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Murky waters 

Right to Know Week or not, council has used the Regional Halifax Water Commission to avoid public scrutiny of water and sewage operations.

click to enlarge GRAHAM PILSWORTH

On January 14, 2009, Halifax's brand-new sewage plant broke, and we went right back to spewing raw sewage into the harbour. How could something so important, something we spent so much time and money on, go so terribly wrong? The people had a right to know, and so I requested a copy of the engineering study of the plant failure, what came to be known as "the forensic audit."

Mayor Peter Kelly refused to release the forensic audit, with the excuse that rules allowed him to keep it secret because the city faced potential litigation over the plant failure. And indeed, there was a good chance that the three Harbour Solutions partners---HRM, Dexter Construction and Degremont Inc. ---would end up suing each other in a bid to avoid paying for fixing the failed the plant.

That summer, however, officials admitted that the forensic audit had been given to Dexter and Degremont, the potential litigants. But still they refused to give it to the public that paid for it.

At the same time, the city shifted control of the failed sewage plant over to the Halifax Regiional Water Commission. Ever since, Halifax Water manager Carl Yates has consistently denied my requests for the forensic audit---including my latest request in honour of the city's September 26 to 30 Right to Know Week. I'll get into those denials momentarily, but first let's step back and look at what's happening between the city government and Halifax Water.

It used to be that the city government ran the water department. Council set water rates and made decisions on costly capital improvements in the water system. But councillors didn't want to be held accountable for increasing water rates, and so established Halifax Water as a supposedly independent corporation that would simply take care of water pipes and infrastructure and set the rates accordingly, in an apolitical manner. Water rates could go up, but politicians wouldn't feel the heat.

Problem is, there's nothing independent about Halifax Water, and there's nothing apolitical about its actions. Halifax Water remains firmly under the umbrella of the city. Its liabilities are ultimately the city's liabilities. And Halifax Water is making decisions worth hundreds of millions of dollars about new infrastructure, with existing rate payers paying for some of the capital costs of new development.

click to enlarge GRAHAM PILSWORTH

It'd be good for the public to have oversight of the allocation of capital costs. It'd also be good for Halifax Water to have to justify publicly giving its managers raises of between 20 and 40 percent over a two-year period, while rolling those managerial salaries into a request for a 41 percent increase in rates.

But there's no way for a citizen or a reporter to directly drill down into the numbers, question them or demand accountability. I wanted to look at the kind of documentation that I regularly review as city council makes capital budgets for things like the bus system, so I called Yates to find out when the commission meetings were so I could attend them. He refused to tell me, and said the meetings aren't open to the public.

The end result is that city council has effectively taken a multi-billion dollar operation that used to be open to the scrutiny of public record law and open meeting rules and has hidden it behind a veil of secrecy.

Now let's return to the forensic audit of the sewage plant failure. Yates says he can't release it because O'Caroll's Restaurant has a claim against Dexter Construction. But I've checked, and there's no such litigation in the court system.

This is nuts. Whatever damages O'Carroll's is claiming must be utterly inconsequential in terms of the $330 million Harbour Solutions budget, and entirely irrelevant to the forensic audit. It's clear that Yates is simply using the excuse of a claim entirely unrelated to the forensic audit, to keep from making the forensic audit public---33 months after the plant failure. This is no way to serve the public interest.

There's a delicious irony that the proclamation of Right to Know Week comes from mayor Peter Kelly, who was at the centre of the secret $5.4 million concert loan scandal, but I'm using the opportunity to shine some light on how the city deals with requests for public information. Each day this week I'm writing an article highlighting some aspect of our Right to Know. You can find them all at thecoast.ca/bites.

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