Cleaning up for company

An open letter welcoming delegates to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference.

Dear Federation of Canadian Municipalities delegates:

Welcome to Halifax! We'll certainly roll out the red carpet for you. Heck, to prove just how much we like you, our fair city has already spent $500,000 for the privilege of hosting the 2,000 of you this weekend---$250 per delegate. (Go ahead, order another drink, it's on us.)

Your conference will fill up the World Trade and Convention Centre, demonstrating that we need a bigger and better convention centre. You come here on our dime, and we get to spend $325 million for a new convention centre, plus whatever it takes to subsidize conferences in that one too. It's a win-win.

Also, we will be on our best behaviour while you're here. See, our city's auditor general, a fellow named Larry Munroe, was about to issue a report on something called "the concert loan scandal," but mayor Peter Kelly declined to schedule a special city council meeting this past Tuesday for the purpose of receiving it.

Can you blame him? Munroe's report will likely contain explosive new details, and the media will be all over it, day-in, day-out, right through when we have visiting city officials from around Canada. We wouldn't want to worry you folks with details of a municipal financial scandal, because being municipal officials and all, you'd want to sit around and gossip about the scandal and wonder what kind of nutballs run this city, instead of getting loopy drunk and hitting on college students at The Lower Deck.

So, Munroe's report won't come out until next Tuesday, June 7, after you leave. This means you will not hear how in pursuit of visitors' money, our city allowed a private concert promoter named Harold MacKay to put shows on the Common, and paid MacKay $100,000 in "in kind" grants for each show. The first, Keith Urban, was in 2008.

Then in 2009 came Paul McCartney. And since MacKay didn't have any money, the province paid McCartney's upfront fee of $3.5 million, loaned MacKay $300,000 that was never repaid, and spent $300,000 more for promotion.

Even with that promotion, the concert was a failure---only 26,000 tickets were sold, and MacKay lost $700,000. But the abysmal ticket sales were a state secret: officials at both Trade Centre Limited and City Hall knew the real number kept but it secret, even as the press was reporting 50,000 attendees. They also knew that not even 12,000 people went to the Keith Urban show, even though the Chronicle-Herald had reported attendance of 25,000, and Metro of 30,000.

You'd think that if you can't sell many tickets for Paul McCartney, a Beatle for dog's sake, you'd give up on the exercise. But no: MacKay put more poorly attended concerts on the Common: KISS (21,420), Alan Jackson (10,009) and the Black Eyed Peas (8,362).

We now know that over the three years, the city not only gave "in kind" support, but also loaned MacKay upfront money for the shows---a total of $5.6 million. And those loans were kept secret from the public, from city council and even from the city's finance office. They were funnelled through a bank account of the Metro Centre, a city facility managed by Trade Centre Limited, a provincial crown corporation that runs that convention centre you're meeting in. TCL disingenuously says that it was not responsible for ethically or legally managing the Metro Centre account.

We only now know about the loans because MacKay failed to pay back the last $400,000, for the Black Eyed Peas show, leaving taxpayers holding the bag. That loan was made just four hours after mayor Peter Kelly met with MacKay, but Kelly looks straight into the camera and says he had no idea there was any hanky-panky going on. And he didn't tell council of the loans because, well, it must have slipped his mind.

Yep, had Kelly scheduled that special council meeting to receive the report, you'd now be hearing all about how your hosts, both Trade Centre Limited and Peter Kelly, are armpit-deep in an absurd financial scandal. But we kept that information from you so you could more thoroughly enjoy yourselves while you're here.

No need to thank us. That kind of hospitality---and a half-million dollars---is why you came here in the first place.

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