slaughter of 100,000 seals the first year (50,000 pups, 30,000 females and 20,000 males), and 30,000 in each of four subsequent years. The second option involved implementing a contraceptive vaccine program targeting 16,000 female grey seals each year for five years.

According to the study, the execution of either option would take place between December and early February---when the beaches and dunes are covered with nursing mothers and their babies. The study concluded that the logistics, resource requirements and costs of executing the first option would be "substantial," when compared to an immunization program.

The study details what would be required to kill, lift and move tens of thousands of seal carcasses over a 25-day period. Adult seals would be killed with rifles and the pups with either rifle or by clubbing. To achieve the goal of 100,000 dead seals in 25 days, 10 seals would have to be killed every minute. "At this production rate, a tandem dump truck would be filled with seals approximately every 10 minutes...seven hours a day for 25 days," says the study.

Thirty modified tree forwarders with boxes and rubberized grips would be required to load all the carcasses from the "work zones" to one of the 20 or so mobile crematoriums where they would be "thermally treated," meaning incinerated. If the carcasses were not incinerated then the onset of rot and disease would be fast, resulting in biological hazards and health and safety issues for the workers. The study explained that if incineration did not occur before stockpiling and storage, then the carcasses would have to be transported daily off the island---slung from shore by helicopter to a supply vessel---and brought to the "shore base" for disposal. CBCL identified the Mulgrave Marine Terminal on the Strait of Canso as a base, able to accommodate offshore supply vessels, ocean-going tugs and barges, fixed and mobile cranes and regular off-loading capability for the tractor-trailer support the operation would require.

According to the study, 100,000 intact carcasses would weigh roughly 15,000 tonnes and would require 500 trips by tractor trailer from the marine terminal to a disposal facility. The study notes several problems with this scenario, one being that the carcasses would likely freeze inside the containers, making disposal difficult and, secondly, that it's currently not legal to dump 15,000 tonnes of dead seals into a Nova Scotia landfill.

For these reasons incineration on Sable Island is the study's preferred choice. Units called "Air Curtain Burners," designed to burn wood waste with a special mechanism to control smoke, would be used for incinerating the carcasses.

According to a DFO spokesperson, any decision to implement the study's recommendations would be made by the minister, Gail Shea. In January Shea announced a "total allowable catch" of 39,000 grey seals from Sable Island. And, with the value of seal pelts tanking and the European Union slamming its doors on seal products, Shea also visited China to promote the sale of seal meat, pelts and penises.

This is where the picture starts to get murky. Just last week the federal and provincial governments announced that Sable Island will be designated a national park, a decision welcomed by environmentalists because it will raise the level of protection for the island's unique biodiversity and extremely fragile sand dune ecosystems. But this protection does not apply to seals. According to DFO's seal expert Don Bowen, a park designation would not prohibit a seal cull on the island. At a public meeting earlier this year, Bowen said "whether a hunt occurs or not is not a scientific decision, but a political or economic one."

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Police budget was passed in secret meeting

Posted By on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 4:08 PM

The Halifax Police Department budget was adopted in a secret meeting, in apparent violation of the Nova Scotia Police Act.

In Nova Scotia, elected governments approve overall police department budgets, but the budget details are entirely under the control of the boards of police commissioners. Budget documents presented to Halifax council Tuesday state plainly that Halifax's Board of Police Commissioners approved the department budget at its meeting of March 29.

But the agenda for that meeting makes no mention of the overall police budget, and minutes from the meeting show that the entire public portion of the meeting lasted just four minutes. The minutes show that discussion of the police budget was moved into an in camera (secret) session of the meeting.

Meetings of the Board of Police Commissioners are governed by the Nova Scotia Police Act, which contains the following proviso for secret meetings:

Public and private meetings
51 Meetings of the board are open to the public, but all matters relating to discipline, personnel conduct, contract negotiations and security of police operations may be conducted in private and, where the matter relates to a complaint against or the discipline of the chief officer, the chair may request that the chief not attend and the chief shall not attend. 2004, c. 31, s. 51.
No doubt commissioners will argue that budget discussions fall under the "security of police operations" category, but that's just silly, for several reasons. First, if the legislature wanted to allow budget discussions to be held in secret, it would have explicitly stated as much in the act. Second, even if details of the budget might conceivably have a security aspect, those details could be discussed in secret, with the rest of the budget discussion being held in public. Third, while legislation allows discussion of issues in secrecy, the actual vote has to be held in public--and the vote on the police budget was not held in public, as related by the minutes.

I've heard several times that police budget issues can't be discussed publicly because--- and I'm not kidding here--- criminals will find out where the police are spread thin, and the criminals will then concentrate their efforts in those areas. I haven't been aware of the Spryfield Mafia reporter showing up at Board of Police Commissioners meetings... but if they're really that resourceful, all the Mafia reporters have to do is go to the city website and download the budget directly.

The Board of Police Commissioners appear to have generally sloppy meeting controls. As I reported in this week's editorial, last week the Board added on an un-agendized discussion of a proposed $100,000 cut in the police budget, which it then rejected. It would've been nice to have known about the discussion, and maybe follow it, but if it's not on the agenda, it's as good as secret.

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Committee votes for slightly smaller council

Wants reduction from 23 to 20

Posted on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 3:43 PM

A subcommittee of Halifax council today voted to make the council smaller-- by just three members.

The Governance & Boundary Review Committee passed the following motion:

MOVED by Councillor Mosher, seconded by Councillor Dalrymple that Halifax Regional Council be reduced to 20 Councillors plus the Mayor with four Community Councils made up of five Districts.
That motion now goes to the full council, probably in June.

This afternoon, I spoke with councillor Gloria McCluskey, who sits on the committee and was present at the meeting. As she relates, councillor Reg Rankin stood up and said that he'd like to have a council of 15 members, but that wouldn't be acceptable to the full council, so he moved a council of 19 members. According to McCluskey, councillor Linda Mosher then asked for 20 members, so there could be four community councils of five members each. That was the motion that passed.

McCluskey had harsh words for Rankin. "If he wanted 15 members, he should've moved 15 members," she said. "But he didn't want much of a change, because his district is safe." McCluskey went on to explain that Rankin's district (Timberlea), along with councillor Barry Dalrymple's district (Fall River--Dalrymple voted for the motion as well), have about 20,000 residents in them, compared to 15-16,000 in urban districts. "They'll make fewer urban districts," said McCluskey. It's her contention that urban councillors have more constituency work than rural councillors, because there are more traffic issues and so forth.

McCluskey herself is ambivalent on council size, saying that the real issue is cost, not size. "Before amalgamation, we had 64 councillors, and it cost less than 23 are costing us now," she said, referring to all the elected reps in the old cities of Dartmouth and Halifax, the town of Bedford, and the county of Halifax.

"If people think this [making council smaller] is going to save money, they're crazy," said McCluskey.

Readers will recall that I've editorialized against reducing the size of council.

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Political Arena

Posted By on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 11:23 AM

HRM continues to refuse to tell us how many millions of taxpayer dollars it is paying a private firm to operate the new four-pad arena in Hammonds Plains. Readers will recall that the city contracted with Nustadia, Inc.---a subdivision of the Ohio-based Cochran Group---to operate the arena, but did not make that contract, or its terms, public. The Coast filed a Freedom of Information request for the information.

Monday, we received a copy of the 150-page-plus contract, but the essential detail---the dollar amount of the contract---is redacted. In a cover letter, Nancy Dempsey, the city’s FOI officer, justified the censorship by citing sections of the law that allow governments to withhold information that could “harm the financial or economic interest of the municipality.” We reject that reasoning, and will appeal Dempsey’s decision to the provincial Freedom of Information review office. Still, there’s some useful information in the unredacted parts of the contract. We now know that the term of the contract is 20 years, but that the city can automatically renew it for up to two five-year periods.

And, the contract explicitly states that all arena employees “shall be paid by [Nustadia] and be under the control and direction of [Nustadia] at all times and shall under no circumstances or at any time be deemed or implied to be employees of HRM.” This, of course, was the entire purpose of contracting with Nustadia in the first place: to save money through an end-run around the public employee unions. Or, put another way, by paying arena workers a crappy wage.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Environmentalists welcome Sable announcement

Fragile island to become national park

Posted By on Tue, May 18, 2010 at 5:53 PM

Satellite photo, Sable Island, 1994
  • NASA
  • Satellite photo, Sable Island, 1994

Local environmental groups are welcoming today's announcement by the federal and Nova Scotia governments that Sable Island will be designated a national park, the first in the province since Kejimkujik was established in 1967.

"I think this is a very good thing for Sable Island because it brings much more funding and management to the island to look after its significant ecological features," says Chris Miller of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. "It also means that Sable Island now joins the ranks of places like Banff or Nahanni as one of Canada’s most precious natural landmarks and that’s something that Nova Scotians can be very proud about."

"I think overall it’s the right decision for Sable Island," says Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre. Butler adds that Parks Canada has the experience and the resources to carry out its twin functions of protecting the island while educating people about its distinctive features. "As long as the protection part is the one that is always the predominant or overruling goal, I think Sable Island will be alright."

The sandy terrain of the narrow, 40-kilometre-long island, 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax, supports a unique variety of wildlife: 150 to 400 wild horses; numerous migrant and breeding birds including the vulnerable Ipswitch Savannah sparrow and the world's largest population of breeding grey seals.

Butler and Miller say they're pleased that federal and provincial officials have promised public consultations on "conservation, management and operational issues" associated with making the island a national park. They agree that protecting Sable Island from too much human interference will be crucial.

"Clearly the amount of visitors to the island needs to be restricted and that’s something that we’ll be asking for through the public consultations which will be kick-started in the coming weeks," says Miller.

Butler agrees: "What’s crucial is that they come up with a good management plan that caps the number of visitors and the amount of infrastructure and also protects the island from other human activities such as oil and gas."

In January, federal environment minister Jim Prentice suggested that the government would encourage visitors to travel to a "well-protected" Sable Island national park. He added that private businesses could transport people there.

But today, both Butler and Miller said they're hoping Parks Canada will find ways of letting people experience Sable Island without actually visiting it.

"The trick is finding what are some of the ways we can prevent the island from experiencing too many visitors by developing alternative visitor experiences," Miller explains. "For instance, you can imagine a facility in downtown Halifax that would show the beauty of Sable Island to people who want to learn more about the place and understand its ecology and its significance."

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CITY MAIL responds

Mystery deepens

Posted By on Tue, May 18, 2010 at 3:15 PM

I received mail from CITY MAIL today, responding to yesterday's blog post about the mystery mailbox that has appeared in Halifax.

Here's the letter:

letter_pg1.jpg

letter_pg_2.jpg

I still have no idea who CITY MAIL is, but that's obviously part of the plan.
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TD Building re-design proposal revealed

Plans call for the demolition of 1820s-era Macara-Barnstead Building, now housing The Flower Shop

Posted By on Tue, May 18, 2010 at 2:43 PM

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Toronto-Dominion Bank wants to nearly triple the size of its 18-storey Barrington Street tower. The plan calls for the demolition of the Macara-Barnstead Building on Granville Street, a registered historic property that dates to the 1820s.

Continue reading »

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Taxpayer expenditure for four-pad arena still secret

In continuing public records battle, Coast is given contract, but dollar amounts are censored

Posted By on Mon, May 17, 2010 at 12:07 PM

The Halifax Regional Municipality continues to refuse to tell us how many millions of taxpayer dollars it is paying an American-owned private firm to operate the new four-pad arena in Hammonds Plains.

Coast readers will recall that the city contracted with Nustadia, Inc.---a subdivision of the Ohio-based Cochran Group, with Nustadia's corporate offices in Calgary--- to operate the arena, but did not make that contract, or the terms of the contract, public. The Coast filed an Freedom of Information request for the information.

Today, Monday, we received a copy of the 150-page+ contract, but the essential detail---the dollar amount of the contract---is redacted. In a cover letter, Nancy Dempsey, the city's Freedom of Information officer, justified the censorship by saying that "the release of these records could reasonably be expected to harm the financial or economic interest of the municipality as it could impact its current and future negotiating positions ... and [...] the release of these records would reveal commercial, scientific, technical and financial information... of a third party."

We reject that reasoning, and will appeal HRM's decision to the Freedom of Information review officer. As I wrote in March:

Whatever the secret dollar amount of the Nustadia contract, it's no doubt very large, and runs for a very long time. Figure a 20- or 30-year contract (Nustadia has entered into 30-year contracts with other cities) at, say, anywhere from a half a million to $4 million a year (could be more, could be less, who knows?)---in any event, the contract is likely in the ballpark of a few tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

A contract of this size gives plenty of opportunity for bribes, kickbacks and other forms of graft that are much easier to prevent when more than a handful of City Hall staffers are looking at them. The entire point of public access and Freedom of Information laws is to establish transparency, legitimacy and confidence in governmental contracting and purchasing---it's therefore in councillors' and staff's own interests to make this information public.

Even if we assume City Hall officials made the wisest choice for city tax dollars---but why should we assume such a thing if we can't see the numbers?---Nustadia has a worrisome track record: the City of Guelph had to come up with $3 million after Nustadia defaulted on a city-guaranteed $10 million loan for Guelph's Sleeman Centre arena complex. Is HRM any better protected with its Nustadia contract? It's not for us to know, evidently. City Hall's response to that question is, basically, "trust us."

The relevant redacted parts of the contract are shown below:
nustadia001.jpg

nustadia3.jpg

Still, there is some useful information in the contract. We now know that the term of the contract is 20 years, but that the city can automatically renew it for up to two five-year periods.

And, the contract explicitly states that all arena employees "shall be paid by [Nustadia] and be under the control and direction of [Nustadia] at all times and shall under no circumstances or at any time be deemed or implied to be employees of HRM." This, of course, was the entire purpose of contracting with Nustadia in the first place: to save money through an end-run around the public employee unions. Or, put another way, by paying arena workers a crappy wage.

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CITY MAIL appears over the weekend: But what is it?

Posted By on Mon, May 17, 2010 at 10:32 AM

Over the weekend, a strange box has appeared attached to a telephone pole near The Coast's office, at the corner of Cunard and Creighton Streets:
mailbox1.jpg
Upon further inspection, the box has this note attached to it:
mailbox2.jpg
The note reads:
It is easy to write your city
with CITY MAIL

CITY MAIL is an initiative dedicated
to the delivery of inner-city
postables, in Halifax.

To send mail with CITY MAIL
simply indicate the address
(to the best of your knowledge)
on your envelope/package.

No postage requred--
CITY MAIL is free-mail.

Mail boxes will be emptied,
Their contents, distributed,
on a minimum-weekly basis

**CITY MAIL is pleased to
announce the expansion of
our service, to the city of
Montreal. You are welcome to
send free mail via CITY MAIL
in these boxes.
remember to indicate the
city and addresss, intended.

This is quite an undertaking. I wonder: Who's behind it? Do they have permission to attach boxes to poles? Is there a particular beef with Canada Post, or is it an anarchic attempt to build a different form of mail system? What's up, anyway?

If anyone knows anything, I'd appreciate some info coming my way.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Circular decision

Council approves roundabouts for use by road engineers

Posted By on Wed, May 12, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Slow to the world's roundabout party, Halifax is trying to catch up catch up catch up.
  • Slow to the world's roundabout party,
    Halifax is trying to catch up catch up catch up.

Regional council Tuesday committed Halifax to the brave new world of...roundabouts. Roundabouts have been ubiquitous in most the rest of the world for decades, if not centuries---and are recognized as a sensibly safe traffic control device, but North America is slow on the uptake. Only in the past few years have traffic engineers embraced roundabouts, and that usually conservative group now finds itself trying to convince the populace to accept a new traffic pattern.

In Halifax, they’ve succeeded. On a unanimous vote, council gave engineers the go-ahead to put roundabouts in the regular toolbox of design practices brought to intersections.

Three roundabouts are being built on the new Larry Uteck Drive in Clayton Park. As for older intersections, staff wants to rebuild the Devonshire-Novalea-Duffus intersection in the north end as a roundabout next year, a suggestion that’s resisted by nearby residents and the area’s councillor, Jerry Blumenthal. Three of the four intersections around the north Common have also been studied as possible roundabout sites, but no timeline has been established for rebuilding them.

A Coast suggestion that public art be placed in the centre island of the new roundabouts---for example, a statue of a squeegee kid at the Willow Tree---was warmly approved of by several councillors, but not yet acted upon.
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Stephen Kimber crowned

Atlantic Journalism Awards ceremony puts an end to those Susan Lucci comparisons

Posted By on Wed, May 12, 2010 at 4:00 AM

This Darrell Dexter cover story earned Stephen Kimber his first Atlantic Journalism Award.
  • This Darrell Dexter cover story earned Stephen Kimber his first Atlantic Journalism Award.
The Coast was up for five awards at last Saturday night’s Atlantic Journalism Awards. With Coast colleagues Stephen Kimber and Tim Bousquet both nominated in the feature writing category, competition might have gotten ugly. But at the awards gala the whole Coast contingent, which included Kimber, Bousquet (also nominated for continuing coverage) and Sue Carter Flinn (nominated for arts and entertainment reporting), was pulling for Kimber to win. (Matthieu Aikins, our enterprise reporting nominee, was off being enterprising and couldn’t attend.)

The Coast’s senior features writer, Kimber has been a mentor to the paper from the time it was just an idea---his idea, no less---and despite his illustrious career in journalism he had never won an AJA. When it was time for the feature writing award, fears of “What if Tim beats Stephen?” momentarily gave way to “What if the other guy beats them both?” That worst-case scenario would suit the trend of the evening, which saw all other Coast nominees get the silver runner-up prize. Then Kimber’s name was announced, and he went to the front of the ballroom to accept his gold award, the Susan Lucci of the AJAs no more.
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Monday, May 10, 2010

Breaking news: Coast Guard says "small amount" of oil stretched across Halifax Harbour

Leak came from the sunken dry dock at Irving's Halifax shipyard

Posted By on Mon, May 10, 2010 at 4:20 PM

(Updated below)

Keith Laidlaw, a spokesperson with the Coast Guard, confirms what several Coast readers reported this morning: an oil "sheen" spread from the sunken dry dock at Halifax shipyard, under the Macdonald Bridge, and all the way to Dartmouth.

Laidlaw characterized the spill as "a small amount, maybe two microns thick" and said it would be "impossible" to clean up. People on land in Dartmouth would not notice the oil washing ashore, he said.

Laidlaw would not speculate on how much oil was involved, but said it likely came from a diesel generator on the deck of the dry dock. "It was probably diesel oil, compression oil, motor oil," he said.

Irving placed booms around the sunken dry dock and is presently absorbing any additional oil coming off the dry dock at site. It's unclear why containment booms were not placed around the vessel Sunday, after the dry dock sank.

Update, 4:45PM.

The following is a news release from the Irving Company, owners of Halifax Shipyard:

On Saturday May 8th at approximately 10AM during the docking of a new tug boat, the floating "Scotia Dock" at the Halifax Shipyard continued to submerge prior to a docking. The tug was safely removed from the dock without incident. There were no injuries.

· The dock is stabilized in about 51 feet of water. Divers have been working to assess the situation and experts have been on scene since Sunday.

· Currently the plan to re-float the dock is being finalized and will be put into action as soon as possible.

· Halifax Shipyard is working to contain and remove a small amount of diesel fuel which escaped through a pressure release valve on the submersible dock’s diesel tank this morning.

- Crews successfully plugged the vent to prevent any further fuel from escaping and will continue to monitor the situation.

· As soon as the sheen was detected, two additional absorbent booms were immediately added to the containment boom already in the water, and absorbent pads were used inside and outside the boom to soak up the fuel.

- The sheen has since dissipated; all three booms remain in the water, and will be monitored on a 24/7 basis.

· Coast Guard officials were on the scene today monitoring the situation from the water.

- Environment Canada Officials visited the site today, assessed the situation, reviewed Halifax Shipyard’s response and recommended no further action be taken.

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HRM buys Cow Bay lot for surfer access to ocean

"Minutes" break is one of the Atlantic's best surf destinations-- Read the full city report

Posted By on Mon, May 10, 2010 at 1:59 PM

news_feature1.jpg
Seeing a line of surfboards stacked against parked cars on Cow Bay Rd., while surfers cling to the roadside in a scramble to pull on their wetsuits, is something most locals are used to. The surfing community has been trespassing through Cow Bay residents' yards for years to ride one of Atlantic Canada's few world class waves---a surf break called “Minutes.” But now surfers and the rest of the Cow Bay community have a beach to call their own. A report from a closed session of city council reveals that the municipality agreed to spend just over $211,000 for a 9.2 acre beachside property with 1,000 feet of ocean frontage. Read the full report here.

Continue reading »

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

UPDATE: Commons approves NDP climate bill

C-311 now goes to the Senate

Posted By on Wed, May 5, 2010 at 8:06 PM

An NDP bill that would set federal targets on greenhouse gas emissions has finally been approved by the House of Commons. The vote on theClimate Change Accountability Act was 149 to 136. The NDP, the Bloc and the Liberals voted in favour of the measure, first introduced in 2006, while the Conservatives opposed it.

Bill C-311 now goes to the Senate for final approval and Royal Assent. The Climate Change Accountability Act would require the federal government to set targets reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020 and to 80 percent below by 2050. It would also require the federal Minister of the Environment to set an interim emissions reduction target for 2015 within six months after the bill becomes law.

Environmental groups lobbied vigorously for the bill. In a message on its web site, the David Suzuki Foundation calls on the Senate to pass the measure "before the next election." The bill was approved by the Commons in 2008, but failed to win Senate approval before Parliament was dissolved for that year's federal election. NDP MP Bruce Hyer reintroduced it in February 2009 and it has been wending its way through the Commons ever since.

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