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How Halifax city hall screws up: secrecy, lack of clear processes and the pathetic search for civic validation 

The concert scandal, The Oval naming kerfuffle and the flawed pursuit of a stadium have some common themes.

At its Tuesday meeting, Halifax council tackled a couple of high-profile issues---naming rights to The Oval and the quest for a new stadium. I was there as usual, but my recent investigation of the city's concert scandal, published Monday night, was still weighing on my thoughts, so I was viewing the proceedings through that lens.

While the particular issues have their own flavours, I can't help but see some underlying themes that connect the three, at least to some degree. They are:

1. Secrecy: The behind-closed-doors, even covert, nature of the concert scandal comes out loud and clear in the documents I uncovered through my investigation. City bureaucrat Wayne Anstey and mayor Peter Kelly kept not just the improper loans, but also the broad outlines of what they were trying to achieve not only from city council, not only from the public, not only from the city's legal and financial departments, but also from their supposed working partners at Trade Centre Limited, resulting in Halifax getting played for chumps by LA music execs.

We all make stupid mistakes and dumb decisions; it's part of being human. But here's the thing about secrecy: stupid mistakes and dumb decisions don't see the light of day, and so there's nobody to check us, to nudge us back on a more sensible path. So the stupid mistakes and dumb decisions get doubled-down on, and we veer off into crazy land.

That's what happened in the concert scandal. Maybe secrecy gave Anstey and Kelly a sense of self-importance as they negotiated with rock stars. Maybe they honestly believed secrecy was somehow necessary to get the best possible deals. Definitely they operated in a bureaucratic culture where secrecy is the default position, the starting point. But no matter why they started down their secret path, it led them to one bad decision after another, with no one around to say, "holy fuck, man, you're screwing this up!"

Had the pursuit of concerts happened in the open, lots of people would have stepped up to point out potential pitfalls. There's no doubt people like Waye Mason would've pointed out that loaning the promoter ticket sales money was a recipe for disaster. People like Cathie O'Toole would've pointed out the problematic financial relationship between Trade Centre Limited and the city's Metro Centre bank account (as was, the chief financial officer for the city didn't even know the account existed). People like the city lawyer would've stepped in at several points to put a stop to the on-the-fly contracts for the loans. There are many more examples of where people consciously kept in the dark by Kelly and Anstey would have prevented them from making their worst judgement calls, had those people known. But because of the secrecy, the whole thing spiraled out of control, leading to disaster.

We saw something similar, albeit not so disastrous, with The Oval naming rights.

In that case, I don't think anyone was acting with malice or to give themselves a sense of self-importance; I think the Save The Oval group, the city bureaucrats involved, the corporate execs at Emera and Molson, and city councillors all mostly acted properly, although of course each group brought its own biases and assumptions to the discussion. Still, the discussions about naming rights happened in secret, and so we didn't get the best result. Let's review.

Jeff White, one of the founders of the Save The Oval group, tells me that the group was formed to, well, save The Oval, when it looked like the temporary oval built for the Canada Games would be dismantled, never to be seen again. "We just thought we could get a few thousand signatures on a petition," he recalls. But Save The Oval became something of a movement, with overwhelming public response. White says one of the other founding---John Gillis---suggested the group start asking for donations and thousands of dollars started pouring in through small donations from the public. Then, a group of women who were managing the mostly moribund Halifax Figure Skating Legacy Fund decided to rid themselves of that responsibility, and donated the entire fund---$100,000---no strings attached.

Only then did it occur to people associated with Save The Oval that corporate donations might be a possibility. One member had connections at Emera and Molson, and invited them to a meeting. That would lead to agreements from the companies to give $500,000 and $400,000 respectively. "I think there was some talk of naming rights," recalls White, "but that wasn't Save The Oval's goal---we thought that was something to be decided by the city." Around the same time, Goodlife Fitness approached city staff directly and offered up $200,000, explicitly for naming rights, says White.

When the matter of naming rights fell into the bureaucratic black hole at city hall, the bureaucrats and politicians did what they do reflexively: they went into secret, keeping the public out of the discussion, and began secret negotiations with the companies.

Because of the secrecy, there was no public, city-wide discussion of the philosophical issues around naming rights. First, whether selling naming rights is appropriate or not? Second, if selling naming rights is appropriate, should there be limits or regulations to how those naming rights are awarded? Third, how much should naming rights be sold for?

It's now clear that those debates happened at secret council meetings. Some councillors, Jackie Barkhouse, for instance, objected to awarding naming rights at all, while others, like Gloria McCluskey, didn't approve of naming public spaces after a beer company. Other councillors still, led by Jerry Blumenthal, said they didn't care which company would get naming rights, but rather that the dollar amounts being offered were way too small.

A funny thing happened, though: thanks to Peter Kelly's alleged newfound love of open meetings, council Tuesday discussed the naming rights issue for the first time publicly. It was one of the best council debates I've ever witnessed; deep philosophical and political issues were explored.

The only annoying thing said Tuesday was that a two-and-a-half hour debate at council is a waste of time. It's not. Council should be a deliberative body that works through the different perspectives and opinions held in the community, and Tuesday's discussion was definitely that---any one watching would've left the debate better informed about the issues, with a better sense of what opposing views are, and with an understanding of how and why the decision was arrived at.

I say this as someone whose views lost the debate. I've always been opposed to the city selling naming rights and corporate sponsorship of civic events. This is a minority opinion, I know. But the issue was hashed out by elected representatives in public, and my side lost. That's how it goes. And now I know why and how that decision was reached, even if I disagree. We're all the wiser for it.

Still, the once-secret-now-public discussion wasn't made public soon enough: because staff and council negotiated in secret, the public never knew the terms of the contract. Tuesday we learned that Emera had already been awarded naming rights to The Oval for 10 years, for $500,000--- that is, $50,000 annually, less, I'm told, than the cost of a handful of billboards. We also learned Tuesday, 13 months after they were sold, that BMO has an identical deal for naming rights to the four-pad arena in Bedford. At Tuesday's public debate, called to reconsider the previous secret nixing of the Molson deal, we got the sense that no matter how rotten the proposed deal with Molson, it was somewhat hypocritical to kill it for money reasons after getting even worse deals from Emera and BMO.

We got the crappy naming right deals in part because they were negotiated in secret, an insider-y discussion by people who didn't have the public looking over their shoulders. Had the discussion happened in public, people like, well, me, would've piped up and said, "what the hell--that's just one slim dime per year per person in HRM, and you're going to sell our good city name for that???"

Very quickly, let me say the discussion around the stadium didn't go into the surreal depths of secrecy the concerts or Oval issues fell to, but there is a bit of untoward secrecy: members of the stadium steering committee were chosen in secret by council, seemingly because they would not overly question the stadium proposal. And the committee kicked me out of a meeting held to hear contrary views, lest I report on those contrary views. More important, whatever negotiations senior staff and Peter Kelly have had with provincial or federal officials, if any, are a completely mystery. We have no idea what kind of cockamamie schemes are being advanced.

2. No clear process. This is simply a no-brainer. If you want to get something done through a functioning bureaucracy in a democracy, you need set policies and procedures. For the concerts and Oval naming rights, this means going through the rigorous tendering processes.

Think of the heartache and ridicule this city could have avoided with the concert scandal had city council simply authorized a tender offer and accepted bids from promoters wanting to put concerts on the Common. Each proposal would be judged against all others, on a matrix scoresheet, and the best proposal would win. Surely, a promoter who had no financial resources would score very low. A well-funded promoter wanting to put on Rush would easily beat out a cashless promoter wanting to secretly borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city to put on Kid Rock.

Problem solved.

Same thing with The Oval naming rights. Council should have first publicly debated, and resolved, the philosophical issues around selling naming rights, and drawn up policies and regulations around those decisions. Next, the city could have simply put out a tender calling for all the world to put forward proposals, the highest offer winning.

Who knows? Maybe the best deal would've been the same crappy deals we got by doing all this behind closed doors, but I doubt it. I'm guessing we'd now be talking about a lot more money than we got.

The stadium, too, has process issues. I've pointed out before that this is a cart-before-the-horse situation, with council rejecting advice from Trade Centre Limited to not chase a two-weekend FIFA tournament. What to do with that stadium will be figured out later, apparently. This is backwards. Far better to have a rational analysis of potential stadium need, FIFA be damned, and then see what else could be shoe-horned into that stadium, FIFA including. It's simply rational governing.

3. The pathetic quest for civic validation. The more I think about the problems above, the more I think they have their roots in a sort of city-wide insecurity complex.

Look, Halifax is a fine place to live, with interesting sub-cultures, cool stuff coming out of the universities, a surprisingly engaged political and media sector, a varied and vibrant art and music scene, not to mention wonderful views. Sure, we have our problems; what place doesn't? But in the scheme of things, our problems aren't huge.

I think, however, that being relatively small city placed in a difficult geographic position, coupled with a colonial mindset the city can't seem to shake, leads to a weird need for civic validation. Lots of people seem to think, "well, we're not a real city until we have a bunch of tall buildings, or a stadium, or until people in New York or wherever talk about us."

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a better place, and if your vision of "better place" means having a stadium or hosting the occasional mega concert, there's nothing wrong with that, either. Heck, I enjoy a ball game or a concert as much as the next guy.

The problem comes when this reasonable desire to be a better place loses all sense of proportion or rationality---when it becomes an overriding necessity, no matter what. I think that the common desperation for civic validation---to make Halifax matter---leads to throwing caution to the wind, to diving into pools without first seeing how deep they are, to condemning people who urge restraint and slow-going. It leads to bad decision making, to secrecy in order to try to jump-start a process that leads to a desired goal.

There's a weird collective social anxiety in Halifax I've only witnessed elsewhere in the American south. I don't know what to make of it, or how to cure it, except to on the one hand point out that it leads to bad stuff getting played out in our city government, and on the other hand to say "it's going to be alright."

Halifax is OK, if we let it be.

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